Chautauqua swept across the United States like a prairie fire between 1880 and the 1920’s, and it came to many a Midwest community.
The town would create an association, usually spearheaded by the ministers. This group sold tickets and guaranteed the success of the project. The quality of talent the community received depended entirely on the amount of money raised. The notable, the flamboyant, the religious, the musical, the artistic, the novel and the crusaders appeared in impressive numbers.
Small communities in Fremont County had such events. In the year 1904 (as reported by The Fremont County Herald) musical numbers presented at the Sidney chautauqua were given by the Dunbar Male Quartette and Bell Ringers, and the Bryon Troubadors. Robert McIntyre, a native of Scotland, was advertised as a Bricklayer-Preacher, Alton Packard was a humorist, artist, clever cartoonist, chalk talker, singer, reciter and fun maker! Laurant, the magician, was touted as the most novel, artistic and marvelous attraction. His performance that summer included “The Palace of Mystery,” “A Night in India,” and “Magic of the Dark Ages.”
Besides these interesting personalities were: D. W. Robertson with Edison’s Projectoscope showing
illustrated songs and real moving pictures. “The Life of Christ,” “The Great Train’ Robbery,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” were three of the films projected. Honorable Lou J. Beauchamp was billed as the Laughing Philosopher who lectured from a wealth of experience including “childhood among the Indians and millions of miles of travel and adventure from the Palaces of Kings to Underground Dens
of Heathen Criminals.”
When Capt. Richmond P. Hobson, hero of the Merrimac whose capture, imprisonment and release was “known to all,” arrived in Sidney, the local band escorted him to the city park where an enthusiastic crowd waved flags in greeting.
The Sidney city park had been meticulously groomed by volunteer workers for that year’s ten-day chautauqua session, a perfect place to pitch a tent. Excellent water was available for humans and horses. A grocery store had a stand located in a convenient place for those who camped for the ten days and wanted to buy food supplies. Travis’ dining tent, screened and furnished with tables and chairs, was prepared for those who wished to eat on the grounds.
Children’s programs were the delight of the small fry. A Junior Supervisor (a college girl using the opportunity for summer employment) planned the morning play hours, staged relays and races, supervised nature hikes, arranged story hours and trained the youngsters in an elaborate, costumed pageant which was staged the final evening of the session. The emphasis of the children’s work, according to the advertisement, included honor, fairness, courage, clean living and physical fitness.
Chautauqua gradually gave way to the motor car, the radio and the movies, but its glamour is still with us. Chautauqua is not dead. It lives in Chautauqua, New York, where the program continues and in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, at their Theater museum dedicated to the preservation of memorabilia and artifacts of early theater. A real American tradition.