Lake Madison Chautauqua


The Chautauqua had the look and feel of a lakeside resort, but was much more. It was a place where people gathered to hear lecturers, take classes and listen to the various musical entertainers that booked shows there. C.E. Hager, a Methodist minister, proposed during a ministerial meeting in Madison, South Dakota in the summer of 1890 to develop the first Chautauqua in South Dakota at Lake Madison, he was encouraged to pursue the project. A public meeting was held July 23, 1890, at Morena Beach on the northwest end of Lake Madison, the proposed site. A stock company was organized in order to purchase the sixty-acre tract. Stocks were sold for $100 each.

In the spring of 1891 the grounds were developed. This development included the Grand View Hotel, the Auditorium, boat and bathhouse, dining hall, several barns, drives and paths and sites for 300 tents. The first Lake Madison Chautauqua opened on July 15th and closed on August 5th, 1891. It attracted a large audience from all over the region, including Sioux City and Minneapolis. Its early and continued success was the result of three important factors: the early decision to make it a statewide rather than a local project with board members from across the state, the hard work of community activists willing to pursue the project and the availability of railroad transportation directly to the grounds*. A narrow-gauge railway ran four miles from Madison to the lake. The steam motor line was gone by 1900, but in 1906 was replaced with a spur off a rail line running into Madison from the southeast. The permanent Chautauquas shared a singe high standard of respectability and built the tradition of Chautauqua as a “provider of uplift, inspiration, morality, the poor person’s college, and good fun” (Case, 18).The Lake Madison Chautauqua booked talent independently of the circuit Chautauqua agencies as circuit entertainment was considered superficial as circuit programs were designed to make money for their promoters rather than aspire to some high ideal. The Chautauqua programs were characterized by variety. Lectures and orators, band and orchestras, vocalists, readers, and impersonators appeared at Lake Madison. Among the well-known personages were Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, Booker T. Washington, Eugene V. Debs, William Jennings Bryan and President William Howard Taft. The Lake Madison Chautauqua offered many opportunities for study and instruction in addition to the Chautauqua. Literary and Scientific Circles met for home study throughout the year. These circles were the forerunners of reading societies, book clubs and correspondence schools and extension courses. A summer-school was offered at the Lake Madison Chautauqua as a three week school for teachers with instructors coming from several colleges and university in the region who taught psychology, geology, Greek, shorthand and many other subjects. In 1891, classes were held in nine large tents arranged in two rows in the Grove of Cottonwoods bordering the Chautauqua grounds. One of the most popular schools was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU School of Methods trained young women for “doing work” for the community. Topics included alcohol, prisons, and the dangers of cigarettes and patent medicines. They pushed for prohibition of alcohol.The WCTU state headquarters were at Lake Madison and they raised money by operating the dining hall of the Chautauqua grounds. *Lake Madison Chautauqua:Its History and Impact, Rise Smith

Excerpt from Smith, Risë L. "Introduction." In Prairie Chautauqua, by Lucile F. Fargo, reprint edition, vii-xxiv. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1943; reprint Dell Rapids, SD: Smith Publishing Co, 1991).