Friday, July 11, 2014

Enjoy the "New Old Time Chautauqua" in North Idaho

by Jennifer Lamont Leo
and Olivia Luther Morlen

Chautauqua is coming to North Idaho! (Chautauq-huh? a few of you might be saying.)

Following in the path of similar performers from a century before, the New Old Time Chautauqua (NOTC) will be kicking off their 2014 “Keep the Faith” tour in Sandpoint, Idaho, next week. In addition to their “big show” held at the Panida Theatre at 7:00 PM on Saturday, July 19th, they will hold several events that are free and open to the community starting on July 17th, including a potluck, workshops, a town parade, and community service shows. Visit the New Old Time Chautauqua website for details.There's also a special Chautauqua exhibit on display now at the Bonner County History Museum in Sandpoint.

The original Chautauqua, an adult education movement that fired up the public imagination back in the the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was based based on an even earlier idea: the Lyceum movement, formed in the 1820s by Yale professor and farmer Josiah Holbrook. When Holbrook starting giving informal geography lectures in his community, he found people eager to learn, and his lectures became popular. He realized that working adults hungered for education and self-betterment, and believed that improving oneself through education, music, and the arts should be a lifetime commitment.

To that end, Holbrook formed what he called the Lyceum movement: groups of citizens dedicated to fosterin
g perpetual learning in their own communities. Lyceum members would research topics and then present their findings to their group. Hired expert lecturers were also invited, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henry Thoreau. By the Civil War, Lyceums were found in rural communities throughout the United States.

In 1874, Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and inventor/businessman Lewis Miller enhanced the Lyceum concept by utilizing an idyllic location to recruit Sunday school teachers for religious and cultural events. Named after Chautauqua Lake, New York, where the movement got its start, Chautauqua assemblies spread across the United States, mostly in small towns and rural areas, bringing speakers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and lecturers of all sorts of subjects. The “Mother Chautauqua,” as it came to be known, still exists and continues the same sort of programming as it has done for 140 years.

In 1904 Keith Vawter and his partner, Roy J. Ellison, created a standard 6-day program for a summer Chautauqua that could be rented, complete with a large brown tent that fit up to 1,000 people. That first packaged Chautauqua was a great success! Word spread and many towns, especially those in the Midwest, were clamoring to book a Chautauqua. The brown Chautauqua tent became the ubiquitous symbol of what came to be known as the Circuit Chautauqua.
The original message of Circuit Chautauqua was that the rural life was the American ideal and that young men and women should stay at home rather than migrate to the dark, spiritually corrupting cities. It was more than entertainment. It became a movement. Circuit Chautauqua would bring the cultural and intellectual stimulation needed to create that Jeffersonian ideal--the educated farmer.
In response to the demand, numerous Chautauqua “bureaus” sprung up to provide the culture and education. Ellison-White was one bureau, located in Boise.

While the lecturer was generally the Circuit Chautauquas’ big draw, it was by no means its only attraction. Politicians could not resist the large audiences, especially during election years. Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft spoke at Chautauquas, as did William Jennings Bryan, who gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech over 5,000 times on Circuit Chautauqua. Both Bryan and Russell H. Conwell, who gave his “Acres of Diamonds” speech over 6,000 times, were enormous draws at any Chautauqua.

Chautauqua crowd in Illinois, circa 1909
There were also opera divas, marching bands, scientific lecturers, exotic groups from far flung nations, jugglers, and eventually even actors and plays. African American Jubilee singers from the South sang gospel. The “Chautauqua Girl” organized games and readings for the children while the parents edified themselves under the brown top.

When the rise of radio, movies, and the automobile gave rural and small-town residents access to a broader range of options for entertainment and education, the movement declined. However, there's never been anything quite like it before or since. Come out and taste “The New Old Time Chautauqua” experience for yourself, coming to Sandpoint, Idaho, July 17-19.

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