For nine weeks each summer, this small town in southwestern New York becomes the adult-learning capital of the United States.
By Bill Vossler
Ever yearn for the good ol’ days, those halcyon times of yore when life was calmer, quieter, simpler — just better? Now you can replicate that era, turning the clock back 50 years with a trip to the “Mother Center” in Chautauqua, New York. There, you can immerse yourself for a day, a week, or longer in a “place removed from the day-to-day world,” as the Chautauqua Institution booklet says, “where some of the leading thinkers of our time come to speak to the concerns and issues of today; a place where music, dance, opera, theater, and the visual arts create the ‘Chautauqua Mix.'”
In this small village in southwestern New York, you can walk, bike, or ride a shuttle bus through its silent shaded arbors and study its stately old buildings, settling back into a more innocent era, setting aside your cares and worries while you pursue joyful and edifying experiences that expand your soul.
Sound pretty grand? It is. Nearly 170,000 people each summer agree, traveling to partake of Chautauqua Institution’s nine weeks of themed presentations in this small, historic lakeside village of 4,464 people.
The Chautauqua movement was started in 1874 by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent as a training camp for Sunday school teachers. The original idea, born on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York, eventually expanded to bring learning; culture; and, later, entertainment to rural areas of the United States.
“America’s farm communities,” wrote G.N. Huyser in her novel Chautauqua, “were, by necessity, remote from large industrial areas. … The well-established large city supported theaters, operatic and playhouses, along with available higher educational institutions. But none of these were accessible to the distant hinterlands of the Great Plains or sparsely developed woodlands of the North, where large tracts of wilderness lay between very small towns, reached by horse and wagon. Chautauqua Institution brought culture to these far-flung North American locations.”
The Chautauqua Institution was rooted in the lyceum movement, which paid prominent personalities to travel to small towns and villages to give speeches for a few hours on religious, political, and scientific topics. Chautauqua Institution was dubbed “summer camp for adults.” President Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America.” Woodrow Wilson described it during World War I as an “integral part of the national defense,” and William Jennings Bryan deemed it a “potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation.”
In past times, such powerful personages as Mark Twain; William Jennings Bryan; U.S. presidents from Grant through McKinley; Susan B. Anthony; Amelia Earhart; Thurgood Marshall; Sandra Day O’Connor; Jane Goodall; and Kurt Vonnegut have taken the Chautauqua stage.
With the advent of the highly popular adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Chautauqua concept spread throughout rural America. The gathering spots for these Chautauquas were generally built in attractive, semirural areas a short distance outside established towns with good rail service.
The Chautauqua Institution brought entertainment and culture into different communities throughout the United States, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day. Tents were set up, and speakers and entertainers were scheduled so that they could rotate through towns. By the mid-1920s, these Circuit Chautauquas had appeared in more than 10,000 communities and reached 45 million people.
One of the most popular speakers, and certainly the most prolific, was Russell Conwell, whose famous “Acres of Diamonds” speech, delivered 5,000 times, preached the theme of “get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor.” The most moving was by Maud Ballington Booth, the “Little Mother of the Prisons,” whose descriptions of prison life brought her audiences to tears and reform action.
These itinerant Chautauquas lasted until the late 1920s, when competition from radio, movies, and automobiles meant tiny rural towns no longer were so isolated.
Chautauqua Institution offers nine weeks of programs each summer; this year, the season runs from June 22 through August 24. The best-known events are the morning lecture series in the packed 5,000-seat amphitheater, a platform for distinguished speakers across a broad range of disciplines. In the recent past, Ken Burns, Bill Cosby, Loretta Lynn, and others have highlighted amphitheater productions and entertainment. In 2013 some of the guests will include author and storyteller Garrison Keillor and Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale.
But the Chautauqua experience is more than listening to famous speakers talk about the main topic of the week. It is the opportunity to find spiritual sustenance; to engage with like-minded friends; to pursue a hobby, old or new, or a new interest, from among the hundreds of programs, classes, and community events for all ages, children and grandchildren included, that are offered each week.
Special Studies topics include art, computers, golf, music, handcrafts, writing, sailing, and more. And “Road Scholar,” an important component of the Chautauqua experience for people 55 and over, may interest you as well. For details, visit the Web site or contact Chautauqua Institution.
The Institution is a 750-acre area where vehicle traffic is restricted, except for short periods to unload or pick up materials. However, a parking lot available outside the main gate ($8 per day) can accommodate a towed vehicle or motorhome (day parking only). Other parking areas also are available.
A gate ticket (sold by the day or week) is required to enter the grounds, and it covers most events and activities. Extra fees are charged for some classes and programs. Walking is not difficult on the paved paths, and the distances are not great. Bicycles can be rented, and shuttle buses crisscross the city every 20 minutes to accommodate those who wish to visit the farmer’s market, fishing dock, Miller Bell Tower, Melvin Johnson Sculpture Garden, or any other places of interest. Rest rooms are public and plentiful.
Chautauqua Institution has its own health clinic, police department, and fire department.
Perhaps historian and author David McCullough described Chautauqua Institution the best: “There is no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere in the world — it is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat and the village square — and there’s no place — no place — with anything like its history.”
P.O. Box 28
1 Ames Ave.
Chautauqua, NY 14722
The ticket office is open weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; phone (716) 357-6250; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chautauqua, New York, is 96 miles from Niagara Falls, 17 miles from the Lucy-Desi Museum of Comedy in Jamestown, New York; and 57 miles from the Frank Lloyd Wright Graycliff Estate in Derby, New York. Five wineries are within a 20-minute drive of Chautauqua Institution.
The following may not be a complete list. Please check the RV Marketplace, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com, or your favorite campground directory.
Chautauqua Lake KOA
5652 Thumb Road
Dewittville, NY 14728
6238 Davis Road
Mayville, NY 14757
Things To Do At Chautauqua
The events on this list were chosen from among many alternatives:
- Take a walk, run, or swim along the lakefront, or try a workout at the Fitness Center.
- Eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner at a local café or restaurant.
- Bike with your child or grandchild to their first day at Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
- Attend a nondenominational morning worship service in the amphitheater led by the week’s chaplain. Daily Roman Catholic Masses and Saturday morning Jewish services are also held.
- Attend lectures on various subjects, depending on the week. Or try a poetry reading, listen to a talk about a philosophical issue, or engage in a game of golf or tennis.
- Try story hour at Smith Memorial Library.
- Visit one of the art galleries.
- Take a walk on the beach, or a trip in a canoe or sailboat.
- Enjoy a concert at the amphitheater, a movie at Chautauqua cinema, a theater performance, or an opera presentation.
- Sit on the plaza and snack on an ice cream treat.
Chautauqua And The Suffragettes
Besides the role of expanding personal horizons, Chautauqua Institution became a galvanizing force in empowering the right of women to vote. The road to women’s suffrage in the United States originated in the temperance, or anti-drinking, movement, which held a major organizational meeting on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874, at the same time Chautauqua Institution was organized.
Both Chautauqua and the temperance movement crossed lines of gender, ethnicity, and religious denomination, celebrating a sober, productive vision of American community.
In The Chautauqua Moment, Andrew Chamberlin Rieser wrote, “The Chautauqua movement was in many respects a remarkably egalitarian medium for the dissemination of ideas, and women took full advantage of it. Technically, its lectures and publications were under central control, and certain core principles — most notably, temperance and Christian culture— were not up for debate.”
With so many women involved in the temperance movement, gaining political skills and confidence in dealing with men of the ruling class, the country began leaning toward suffrage.
However, Chautauqua’s John Heyl Vincent and his good friend Bishop J.M. Buckley were strongly opposed to the women’s vote. Vincent claimed politics and domesticity must be kept apart for the good of society. He said being involved in politics would be harmful to the ladies. In an 1894 letter, Vincent insisted that “the majority of our best women, especially our most intelligent, domestic, and godly mothers,” oppose suffrage.
“The instinct of motherhood is against it,” he argued. Whatever subverted the “natural and divine order, must make man less a man, and woman less a woman.” A woman’s greatest influence over the political process was as a mother and helpmate, he noted.
Rieser said, “Chautauqua’s illusion of neutrality formed a favorable political environment for reorienting the debates from the age-old ‘woman question’ to a more partisan ‘suffrage question.'”
Despite the opposition, the tide was turning. On Chautauqua’s woman’s day celebration of 1900, Susan B. Anthony was given permission to distribute pro-suffrage literature. Mrs. Eleanor Phillips of the New York State Association Opposed to the Extension of the Suffrage to Women was appalled, believing Chautauqua was overrun with suffragists, and the organization was endorsing the concept.
Vincent’s sharp denial said Chautauqua Institution took no official position on the question, and if Phillips’ group wished to be represented, “we should only be too glad to give them exactly the same opportunity that we extend to the other side.”
“Vincent defined Chautauqua as a platform for ‘forward movements’ (that is, progress) but not ‘reforms or radical movements,'” Rieser said. “It was not the institution’s mission to take action on any cause, but, rather, to give people information in order for them to make up their own minds.”
The anti-suffragists declined the invitation, leaving John Heyl Vincent as the lone opposition standard-bearer. But heavyweight suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna Shaw carried the day.
By 1910, Vincent was forced to acknowledge the logic of the institutional forces set in motion. As he wrote in his memoirs: “Even old men may grow in both knowledge and grace. I have increasing faith in the breadth of women’s sphere and in adult education.”
That year was a banner year for suffrage organizers and Chautauqua assemblies throughout the Midwest. Just inside the entrance to the Ames, Iowa, assembly was a women’s suffrage tent. “It was said,” recalled one man of the booth, “that no man dared refuse literature handed to him as he entered.”
It took a few more years, but in 1920 the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed.