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Witness Post: Chautauqua

A Methodist minister by the name of John Heyl Vincent organized a special camp meeting by the shores of New York’s Lake Chautauqua.  His goal was to train Sunday school teachers at his camp meetings. The first Chautauqua Assembly was held in 1874 in the western most county of New York.  The Assembly included lectures, Bible classes, and recreational activities.  The annual summer event caught on in other parts of New England, becoming a full blown “religious movement.” Before the turn of the century, the movement added chapters across the country.

The Chautauqua events and lectures found roots in the rural areas of the South, Mid-West, and Mid-Atlantic, eventually securing deep reservoirs in such places as Wytheville, Virginia; Worthington, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; and Lincoln, Nebraska, among others.  The towns had their own Chautauqua chapters that were filled to the brim for the short summer seasons.

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Lake Chautauqua

A popular summer destination for many urban residents from the metropolitan areas of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Toronto, Lake Chautauqua became the mecca for several movements in the country. Chautauqua’s were a popular educational and self-improvement trend that flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had roots in camp meetings, annual summer gatherings held by evangelical Christian sects.

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Boulder, Colorado Chautauqua Dining Hall

Going West: All the way to Oregon

Within 20 years the Chautauqua chapters criss-crossed the Midwest, Rockies and even reached the West Coast.  In Oregon chapters sprung up in Ashland, Canby, Monmouth, Gearhart, and Gladstone.  Due to questionable early summer weather, many of the first Oregon Chautauqua Assemblies were held in the town parks under large tents. Later, when the movement became established, permanent structures were built and became the centers of culture in the towns.

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Chautauqua Tents before having a building in Gladstone, Oregon

Chatauqua Building at Gladstone Park, Oregon City, postcard, abo

Gladstone Chautauqua

But by the time the movement reached Oregon, the meetings had mellowed from their religious ferver and became non-denominational and secularized.

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Ashland’s “Beehive-shaped” Chautauqua

Gearhart, Oregon’s Chautauqua Chapter

In the early 1900’s the intellectual set in Gearhart, Oregon, joined the Chautauqua movement. Gearhart’s Chautauqua chapter, like others in the state, was open to all comers. Gearhart’s intellectual leaders wanted to be part of the Chautauqua movement and, led by the town matriarch, Narcissa Kinney, the chapter was a flourishing social enterprise for several years.  Under Kinney’s leadership and direction the Chautauqua took root: the tents was replaced with a permanent pavilion, the events were organized, speakers and musicians were invited and the town’s residents and summer guests were encouraged to bring their friends and family and attend the events, free of charge.

Kinney Narcissa

Narcissa Kinney

According to one local newspaper, the Chautauqua societies of Oregon were the “promoters of moral as well as intellectual culture.” The popular ten-day events featured concerts, group prayers, lectures by noted orators, baseball games, and classes on everything from geology to physical fitness. Gearhart held events for figures such as John Philip Sousa and his world famous band, and politician/lawyer William Jennings Bryan – known as the “silver-tongued orator.”

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Governor Oswald West

Narcissa Kinney invited Governor Oswald West to be a guest lecturer, and she spiced up the offering with musical interludes before coming down hard with an array of temperance lecturers. Those less enthusiast about the movement slunk off to private residences in Gin Ridge or Beer Alley for their preferred beverage of dereliction.

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Gearhart Chautauqua Pavilion

The handsome pavilion was built especially for the Chautauqua society with funds offered by the town leadership.  The building served as a community center during the other months of the year and was actively used into the 1920’s.  The original Gearhart Chautauqua Pavilion, though, burned to the ground in the early ’20’s and it was not rebuilt.  Efforts to revive the Chautauqua movement in  Gearhart took flame in 2007, but the embers went dormant in the Great Recession of the following few years.

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Chautauqua in Ashland Oregon, Roots of the OSF

Ashland’s original Chautauqua building, a beehive-shaped structure built in 1893, seated up to 1,000 people, but sometimes hundreds more were turned away from the more popular lectures. When William Jennings Bryan came to Ashland in 1897, he attracted so many people that he was forced to give his lecture outside.

The Chautauqua circuit slowly faded away in the 1920’s.  Many historians believe that the Chautauqua wave receded with the advent of other distractions for free-time and recreation.  The rise in popularity of radio programs brought the stories and lectures into the privacy of one’s home, and the prominence of movie theaters and motion pictures led to the decline of the movement.

Coda

The once popular Chautauqua event have not completely disappear, however. The original meetings at Lake Chautauqua are still held annually, gaining some momentum from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original attendees.  And many state humanities councils have recently revived the Chautauqua Assemblies as a way to attract people to their rural areas.

As signs of creative expression, other areas in the country have transformed their former summer Chautauqua sites into entirely new venues with great success.  (The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as an example, is an annual event first organized in 1935, that takes place at the site of the old Ashland “Bee-hive” Chautauqua.  The use of the place is still cultural, but more secular.  The OSF lasts nearly year-round.)

Chautauqua Events, which still have a strong following in Western New York, are having a resurgence in states such as Virginia, Ohio, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Colorado, where they have had intermittent and continuous summer Assemblies for many decades.  The movement may have new life in the years ahead, as these rural locations attract people who, even in this information rich society, are missing the connection of intellectual thought in a safe environment for deep learning.

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