Taking Culture across the Land; the Chautauqua Circuit and an America Long Gone

Article excerpt


After the Civil War, the westward expanding United States became fertile ground for the educational and cultural amenities previously available only to eastern city dwellers.

The first to fill this vacuum were professional humorists such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward, but soon the "Chautauqua" circuit featured stage plays, musical recitals, and lectures on everything from politics to religious subjects and descriptions of travels to exotic locales. This inherently American phenomenon is chronicled by James R. Schultz in "The Romance of Small-Town Chautauquas." Mr. Schultz mixes historical scholarship with personal reminiscence, as he grew up on the circuit that gave both his father and uncle (Richie and Eben Schultz) employment.

The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 in the western New York town of the same name as "a summer school for Methodist Sunday school teachers," that evolved into "an intellectual community with programs devoted to lectures, seminars, and workshops on economic and social issues, theology, literature, science and the arts." It was established by a collection of people, most prominent among them was James Redpath, an impresario who had worked with Twain, Josh Billings, and Henry Ward Beecher.

Redpath's vision was carried on by Keith Vawter, who in 1904 dispatched the first traveling "tent chautauquas" to the rural Midwest. Vawter eventually had three circuits going from Montana and the Dakotas to Iowa and Missouri. A chautauqua stayed in a town for a week and offered "a variety of cultural events through the day and night." The reasonably priced ticket brought Shakespearean drama or rousing oratory to enliven life on the mundane, windswept prairies.

One practitioner of the latter was William Jennings Bryan, a three times failed presidential candidate whose fiery "Cross of Gold" speech (blasting the then-advocated gold standard as an economic panacea) at the 1896 Democratic Convention (which earned him the nomination over incumbent President Grover Cleveland) made him a staple on the chautauqua circuit thereafter. One observer later commented: "There were no microphones, but he didn't need one."

Another speaker was Ida M. Tarbell. She was a noted Lincoln biographer, but had made her reputation as a muckraking journalist at a time when the foremost made names for themselves attacking corporate monopolies with the object of their reform. Her book, "The History of the Standard Oil Company" contributed to the breakup of that conglomerate, and caused John D. Rockefeller much heartburn. Tarbell toured the circuit and espoused her anti-trust message for years.

Chautauqua turned out to be an effective tool for the nascent temperance movement, which was gathering force in the early decades of the 20th century. The legendary Carrie Nation- ax-wielding destroyer of saloons - frequently lectured on the circuit, and distributed souvenir miniature hatchets to the audience. Another regular to decry the evils of John Barleycorn was the spirited evangelist Billy Sunday.

It can be argued that chatauquas contributed much to the passage of the Volstead Act (1919) and its eventual elevation as the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and the ensuing 14 years of Prohibition. …