- Historic Sites
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
A visitor to the Victorian enclave in western New York called the Chautauqua Institution will likely notice more than one inhabitant wearing a blue sweat shirt with the legend “London, Paris, Rome, Chautauqua. ” How equal a grouping this is depends, of course, on one’s own perception. Still, it’s a measure of how far this 117-year-old Methodist campground in the woods has come.
“The stars were out and looked down through trembling leaves upon a goodly, well-wrapped company who sat in the grove, filled with wonder and hope,” recalled the cofounder, Dr. John Heyl Vincent, of the first gathering there on August 4, 1874. Vincent, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, had joined forces with Lewis Miller, an Akron manufacturer, to lease a fifty-acre camp on the shores of Chautauqua Lake for the training of Sunday-school teachers. Advertised widely in church publications, that first two-week session was unimaginably successful, drawing twenty-five thousand participants from twentyfive states, Britain, Canada, and India.
The season tripled in length within six years, and a sense of permanence settled in. People bought their tents and set them up on platforms leased from the Institution. When they started to erect permanent wooden cottages in all the lacy, fanciful styles offered by the Victorian age, many clung to their memories of days under canvas by constructing a hybrid half-tent, half-cottage.
Although founded for religious training and by a specific Protestant denomination, the place from the first was remarkably open to all manner of thought and even—with mysterious foresight—prepared to equip Americans for a new century. The tumultuous age seemed to require a calm and pleasant place to examine the nature of the world, to see it whole and clear.
The source of this clear-sightedness must be found in the characters of the two founders. “We are all one on these grounds,” declared Lewis Miller. “No matter to what denomination you belong; no matter what creed, no matter to what political party.… And so here you are welcome to go about examining the various organizations and the various schemes and methods … taking such things as you want. Believe just what you want to, what you please about them and take them with you or leave them here as you like.”
For years visitors traveled here by steamboat, stepping onto a landing near the original campsite, at a grassy point that is now named Miller Park. These days everyone arrives by car, through lush, hilly farm country, to pull up at a gatehouse that punctuates a fence that surrounds half the 758acre property. (The other half is bordered by the lake.) Visitors can stop long enough to unload luggage and then must drive back to a parking lot. Shuttle buses and trams continuously ply the grounds, but since the place is only a mile and a half long and a halfmile from lake to gate, nothing is very far away.
Because automobile traffic is so strictly limited, the narrow streets seem uncrowded. A winding red-brick path leads the stroller past the sites of public events. Mature beech, maple, and pine trees line the walks and cast deep shade over tiny Carpenter Gothic cottages and amply proportioned houses in the Eastlake or Queen Anne style. Every street has its quota of church-owned buildings offering housing for vacationing clergy or youth groups.
Three open-air halls hold most of the lectures and performances. You can drop in on the rehearsals that go on throughout the day, and you can hear them as you walk through the village. The sounds of music shimmer in the air, sometimes colliding with one another in the most amiable way, as the high notes of an aria climb above the trees, a jazz trio warms up, and chimes from the bell tower mark the quarter-hour.
The July week I was there was given over to the subject of communications, with a number of journalists on hand to deliver talks. The New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury packed three fluent addresses into a couple of days as he related his experiences during the 1989 Chinese revolution and provided dark impressions of a trip to Russia. “The great American era that followed World War II is drawing to a close, but on a triumphant note,” he told overflow audiences.
The founder John Vincent once spoke of “the quickening and awakening which comes from great ideas.” Ulysses S. Grant, a visitor in the second year, was the first of many American leaders to enter Chautauqua’s gates. Teddy Roosevelt came several times, and his cousin Franklin delivered his “I Hate War” speech at the amphitheater. At the same time, Chautauqua found room for a language school, art classes, music lessons, and evenings of theater, all of which continue today.
In 1904 success bred traveling shows, run by independent operators, which flourished in rural America for twenty years. Only the Model T left a greater impression upon small-town cultural and social life, claims one writer. At its peak, traveling Chautauqua drew thirty million Americans into thousands of stuffy brown tents to be shocked or fascinated by the likes of Eugene Debs and Lincoln Steffens or amused by Swiss bell ringers and Japanese acrobats. Faced with the competition of movies, radio, and the automobile, these offshoots faded out in the late 1920s.