Butler County History: ‘Chautauqua’ events in 1900s brought locals together

From the 1880s into the 1930s, the term “Chautauqua” meant that a local community had an opportunity to gather for three to 10 days during summer months to enjoy public lectures delivered by educators, explorers, preachers and scientists on current events, travel, inspirational themes and a wide variety of subjects.

Audiences could be entertained by singers, glee clubs, magic acts, bell ringers, animal acts, ventriloquists, musicians and band concerts. The goal of most Chautauquas was to offer challenging, informational and inspirational stimulation and entertainment to rural and small-town America. “Chautauqua time” was the high point of the summer in towns and villages across the country.

The first Chautauqua was held in 1874 as a summer training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers on Lake Chautauqua in western New York State. That program soon expanded its range to include recreation, education, arts and entertainment, as well as religion. Other locations across the country began holding Chautauquas.

By 1900 there were more than 400 local Chautauquas modeled after the original program. In 1904, traveling Chautauquas began to move from town to town complete with big tent, chairs and a full program of speakers, performers and entertainment. At its peak in 1924, nearly 550 traveling Chautauquas appeared in more than 12,000 communities in 45 states to audiences totaling 45 million people.

The first Chautauqua in southwestern Ohio was in 1896 near Franklin, a short train ride on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad from Hamilton. Over the years, the Miami Valley Chautauqua added more land and grew by building cottages, a large auditorium, dining halls, hotels, grocery stores, a swimming pool, and a variety of other recreation facilities.

The Miami Valley Chautauqua had many famous speakers including senators, governors, clergy and popular personalities during its years of programs. Prominent speakers included Booker T. Washington, William Jennings Bryan, Evangelist Billy Sunday, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and New York Times editor Brooks Atkinson. The Miami Valley Chautauqua survived the 1913 Great Miami River flood, the Great Depression and two world wars but low attendance forced it to cease operations in 1968.

Hamiltonian Louis Jenks Beauchamp was an influential international leader and speaker in the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements. He was known as “The Humorous Philosopher” and gave thousands of inspirational speeches to Lyceum and Chautauqua audiences. His most popular speech was “Take the Sunny Side” which he delivered more than 1,000 times. Under his leadership, the first Hamilton Chautauqua was established at the Butler County Fairgrounds in the summer of 1913, a few months after the disastrous Great Miami flood.

Beauchamp rallied Hamilton’s “Committee of 100,” a group of influential businessmen, clergy and residents that had been formed in 1892, to lead the effort to sell 1,800 Chautauqua season passes at $2 each. The advance sale was required by the Chautauqua Managers Association to guarantee the event and to make sure it would turn a profit. The sales campaign began Dec. 13, 1912 and by Jan. 7, 1913, 600 season passes had been sold.

Later season ticket sales and individual day of the event sales ensured a sizeable income.

The Chautauqua ran for 10 days from July 25 through Aug. 3 and featured 20 acts spread across day and evening programs. There were 3,000 seats under the “big tent” and a capacity attendance at each session made for a profitable program. All of the profit above the Chautauqua’s actual expenses was donated to the Hamilton Anti-Tuberculosis League.

Hamilton’s first Chautauqua featured some of the most popular lecturers, performers and musicians that appeared on the Chautauqua circuit. There were eight well-respected orators who delivered lectures on important topics of the day. Aron J. Messing, 73-years-old Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago’s B’nai Sholom Temple Israel, spoke on “Jewish Contributions to Civilization” and Paulist Catholic missionary Father P. J. MacCorry of St. Mary’s Church in Chicago, presented “The Story Beautiful” of the life of Christ illustrated by great paintings. Social reformer Jacob A. Riis, an important New York City newspaper reporter and photographer, talked about the conditions of life in the city’s slums.

Labor leader John Mitchell was vice-president of the American Federation of Labor when he lectured on the trade union movement in America.

Other topics covered by the speakers included an illustrated lecture by Dr. Gabriel R. MaGuire, pastor of the Ruggles Street Baptist Church in Boston, in which he described his travels through Africa. Robert Parker Miles, a New York author and traveler, discussed his meeting Pope Leo XIII, Gladstone and George Francis Train. George W. Bain, known as “the Silver-tongued Kentuckian,” demonstrated his appealing philosophy and humor in an inspirational speech, “What I Would do if I Could Live Life Over.” Hamilton’s favorite local orator, Lou J. Beauchamp, spoke on the “The Age of the Young Men” in which he described “success in life and how to achieve it.”

Two very different acts entertained the Chautauqua audiences. Robert O. Bowman enacted a variety of character portrayals from history, life and literature when he presented Longfellow’s story of “King Robert and the Angel” and a rendition of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bowman used stage make-up, wigs, beards and costumes to enact characters including Shylock, an Italian street vendor, and a Hoosier farmer. Karl Germaine, billed as “The Greatest of Magicians,” performed a series of conjuring, mind reading and sleight-of-hand magic tricks that astonished the audience. Germaine had a piano soloist providing background music and an attendant who handled the elaborate stage settings for his act.

Six musical programs entertained during the sessions. The Chicago Male Quartet sang light, popular and humorous songs. The Seminary Girls, a trio of young women from Chicago performed duets, vocal solos, violin solos and readings backed by musical accompaniment. Brahm’s Quartet was made up of four experienced recital and concert soloists from Chicago. The Chicago Operatic Company enacted scenes from grand operas “Romeo and Juliet,” “Faust,” “Martha” and selections from great oratorios and grand concerts were also presented.

The Schumann Quintet was an instrumental group composed of eminent musicians from Chicago, Brooklyn, Prague and Leipzig that provided a symphonic concert by playing two violins, cello, organ and piano. Sam Schildkret’s Hungarian Orchestra was the highlight of the Chautauqua’s musical performances. The orchestra had come to the United States for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 held in Chicago. In 1906, it played for Alice Roosevelt’s wedding to Nicholas Longworth, III of Cincinnati when her father, Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States. Schildkret’s eight-man orchestra consisted on three violins, cello, bass viol, flute and piccolo, clarinet, and dulcimer. The musicians played a mix of operatic, classical, popular and rag-time music during the program.

About 2,400 Hamiltonians attended the three hour program featuring the Schildkret orchestra. Two local singers also performed during the session. Elizabeth South Crane, billed as Mrs. Fred Crane, sang arias from Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly,” Verdi’s “La Triviata” and two other songs. C. Enyeart Hooven, son of industrialist J. C. Hooven, made his initial appearance on a local stage after returning from a European tour. He sang an aria from Puccini’s “La Tosca” and three other American songs.

Even though the 1913 Hamilton Chautauqua was judged a success, the large profit that was wanted for the Anti-tuberculosis League was not achieved. The set of programs did break even; however, local leaders proposed that all people attending the last three nights to pay an additional 25 cents per ticket so a nice sum might be realized for the league’s work.

Subsequent Hamilton Chautauquas provided a similar mix of regionally and nationally known speakers, musical performers, orchestras and entertainment acts. Featured speakers included senators, governors, judges, university presidents, Indian princesses, military leaders, evangelists and policemen. Musical acts included bands, orchestras, and a variety of vocal ensembles. Chautauqua patrons saw operettas and plays staged by casts as large as 25 actors.

In 1914, Ohio Governor James M. Cox, the successful publisher of the Dayton Daily News, spoke to an appreciative crowd. William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for president, spoke to an immense crowd when he delivered his “The World’s Greatest Need” speech in 1922. In 1930, world famous evangelist Billy Sunday presented his “The Mask Torn Off” speech to a very large crowd and Chief William Red Fox spoke on “The American Indian, Past and Present.” Red Fox, a full-blooded Sioux Indian and nephew of Chief Crazy Horse, had performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and several silent movies and was a hit with children.

The Hamilton Chautauqua frequently had financial difficulties. While the 1913 event broke even, the 1914 session had a deficit of about $600 (or nearly $17,500 today). During the 1920 Chautauqua, the managers of the event indicated that if 700 season tickets were not sold within three days there would not be a Chautauqua in 1921. The tickets were not sold and no Chautauqua was held. Programs were resumed in 1922 and continued for several years. In 1928, the Chautauqua was able to donate $374.75 to the scholarship fund of the Federation of Women’s Clubs (about $6,400.00 today). At the end of the 1930 Chautauqua, however, only 500 people had pledged to purchase tickets for the 1931 season. The board said that an additional 800 tickets needed to be sold within three weeks. The tickets were not sold and the 1930 Chautauqua was the last one held in Hamilton.

The Miami Valley Chautauqua in nearby Franklin continued offering high quality entertainment for area residents several years after the Hamilton Chautauqua ceased operations. Declining attendance and mounting debts, however, forced the selling of the Miami Valley Chautauqua parkland to the Michigan Baptist Fellowship Foundation in 1968. Today, a private community of more than 200 homes occupies the site of the original Miami Valley Chautauqua site.

In recent years, Chautauquas have experienced a small renaissance. Throughout the country, existing Chautauquas are thriving and ones from the past are being renewed. In Ohio, the Ohio Humanities Council started the Ohio Chautauqua program in 1999 and today it is a traveling living history program. The tour goes to four cities in the summer combining living history performances, music, education and audience participation. In 2016, the most recent Chautauqua held in Hamilton, performers enacted Theodore Roosevelt, zoologist Dian Fossey, physicist Marie Curie, Shawnee Indian Chief Cornstalk and English novelist Mary Shelley.

This article was submitted by the Butler County Historical Society.

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