Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
 Saturday June 7, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 197: Chautauqua – Iowa City Style



Chatauqua Big Tent 1910 Program


The “big tent” at the Iowa City Chautauqua was equivalent to “center ring” at the circus and during the early 20th century featured
fiery speeches from Rev. Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryant, as well as plays, skits and musical concerts of all sorts,
as well as serious lectures. This site is in Manville Heights north of River Street.


Chautauqua tent family 1909 Program


An unidentified family poses in front of their 1908 equivalent a 2002 Winnebago motor home in this image from the
1909 program for Iowa City Chautauqua. Mosquito netting hangs above the door, and the “big tent” is visible in the background.


By Bob Hibbs


Iowa City Chautauqua was an early 20th century tonic for body, mind and spirit which brought music, drama and thought to bluffs now called Manville Heights in northwest Iowa City, billing itself as “the people’s college.”

From 1906 into the 1920s, hot Iowa City summers brought with them the excitement of living outdoors several days with scheduled entertainment each afternoon and evening – an intellectual counter-point to the modern Iowa State Fair.

Political celebrities such as William Jennings Bryant, fire brands like Carry Nation, heralded musical and theatrical talents of the day, bands and concert orchestras, jugglers and comedians, even evangelist Billy Sunday, all played Iowa City during late July and early August for two decades.

One nationally-known speaker was Bunny Wassam, a University of Iowa professor billed as “the oral cyclone” for some 1,100 appearances in 25 states from California to Michigan between 1914 and 1928. He was a philosopher who spoke “with the rapid-fire of a Gatling gun.”

Each summer thousands streamed to the beauty and coolness of the oak-canopied site still existing over a stylish neighborhood built mostly during the subsequent two decades on an 80-acre tract Bert Manville purchased in 1910 from Frank Hutchinson.

The late local historian Irving Weber estimated that between 400 and 500 people camped on the grounds about 1908. Many others came and went each day.

The Interurban Railway ran cars between the grounds and downtown Iowa City since its tracks passed within sight of the southern edge of “tent city.”  After 1911, Iowa City streetcars made regular runs from the north edge of the grounds across Park Road bridge.

Initially called Johnson County Chautauqua during three summers, prices ranged from $3 for all events to $1.25 for evening events. The 1921 program for Aug. 17 -21 offered adult season tickets for “$2, war tax included.”

Tents were supplied and pitched by providers from as far away as Des Moines. The 10-day 1907 season cost $3.50 for a 10-foot by 12-foot size to $10.50 for a five-room 14-foot by 21-foot model. Wire cots added 60 cents each and mattresses 35 cents, the same price as chairs.

Ninety-four-year-old Carl Chadek, a 1928 City High grad, recalls late 1920s Iowa City Chautauqua held not in Manville Heights, but in the area behind the current Senior Center downtown. He remembers the performances as “good old vaudeville.”

Rules forbad profane language or intoxicating beverages, as well as games of chance. Stands sold fruits, sandwiches, ice cream, lemonade and items like cigars and newspapers.

Storms were the worst nightmare. At the 1908 event, an August thunderstorm with strong winds forced organizers to drop the big tent to save it from being shredded. The storm leveled most camping tents, drenching everyone, but causing no reported injuries.

Perhaps no event topped the excitement Carry Nation brought at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17, 1910. It followed by two years an appearance by women’s suffrage crusader Maude Booth who a newspaper described as “the highest priced woman speaker on the Chautauqua platform.” She drew a huge crowd.

But, Carry Nation brought trembling legs to the barkeeps and owners of the 40 “dens of iniquity” operating in Iowa City, and in characteristic style took pot shots at many groups. She declared that “hell would be populated by the following classes: Republicans, Democrats, Masons, smokers and drinkers.”

At her room in the Burkley Imperial hotel across from Schaeffer Hall, Ms. Nation compared dogs and men. “I like dogs because they don’t use tobacco or strong drink,” she told a reporter. She said she had smashed hundreds of saloons and had been jailed 34 times to that date.

Outdoor Chautauqua entertained Iowa City royally during an era before television and air conditioning.

Next Saturday: Steamboating at Iowa City.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 


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