The Most American Thing in America
Striking the Tents for the Last Time
The ignominious fate of Mr. Bryan in 1925 perhaps best exemplified the dissolution of the traveling chautauquas. While reasons are legion, in general, the changing scene found the circuits increasingly out of touch with the times.
As with many successful ventures, new promoters saturated the market, the quality of the talent pool thinned and the cultural benefits of a chautauqua program waned. Following the impetus of World War I, when the chautauquas stirred patriotic fervor throughout the land and rose to their highest plateau, Americans reverted to a stronger isolationist attitude and turned their attention to hearth and home.
The impressive stable of chautauqua lecturers, schooled in international politics and the ways of other lands, began appearing before thinning audiences.
America was becoming more mobile and more attuned to such newfangled enticements as talking movies and the radio. Improved roads and mass-produced automobiles drew folk onto the highway and away from home—at least temporarily. Going to Rochester or beyond was an option for almost everyone with gas money in their pocket. Day trips came into vogue, while chautauqua became passť.
By the late 1920s, circuits around the nation were closing down. Crawford Peffer, a founding father of the traveling chautauqua movement, held on until he was the last of his ilk in the United States. At Nashua, New Hampshire, in the late summer of 1932, his Redpath show fulfilled one final chautauqua obligation and there it died.
The people in and around Honeoye Falls, except the few who religiously subscribed for the following season, were barely mournful upon hearing that, after 18 seasons, chautauqua would come no more. As America worked clear of the great depression and the stultifying isolation of the rural communities, a new course, for better or for worse, was set.
Taken in microcosm, pertinent sources included lamentations that the loss of chautauqua exemplified a loss of individualism. Into the void came the rise of big government, fabulous material gain by the public at large and an eroded sense of community. Increased sophistication superceded provincialism and new lifestyles were forged. The social fabric of circuit towns already damaged by the Great Depression was left careworn with neglect.
It became old hat to accede to the pleas of Bryan or the quaintness of tented entertainment. Judging by present day problems in our society, the institution of "family," and with it, "community," was dragged into the abyss of change.
In the decades since Peffer's last hurrah, six now, we can list numerous ways the spirit of chautauqua has been reborn. In Honeoye Falls alone, abundant examples make up a lengthy list. Two of them can be found in Harry Allen Park, the very site where the chautauqua movement left its imprint.
The gazebo and the little white schoolhouse, in tandem, provide a lasting symbol of the desire for homespun entertainment and enlightenment for the people of the area. So, too, the structures memorialize those historical and architectural landmarks that disappeared in another, less enlightened, age.
"Will the chautauqua come again?" Horner asked in Strike the Tents (1954). He mused:
I hope the time may come when public-spirited citizens, may in the manner of the chautauqua, combine music, the theatre, and popular entertainment, with educational, scientific, religious and other forms of discussion, into one great program of summer delight. Then the chautauqua, as we knew it, would live again.
Who's to say? Is Horner's vision for a new chautauqua ideal a practical concept or merely quixotic? From current evidence, a number of citizens in these parts can rightly declare the former. One day, perhaps, they will hear the closing words form Strike the Tents: "You gave a swell show."
© 1992, Paul S. Worboys
Reprinted with permission from the Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima 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.