Chautauqua Traveling Culture
Celebrating 150 years
By Kelly Villasuso
In decades past, childhood summertime in the United States seemed simple and carefree for most children — playing outside with friends on warm, sun-drenched days, catching fireflies and playing flashlight tag on balmy, star-filled nights. Today, as a whole new era of worldly issues impact parenting, families across the country strive not only to provide safe environments for their children, but also to let them play freely and independently without fear. One long-standing, yet-little-known movement today – the Chautauqua movement – has provided family-friendly safe havens for nearly 150 years.
Once referred to by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as “the most American thing in America,” the Chautauqua movement has successfully provided such utopic environments for generations of families — children and adults, alike — across the country. And the ‘halcyon days’ of Chautauqua summers are alive and well in the 11 continuously operating programs, such as at the original Chautauqua Institution in New York and the New Piasa Chautauqua in Illinois; in the numerous revitalized Chautauquas, including the Plains Chautauqua in Plains, Georgia in which former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter are avid supporters; and in the several Chautauquas just getting started, such as in Muskegon, Canada. So what is this “Chautauqua” (and how is it pronounced)? And what does a modern-day Chautauqua offer to families today?
The Social and Cultural Phenomenon
Chautauqua (pronounced shaw-taw-kwaw) is a Native American (Iroquois) word meaning “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” which describes the shape of Lake Chautauqua in New York state. In 1874, the western shoreline of Lake Chautauqua became home to the Chautauqua Institution, the mother of what later will be deemed “a social and cultural phenomenon in the United States,” as shared by the Chautauqua Trail (www.chautauquatrail.com).
The original intention varies depending on the source, however most concur that the primary goal of a Chautauqua was to build a community by supporting all people in their intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical development. According to former President Jimmy Carter, “The idea of a Chautauqua lets people get to know each other in America and to see what a great country we have. And not only what a great country we have, but why America is so good. That’s the best thing I see about Chautauqua.”
Over the course of a Chautauqua summer, a wide variety of entertainment and culture was brought to the nearly 250 official Chautauqua communities across the country at the high point of the movement. This included speakers such as William Jennings Bryan, Russell Conwell, and Helen Potter; musicians such as John Philip Sousa protégé Bohumir Kryl’s Bohemian Band; and entertainers such as the May Valentine Opera Company, which performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado across the country during the 1925 Chautauqua season.
Over the course of its nearly 150 years, the Chautauqua movement has influenced the lives of millions of Americans and continues to do so through the remaining operating communities.
According to Chautauqua historian and author of The Western Chautauqua: A History of New Piasa Chautauqua, Timothy R. Tomlinson, “There is now a renewal of interest in the Chautauqua movement […] because people are looking for a more wholesome, simple way of life; a way to share with their families a piece of their own childhood and that of their parents and grandparents.”
At New Piasa Chautauqua, which has been operating continuously for 131 years, Mr. Tomlinson shared that although he did not grow up coming to this Chautauqua, he has been “experiencing Chautauqua moments for about five decades.” As with thousands and thousands of families throughout the Chautauqua movement’s history, he shares, “My wife Rosie and I brought our children here and now that they are grown with children of their own, our grandchildren come to stay. In fact, my grandson is here now and he just told me that he thinks the best part of being with us [at the Chautauqua] is that he can go outside and play and not have to worry about anything. And I think that is really important for kids to have today.” And walking around the New Piasa Chautauqua in Chautauqua, Illinois, it is easy to see why.
New Piasa is like a time capsule, capturing the best of American summers for any and all to enjoy. The wooded property is dotted with approximately 125 cottages, as well as public buildings such as the Town Hall, the auditorium, and the pottery studio. As you meander the streets, it is truly like walking onto the set of a movie based in small-town America in the early-to-mid 1900s … complete with pristine, white clapboard houses and public buildings, accented by vivid green shutters, a sea of red, white, and blue of the American flags, and yellows and oranges of childrens’ bicycles on momentary hiatus.
Although the cottages are unique from each other, they do have one thing in common: a screened-in porch. According to resident Debbie Vuagniaux, after approximately four decades of visiting and now owning in New Piasa, “The porches are Chautauqua to me. They are the epicenter. Since most of the cottages were built in the early 1900s, there was no air conditioning, so the porch is where the people sat.” She recounts, “I remember just walking in and sitting on people’s porches to visit and people did the same at my Grammy’s where I spent lots and lots of time. I remember she used to take out a huge old silver pot and make the most delicious popcorn and serve it to us on the porch with homemade lemonade while we played checkers and card games and giggled endlessly.”
Like the majority of residents at the New Piasa Chautauqua and the other communities across the country, both Tomlinson and Vuagniaux are looking to continuously re-create such simple but poignant memories for their children and, as for Tomlinson, his grandchildren. Vuagniaux shares, “We want to allow our kids to be independent and to build confidence just by feeling they can go out all day on their bikes without being scared or playing tag outside at night while still feeling safe.”
If you, too, are looking to step back from the fast-paced and often uncertain times in which we are living, look to experiencing even just a week or two at one of the country’s treasured Chautauquas this summer. You can discover more at both www.chautauquatrail.com and www.ciweb.org.