Chautauqua History

It is not necessary to explain to the reading public of to day what the Chautauqua Assembly is. Suffice it to say that it is the culmination of the greatest popular educational movement of modern times. It brings to the general public the opportunity, formerly denied to all save the favored few, of seeing and hearing the treat speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers and specialists of the day. To the mass of people who have been denied the advantages of college training, it gives "the college outlook on life." To the students, the teachers, and the many who are pursuing home studies, it affords inestimable opportunities for intellectual improvements. It is the most delightful of all the summers resorts, combining as it does, opportunities for rest, recreation, intellectual, moral, religious and aesthetic culture and social enjoyments. It has its special inspiration for everyone, from the child to the mature man or woman. No one can attend the Lake Madison Assembly without being made stronger, better and happier.

Chautauqua was a social and cultural phenomenon that began in 1874 and expanded and permeated rural American until the mid 1920s. Going to Chautauqua meant music, laughter, relaxation and stimulation for millions of rural Americans. When Chautauqua came to town, there was entertainment for the whole family and the entire community.

Chautauqua was the product of John H. Vincent of Camden, New Jersey, a young minister. In 1872, Vincent, then editor of the Sunday School Journal undertook to train Sunday school teachers by bring them together every summer for all day study. His idea for a "summer school" to be held in the outdoors grew in popularity and a home was found at a little used campsite on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York. Young people were invited for study, bonfires, good meals and lodging. It was a huge success and was soon expanded to include not only religious and Biblical study but a wide range of literacy, historical, sociological, and scientific subjects. The "teachers" included such personalities of the late 1800s as Booker T. Washington and Carrie Nation.

The Chautauqua idea was soon copied in other communities for people who could not travel to Lake Chautauqua, New York. The first was in Ohio with similar programs soon to follow in Michigan and Iowa. By 1900 there were two hundred pavilions in thirty-one states. Each furnished vacation blended with study and entertainment. On the program were teachers, preachers, explorers, travelers, scientists, politicians and statesmen, singers, violinists, pianists and bell ringers, glee clubs, bands, orchestras, concert companies, quartette's, quintet's and sextet's, monologists, readers, elocutionists, jugglers, magicians, whistlers and yodelers.

Two of the most popular lecturers were Russell Conwell and William Jennings Bryan. Conwell's lecture "Acres of Diamonds" was delivered six thousands times. The theme was "get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor." It was an excellent example of "Mother, Home, and Heaven" - lectures designed to include platitudes about the desirability of truth and virtue, given in an earnest style, with a touch of sentiment. William Jennings Bryan's "Prince of Peace" lecture was a favorite and for thirty years his honey-sweet voice packed pavilions with rapt audiences. The most famous political speech was Bryan 's Cross of Gold speech given at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago July 9, 1896.

Circus tents were used in communities that did not have permanent Chautauqua pavilions. Soon speakers and entertainers were on the Chautauqua circuit moving from town to town.

The movement ended soon after the Golden Jubilee, held at Lake Chautauqua in 1924. Improved communication and transportation in rural areas made radio and movies readily available plus the commercialization that had crept into the Chautauqua circuit and weakened the program made the movement a thing of the past. In 1931, George Dalgety suggested that Chautauqua had ceased to exist "because it arose out of a passing need. It gave the people in good measure what they wanted and brightened millions of otherwise drab lives. But whatever is was, its day is gone." However, today Lake Chautauqua is renewing the Chautauqua movement. Visit the Chautauqua Institute for more information.

Read the words of Agnes Berther as she describes attending the Lake Madison Chautauqua when she was a young girl.