Chautauqua vs. Chautauquas By Karen E. Livsey, Fenton History Center Archivist

The focus of our collection is local history. A recent donation to the Research Center of the Fenton History Center may puzzle a few people as to why it is in the collection. We accepted a small booklet from Shelbyville, Illinois. The title of the booklet is Chautauqua ’76 and it is from Shelbyville, Illinois, even though Chautauqua is in New York.

This booklet is a nice little historical review of Shelbyville, produced for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. However, the last few pages are the reason for the title and the reason for adding it to our collection. These pages tell about the “Chautauqua” that happened in their town. Our local readers know that Chautauqua Institution is located in Chautauqua County and started as the Chautauqua Assembly in 1874. Word of the activities of the Chautauqua Assembly of the 1870s, spread through the country. Soon other locales were having “chautauquas.”

It was an acceptable way for learning without the formal classroom that many did not have the opportunity to attend. Although these places were referred to as chautauquas, there was no connection to the original Chautauqua Assembly, here in our county. The concept of learning, culture and recreation, sponsored by some local group, was the common thread in these independent chautauquas. Many of these chautauquas built a more permanent building in which to hold the often week-long sessions. This is what the people of Shelbyville had done in 1903. The building still exists today and they still have events there in the summer.

In Shelbyville, as in many of the other independent chautauquas, the building or the grounds on which the tent was erected and the activities took place, was located near a lake and had nearby trees. People came from near and far to participate in the many activities, which included lectures by famous speakers, music and entertainment by popular groups of the day, and recreation which included visiting with friends. It was like a vacation for many people.

Developed during the early 1900s, circuit or “tent” chautauquas became popular. James Redpath was the influence behind this type of offering having established the Lyceum circuit following the Civil War. Begun in Iowa in 1904, by Keith Vawter of Iowa, the “tent” chautauquas traveled from town to town, setting up a tent where all the activities would take place during the week. The circuit or “tent” chautauquas were like the circus coming to town but with different programming and activities. Schedules were made each summer so one could plan ahead if a chautauqua would be near enough for the family to attend.

Well-known speakers and entertainers were contracted for the summer and traveled from place to place. The “tent” chautauquas lasted until the 1930s, when the depression took over, and other opportunities for learning became available.

We do not plan to collect more information about these far-from-local Chautauqua but when this booklet landed on our doorstep, we took the opportunity to add it to the collection. This is a sample to remind researchers that the travelling Chautauquas existed and the Chautauqua movement did indeed begin in our county. Chautauqua Institution may have more information on some of these other Chautauqua.

The main collection concerning the Redpath or “tent” chautauquas, is located at University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.

Pictured: A recent addition to the collection of the Fenton History Center. It tells a small part of a story of the Chautauquas of the early 1900s which have a connection to the concepts of our local Chautauqua Institution which will be beginning the season soon.


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