Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

CHAUTAUQUA Adult Education at its Best

According to Ralph Arnold, Chautauqua was a form of adult education combined with entertainment, brought to the community by traveling speakers and musicians on a planned circuit. This was outdoor theatre, usually of a tent show variety. Originally, the Chautauqua movement worked hand in hand with the older Lyceum Program that encouraged building libraries and establishing evening classes for adults. The Lyceum Program has outlasted Chautauqua as it continues to maintain entertainment and lecture circuits between colleges and universities.

A college remains resting on the shores of the Lake Chautauqua in New York where the movement began in 1874 as an instructional institution for Sunday School teachers. Soon it began to focus on all sorts of education, most of all music and drama. By 1900 it had evolved into commercialization as traveling circuits came into being that included some big name entertainers and politicians.

The Chautauqua movement was designed to guarantee to common people of a community some intellectual, social, and moral advantages that they were not otherwise afforded. The name comes from an old Indian word that is thought to mean "clear light," and the movement spread the idea of uplifting the human spirit with enlightenment, but carefully balanced with truth, faith, and hope. It was an attempt to bring forth an alliance between the home, school, pulpit, shop, office, and farm and was intended to implement a universal culture for young and old that was free from any discrimination.

On September 1, 1901 a plea was published in a Farmington newspaper asking the community to support a Chautauqua circuit. The advantages of having the assembly for ten days each year were carefully explained. Some of the world’s best talent in science, literature, art, politics and music would come to Farmington at a price everyone could afford. Everyone it seems would profit from such a gathering.

A newspaper article printed October 28, 1909 that bragged about Farmington’s advantages, said "We have an enterprising class of citizens, who are not afraid to push any good thing for the benefit of the town and community. Our Chautauqua shows what our citizens are able and willing to do."

The first Chautauqua circuit that came to Farmington was in July, 1905. A carload of equipment arrived by rail in advance, to stage the extravaganza. Local residents set up camping tents with wooden floors and rented them to those who remained overnight. In Anderson Park a speaker platform was set up inside an 80 x 180 foot canvas auditorium. The railroads ran extra trains with reduced fares so that people from a distance could attend the shows in Farmington. Nevertheless it first appeared that the audiences for the Chautauqua were too small to pay for itself, but as news spread about the event, attendance increased marking its initial success, and crowds continued to grow each year it was held.

In the first assembly, Orator and politician William Jennings Bryan surprised the audience by delivering a religious sermon. Well known people making appearances included Senator La Follette of Wisconsin, Champ Clark of Missouri, Governor Cummins of Iowa, a popular black musical group, and a naturalized Japanese citizen who told listeners that only the United States could keep peace in the world because none of the Europeans could be trusted in this regard.

Because of this effort to unite and balance all aspects of people’s lives including church and state issues, perhaps we now could use a revival of the Chautauqua movement!

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick