The Most American Thing in America
During the last quarter of the 19th Century, the huge successes of the (traveling) lyceums and the (anchored) Chautauqua Institution began to incubate another brainchild. Whereas a lyceum circuit generally operated in the months of October to March and stayed in a town for only a day or two, Chautauqua operated all summer and couldn't go anywhere. After 1900, wise men with a taste for business and a love of culture and education, sought to marry the best of each institution. What evolved was a traveling summer assembly that united promoters with civic-minded citizens and created a week-long smorgasbord of entertainment and intellectual stimulation.
Charles Horner related: "Here and there an ambitious local group (inspired by the original at Chautauqua), with a pretty lake or a grove of trees, and their own surging desire for culture and enlightenment, would organize their members to provide a chautauqua of their own."
The new organizations became known as "circuit." "tented" or "traveling chautauquas." An owner/manager set up an area of more than 100 communities and wove together units of "talent" (lecturers and entertainers) to operate within the intricate network. With some variation, an owner would have several chautauquas operating simultaneously in a radius of 100 or 200 miles, and his talent might realistically appear in six or seven communities over the course of a week.
Since there was much confusion over which, references to the original Chautauqua Lake version and the mobile version required a new form of terminology. The "daughter chautauqua" was born and the institution on the lake came to the informal identity of "Mother Chautauqua." Other than a shared goal (not to teach people WHAT to think, but HOW to think), there was no affiliation of the two. On the whole, the promoters of both versions held cordial relations, "scratching each other's back" in the process.
While giving the lecturer his hour, traveling chautauquas sought to: provide information on as many subjects as possible, furnish good entertainment, and foster the will and spirit for community unity. They must have done a good job of it. At their peak, the daughter chautauquas played weekly to 40,000,000 customers in 10,000 towns across America.
On an individual level, the chautauqua touched every community in a similar way—from the first planning session to the last performance.
After being contracted by an agent to sell a fixed number of "Season Tickets" (admission for all "Chautauqua Week" performances), the proceeds were divided in a mutually agreed upon manner. Then advancemen appeared to promote ticket sales, arrange advertising and set the local committees into motion.
Farmers and townspeople volunteered time, supplies and even stage props to put everything in readiness. Homes were arranged to provide bed and breakfast for key chautauqua personnel (who were not nearly the rabble so often associated with tented circuses). And the tiny hotels (a vanishing breed in the little places of the era), were spit-shined for an influx of visitors.
As with the circus, chautauqua arrivals were usually by train, but came via truck in the final years. In the watery eye of memory, who could forget the hoopla when a banner-enshrouded coalburner, trailing a string of "varnish", chugged into the station, its soulful whistle announcing the Chautauqua Week had commenced.
Even while the enormous tent went up on the show-grounds, bright-eyed "Junior Girls" stepped forth to organize the flocks of juveniles un-inspired by such sirens as "culture." Generally teachers on summer sabbatical, the young women were ever-vigilant for recreational facilities for kids and they encouraged community leaders to provide them if the need existed. Thanks to the Junior Girls, Horner wrote, "…many parks and fields for games blossomed along the chautauqua trail."
Even tent placement was made with a careful eye to safety. Fires and sudden storms were constant threats, so "tent boys," reliable young men recruited locally, were trained to spot hazards, and a "weather committee" of resident old-timers scanned the skies for signs of threatening conditions. Sudden, windy freshets were the bane of any tented show.
Upon first glance at a chautauqua program, a $2.25 season ticket holder had a confusing array of choices that were either morning, matinee or evening presentations. Unlike a circus, with two or three repeat performances, revolving programs of chautauqua talent appeared one day per town, then scooted to their next appointed stop. Each daily program was new and different. It is no wonder old diaries noted, "…went to chautauqua…" for several consecutive days.
So, with the hitching post keeping "Old Dobbin" from her oats, and with the streets crammed with "tin lizzies," the quiet old towns on the chautauqua circuit were abuzz in their most stimulating period of the year.
Grant Wood, the American painter best known for his immortal portrait, "American Gothic," amassed the entire story into one artistic statement. As with many of his other works, "O, Chautauqua!" takes a meaningful look at our small-town American past, when the chautauqua tent was filled to overflowing. For nearly two decades Honeoye Falls was one of those towns.
One of the original tent chautauqua owners was a Mr. Crawford Peffer, who designed his "Redpath Chautauqua" circuit in the northeast states in 1905. With his base of operations at White Plains and a branch office in Rochester, Peffer's was also the last of the daughter chautauquas to operate in the United States—striking his canvases forever after the 1932 season.
For its first several years, the Peffer circuit visited the larger towns of Western New York. By 1915, however, the wisdom of moving into smaller markets was proving fruitful and Honeoye Falls joined the realm. From that year, when the horse and buggy was still a common form of transportation, until the early 30s, when the auto was king, the village sampled a wide variety of programs presented on the grounds of what is now Harry Allen Park. For 18 consecutive years, in early July without fail, it was Chautauqua Week and, on average, admissions totalled several hundred per day.
From the outset, the lecturers held top billing. They were names who traveled the tent circuits throughout America—from the Honorable Frank F. Cannon, who spoke against Mormon polygamy, to Dr. Ng Poo Chew, "The Chinese Mark Twain," to the scientist Montraville Wood, and his "torpedo with ears."
There was the nurse, Bree Kelly, describing her experiences on the Western Front of World War I. And there was Charles Barker who, when average life spans were closer to fifty, spoke on "How to Live 100 Years." In addition, Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of the greatest orator of his age, William Jennings Bryan, spoke in Honeoye Falls one July evening in 1924—three years after her famous father.
The topics were always diversified and timely—the speakers of a worldliness and eloquence rarely seen in rural and small town America. And there was more. A seemingly bottomless pool of talent injected humor, drama and music into chautauqua tents regularly filled to capacity.
Shakespearean presentations, first introduced on Peffer's cirucit spawned stage offerings that ranged from George M. Cohan, to Victor Herbert, to Gilbert and Sullivan. Who today could envision the grounds adjacent to our little white school house hosting the Ben Greet Players in "The Mikado," "The Pirates of Penzance," "Faust," "The Melting Pot" or "As You Like It."
There were such humorists as Jess Pugh and Ralph Bingham. Quartets, ensembles, "Big Bands," bagpipers and tenor soloists provided musical entertainment. In 1928, the virtuoso Montraville Flowers, recited all the parts of "Ben Hur." Politicians of every stripe added a little more to the hot summer air, and a variety of Native Americans deeply impressed the kids with their regalia and aura of a little understood culture. ("Chief Rolling Thunder," of the Winnebago tribe, was one.)
While six decades have passed since the last Redpath Chautauqua, scattered evidence remains of their local visits. Handsome programs from 1924 and 1927 call through the ages, while huge, month-long promotional advertisements kept the O'Briens' Honeoye Falls Times in the pink. These appeals, thanks to microfilm, remain for posterity.
Some people recall the "Redpath Chautauaqua Special," arriving at the Lehigh Valley train station amidst joy and expectation. They remember the swarm of people, carried into town on all manner of conveyances, and recall the huge tent that dominated their skyline above the old Union School grounds (today's Harry Allen Park).
During those special years, the chautauquans were housed in various places about the village. Until it closed in 1920, the Wilcox Hotel offered shelter, along with the Hopkins Hotel at the corner of the Village Hall block. Also, Belle Nau took them into her Locust Street rooming house when space was available.
But it was the grand old Victorian of William and Millicent Despard that accommodated the prime chautauqua talent. (Bill was a prominent coal dealer and politico in town.) Converting their top floor attic into several rooms (other parts of the house were given over to boarders year-round) the Despards threw open their commodious home to Crawford Peffer's most valuable assets.
(Coincidentally, the automobile, the very factor that helped push the circuit chautauquas to oblivion, also served notice on the magnificent Despard mansion that stood opposite the fire hall. Built by hotel man, Sylvester Wilcox in the 1870s, it lasted less than 100 years. When attempts to preserve it failed, the withering structure was razed in 1965, and the site converted to a parking lot.)
© 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.