The Most American Thing in America
The Revered Bryan
The most significant event of the era was the day when the "Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan, came to town. It was a sultry July 7th in 1921, and such fanfare had not been witnessed since the Ringling Circus played Honeoye Falls back in 1894. Bryan's chautauqua visit was preceded by his meteoric political career based almost solely on elocution. Like no other, he was a champion of the common man and the ideals of agrarian America.
Bryan was a renowned politician, orator and lawyer who made three unsuccessful bids for the Presidency. He was Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State for a time and an ardent supporter of Prohibition and Fundamentalism. In opposing the teaching of evolution, he successfully assisted the state prosecutor in the famed Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 in which a young teacher, John Scopes, was convicted of teaching Darwin's theory in defiance of Tennessee statute.
(His victory was Pyrrhic, however, as an immortal courtroom confrontation with defense attorney Clarence Darrow revealed a man out of sync with modern America. Honed by an old-fashioned, "Bible Belt" orientation, Bryan's humiliation was devastating. The "Great Commoner," once the ultimate working class hero, died five days after the trial ended—perhaps of a broken heart.)
In his heyday, the eloquent, incomparable Bryan was known throughout the world. Such a prolific speaker was the man, that he was seen by more people than anyone else of his generation. As his political star was dimming (thanks to urban intellectuals who deemed him an ultra-conservative windbag), he became a chautauqua fixture that filled the tents on the Peffer circuit. In Honeoye Falls, at least, he filled the whole village!
Every appearance was met with reverence. Said Charles Horner: "In a moment or two he would raise his arm, the palm of his hand turned to the people and a quiet would come like the fall of a rose leaf on the grass." Several local citizens harkening back more than seven decades, recall Bryan pacing back and forth across the stage, his arms and hands driving home every point. And all it cost to see him was a mere 55 cents.
A man of great appetite, Mr. Bryan took a sumptuous lunch at the Despard home and dined that evening in Mendon Center. Hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. White in their Greek Revival mansion overlooking the peaceful hamlet, a grand banquet was enjoyed. (The vegetables were provided by the immortal Ben Peer, the noted gardener, raconteur, baseball team and dance promoter. His early garden products were nationally known and even sampled by European royalty.)
The Whites were no strangers to famous people. A legislator, gentleman farmer and birthright Quaker, Edward White attracted several notables to Mendon Center, including one or two of the Roosevelts and later Charles Lindbergh. (It was in White's top-most fields where the post-WWI "barnstormers" created an impromptu landing strip for their Curtiss Jennys. The pilots, tooting around the country, gave $5 rides in their "wood, string and fabric" aeroplanes. Among others, nine-year-old Lloyd Rittenhouse went among the birds and forever became addicted to flight.)
"Where Are the Nine," Bryan's speech on that humid summer afternoon, was not nearly of the impact of his legendary "Cross of Gold" address at the 1896 Democratic Convention, nor could it match his 1912 nominating speech of Woodrow Wilson. However, as he had done previously on Seminary Hill in Lima, and in hundreds of towns across the land, Bryan enthralled the people in Honeoye Falls.
© 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.