Thursday, May 7, 2009

History in Clinton

Most people my age do not know what a Chautauqua is. If you are a history buff like I am you have heard of these wonderful events and if you are a history buff like I am and live on Whidbey Island like I do, then you are also aware that Whidbey had it's own Chautauqua on Maxwelton Beach for several years until the tent structure that was created for the Chautauqua collapsed under the weight of a heavy winter snow.

For those of you who do not know what a Chautauqua is.. Well here is wikipedia's description and some pictures of Chautauquas that were held across the United States.

The first Chautauqua, the New York Chautauqua Assembly, was organized in 1874 by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller at a campsite on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State. Two years earlier, Vincent, editor of the Sunday School Journal, had begun to train Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer school format. The gatherings grew in popularity. The organization founded by Vincent and Miller later became known as the Chautauqua Institution.

The educational summer camp format proved to be a popular choice for families and was widely copied. Within a decade Chautauquas sprang up in various locations across North America.

Independent Chautauquas were built in semi-permanent structures that was generally built in an attractive semi-rural location a short distance outside an established town with good rail service. At the height of the Chautauqua movement in the 1920s, several hundred of these existed, but their numbers have since dwindled. The Chautauqua that was held on Maxwelton Beach was a semi permanent independent Chautauqua.

"Circuit Chautauquas" were an itinerant manifestation of the Chautauqua movement. The program would be presented in tents pitched "on a well-drained field near town." After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on.

Circuit Chautauqua began in 1904. In Vawter’s schema, each performer, or group, appeared on a particular day of the program. Thus “first day” talent would move on to other Chautauquas, followed by the “second day” performers, and so on, throughout the touring season. By the mid-1920s when Circuit Chautauquas were at their peak, they appeared in over 10,000 communities to audiences of more than 45 million; by about 1940 they had run their course.

Lectures were the mainstay of the Chautauqua. Topics included current events, travel and stories, often with a comedic twist. William Jennings Bryan, with his populist and evangelical message addressing topics such as temperance, was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, until his death in 1925. Maud Ballington Booth, the "Little Mother of the Prisons," was another popular performer on the circuit. Booth’s descriptions of prison life would move her audiences to tears and rouse them to reform. On a lighter note, author Opie Read's stories and homespun philosophy endeared him to audiences.

Music was important to Chautauqua. Band music was much in demand. John Phillip Sousa protégé Bohumir Kryl’s Bohemian Band was frequently seen on the circuit. One of the numbers featured by Kryl was the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore with four husky timpanists in leather aprons hammering on anvils shooting sparks (enhanced through special effects) across the darkened stage. Spirituals were also popular. White audiences appreciated seeing African-Americans performing other than minstrelsy. Other musical features of the Chautauqua included opera, Jubilee Singers singing a mix of spirituals and popular tunes, and other singers and instrumental groups playing popular music, ballads and songs from the "old country". Entertainers on the Chautauqua circuit such as Charles Ross Taggart, billed as "The Man From Vermont" and "The Old Country Fiddler", played violin, sang, was a ventriloquist and comedian, and told tall tales about life in rural New England.

Chautauquas can be viewed in the context of the populist ferment of the late 19th century. Manifestos such as the "Populist Party Platform"[3] voiced a disdain for political corruption and championed the plight of the common people in the face of the rich and powerful. Other favorite political reform topics in Chautauqua lectures included temperance (even prohibition), women's suffrage and child labor laws.

However, the Chautauqua movement usually avoided taking political stands as such, instead inviting public officials of all the major political parties to lecture, assuring a balanced program for the members of the assembly. For example, during the 1936 season at the Chautauqua Institution, in anticipation of the national election held that year for president, visitors heard not only addresses by Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican challenger Alf Landon, but from two third-party candidates.

Last year Langley invited a group to come hold a Chautauqua. while this group was somewhat diverse it's primary focus was on circus type performances and it was a very entertaining event it was not what I had envisioned Chautauqua to be. In the next few months I will be setting up what I envision a Chautauqua to be at Rockhoppers. I will let you know what is happening and how these things will transpire. Keep your eyes open and your ears ready so you don't miss when Rockhoppers becomes a mini Chautauqua for a short period of time.

Chautauquas on Whidbey Island.

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