New Old-Time Chautauqua

By Scanlan, Laura Wolff | Humanities, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

New Old-Time Chautauqua


Scanlan, Laura Wolff, Humanities


IN JULY OF 1891. MORE THAN FIVE HUNDRED pioneers traveled by horse and buggy to Madison, South Dakota, to the newly built Chautauqua site. The grounds contained a hotel, auditonum, boat and bathhouse, dining hall, several bams, and room for three hundred tents. For the next three weeks, culture-hungry settlers listened to lectures, took classes, and engaged in debates on political and social issues of the day.

More than one hundred years later, Madison will once again be home to a Chautauqua program when the Great Plains Chautauqua stops there between July 14 and 18. Although little remains of the onginal grounds, items from Chautauqua's heyday will be on display, including posters, programs, and newspapers. The last remaining Chautauqua building, a ticket booth, will house a photographic collection.

The onginal Chautauqua began in the 187Os on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York as a retreat for Sunday school teachers. Eventually the cumculum was broadened to include the arts, humanities, and sciences. By 1900, there were more than two hundred Chautauqua pavilions in thirty-one states, including the one in Madison. For the communities that did not have buildings, circus tents were erected.

As the Chautauqua movement grew, speakers and entertainers began traveling the circuit, moving from town to town. Weeklong outdoor retreats included explorers, scientists, politicians, statesmen, and musical performers. The name "Chautauqua" became synonymous wrth educational, social, and cultural ennchment.

Over the next forty years, frontier towns would see appearances by such speakers as Booker T Washington, Reverend T. DeWrtt Talmage, Came Nation, William Jennings Bryan, and President William Howard Taft. Bryan once called Chautauqua a "potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation."

"It was a great form of cultural enrichment to those in culturally-isolated areas," says Fran Tiburzio of the Ohio Humanities Council. "At the turn of the century, the general public who could have never traveled to New York began demanding the same educational opportunities and public conversations going on there."

Chautauquas continued as a popular form of summer educational entertainment until the 192Os when the advent of motion pictures, the Great Depression, and the automobile eroded its appeal. Programs began including performances such as oompah bands, mimes, and yodelers, diminishing the cultural enrichment aspect of the program. By the 193Os, most Chautauqua grounds had closed down.

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