The Most American Thing in America
Theodore Roosevelt described the traveling chautauquas as the "most American thing in America." Today the once popular institution identified as "chautauqua" is unknown, or at least unfamiliar to most Americans. Survey our oldest residents of the Honeoye Falls area, however, and they will describe an annual highlight of their formative years—when entertainment, inspiration, and a window on the world was literally brought to their doorstep.
In delving into other subjects of local history, I encountered references to traveling shows called "chautauquas" that made regular appearances in the early decades of the 20th Century. The stay of several days comprised the "Chautauqua Week" that, in small-town America, was the most energizing time of the year.
The catalyst to this investigation came when one of our local sages recalled his childhood memories of "going to the chautauqua." What was intriguing was not so much his recollection of the programs' general content as was his unfamiliarity with the background of these itinerant shows. "came from someplace, in the back of the (Harry Allen) park, and after a few days went off somewheres else," he said.
Other senior citizens were polled with similar results. Few could define what "…them there chautauquas" were all about, other than what they witnessed. Gleanings from preserved diaries usually revealed the basics, "…went to chautauqua" entries were common refrains. To the people growing up before the days of radio, the cinema and television, these shows provided the ultimate entertainment of the pre-electronic age.
Unlike traveling circuses that were once so common, and, in small number, survive yet today, chautauquas lived just three decades into the 20th century. They are the memories of kids long since grown tall, who knew little of the history, only the vivid recollections that still linger with them.
Literary Societies and Lyceums: Chautauqua's Inspiration
Rising from the early days of the nation were "literary societies," created when most communities were isolated from one another by primitive modes of transportation and communication. Primarily of New England origin, these groups were entirely local affairs in which citizens entertained themselves through debates, speeches, and, perhaps, a few sing-alongs.
Folk of generations ago, in a context far simpler than the intricacies of our lives, had their own weighty matters to struggle with. Charles Horner, in Strike the Tents, stated: "Once, after some of us had had a little college training, we very soberly debated the question that the earth was flat, and proved that it was."
In 1826, with John Quincy Adams in the White House, another Massachusetts man, Josiah Holbrook, founded the "lyceum." So-named for the grove in Athens where Aristotle lectured, Holbrook sowed the seed for widespread public education and cultural enlightenment.
In those times, when only the wealthy could send their progeny beyond the elementary schooling level, 3,000 community lyceums were organized at Holbrook's inspiration. Outside lecturers traveled the countryside, speaking to the masses. Many an orator achieved a measure of their fame via the lyceum circuit: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens, among others.
They spoke of literature and education, philosophy and history, geology and foreign travel. Music and art were not subjects in vogue, and politics rarely made the lyceum platform—that is until the question of slavery heated up at midcentury. Stimulated by a lyceum program some townships were even inspired to publish local histories and compile maps of their territory, such was their new found civic pride.
By and because of the Civil War in the 1860's, the original lyceum movement flowered and died, but left a permanent mark on American public education. Also, it parented a smattering of lyceums that have survived to the present, fostering America's never-ending pursuit of knowledge.
The Chautauqua Movement Takes Shape
The United States following the Civil War entered what Mark Twain labeled the "Gilded Age," with battle-torn southern states reconstructed and national prosperity initiated.
The thriving upper class took to imitating the fancy lifestyles of their British counterparts—in dress, in entertainment, in manners, even in architecture. Also, a new economic genre, the "middle class," evolved with the emergence of moderately prosperous gentlemen farmers, factory managers and small-scale entrepreneurs. Those in the lowest economic strata gained little, if anything.
With this new age came a resumption of American cultural and educational advancement. It sprouted on two fronts—in Boston and at the tiny community of Fair Point, on New York State's Chautauqua Lake.
In 1868, Boston's James Redpath, induced by news that British novelist Charles Dickens had all manner of difficulty in arranging an American lecture tour, decided to become an organizer and promoter of such events.
Antebellum America found lyceum speakers doing their own bookings, making their own travel arrangements along unfamiliar routes and suffering the consequent unforseen predicaments. Redpath, a Scottish immigrant credited with the early practice that led to Decoration Day, hatched the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, and added diversity to the previously dry series of lectures. He hired promoters, advance men and stage crews to move his performers from town to town for a day or two at a time. He assembled programs with speakers and entertainers, and his organization people arranged for the "talent" to appear at a scheduled time and place.
According to Strike the Tents, a single unit of the Redpath Bureau consisted of "…perhaps three lecturers, a musical company and an entertainers, maybe a cartoonist or chalk talker, or a humorist."
Though he sold his interests in the organization in 1875, it was Redpath's inspiration and often his name that carried the lyceum bureau throughout the United States and into the 20th Century.
In 1874, six years after Redpath's hatchling took wing, a preacher and a businessman, prominent Methodists both, organized the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly at Fair Point. While John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller originally focused on creating more learned Sunday School teachers, their assembly was inspired by the increasingly popular lyceum bureaus. Practically overnight, the location became the educational and cultural retreat for all types of people.
The camp meeting ground was expanded and built upon with commodious educational facilities, and renowned educators plied their knowledge to book-thirsty students, regardless of denomination. Over a few short years, Fair Point was renamed "Chautauqua," for the lake it bordered.
Educational experiments of all kinds were tried: A university charter, theology correspondence courses, scientific seminars and physical education programs. Supposedly, the first book club started on Chautauqua's shores. Also, Palestine Park, a model of the Holy Land, was set up and it remains there today.
It was not a one-dimensional place, however, as recreation balanced instruction. Since most activity transpired in the summer months, the lure of Chautauqua Lake kept many a developing brain at ease. Abundant recreational facilities, then and today, have delighted millions of family vacationers. And the entire Chautauqua community is a mecca of fascinating architectural delights that take visitors back to when the Gilded Age and the era of Victoria were one.
Today, and since its present designation was fashioned in 1902, the entire complex, with all its tangible and conscious aspects, is known as the "Chautauqua Institution." It should be visited by anyone seeking intellectual growth and recreational stimulation.
© 1992, Paul S. Worboys
Reprinted with permission from the Mendon-Honeoye Falls Sentinel. Thanks to everyone who helped bring a little of the Chautauqua experience back to life. It is for you that I do these things. And a special thank you to J. Sheldon Fisher proprietor of the Valentown Museum, Victor, NY, whose life-long efforts to preserve our regional history inspired me to lend a hand. American originals are hard to come by—I'm glad I found one. — P.S.W.