Utopia By The Lake


One summer evening in the mid1960’s there was a concert on the porch of an old hotel in western New York State. Gingerbread pillars towered three stories into the darkness above the conductor, and figures leaning from the windows were silhouetted against the yellow rooms behind them. Below the porch, where the lawn sloped away to a lakeshore, the audience strolled back and forth or sat on the grass beneath old-fashioned Japanese lanterns that had been strung between the trees. As though on cue, a round, brightorange harvest moon rose over the lake, making a white path across the water to the other shore. The orchestra swung into “The Blue Danube.”


This scene, which might just as well have happened at the turn of the century, followed one of the most remarkable annual celebrations of ancestral piety in the United States. The hotel was the Athenaeum on Chautauqua Lake, in the Appalachian highlands ten miles above Lake Erie. The place was Chautauqua Institution, which was celebrating its ninetieth anniversary as a summer music festival and a resort of high culture. Earlier that evening, in the huge old wooden-roofed Amphitheatre set into the hill above the hotel, five thousand people had gathered. There the assembly leader, standing on a platform in the pit of the Amphitheatre, read from a book lying open on the ornate walnut podium in front of him, just as other leaders had done every year since 1915: The time is coming, when to the old question, “Who are here tonight who were present in 1874?” there will be no response,—a hush, a sudden turning to see if no one is there and then a solemn silence as the leader on that evening announces: “Not one.” What year will that be? It must be a long time hence; for there were children in that auditorium on the first night in 1874, who were but six years old, and who in 1944 will be seventy-six, and one or more of them may be present that season.

Then he asked the question; and a very old man in the front row rose feebly and tipped his hat.

The crowd burst into wild applause; they were honoring, really, what Chautauqua had meant during the old man’s long life; in ninety years seven Presidents of the United States, opera singers, band leaders, revivalists, ambassadors, and aviators had come to Chautauqua. F.D.R. made his “I Hate War” speech here; Admiral Byrd, fresh from the South Pole, had landed his plane on the golf course; and Teddy Roosevelt, who dropped by in 1904, called it “the most American place in America.” And through it all, the earnestness, the sentimentality, and the idyllic atmosphere had prevailed.

Two dazzlingly successful gentlemen from the Midwest devised the notion of the first Chautauqua Assembly. The Reverend Dr. John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister from Galena, Illinois, met Lewis Miller, an Akron mill owner, inventor, and philanthropist, in the early iSyo’s. Miller had made a fortune from an invention called the Buckeye Mower, a reaper with the cutting arm hinged so that it could fit through a barn door. A devout churchgoer, Miller was looking around for new things to perfect and seized on the important (”as the twig is bent …”) Sundayschool movement. Together the two men devised a summer training program for Sunday-school teachers. Miller, who provided the financial backing, suggested that a country location be found so that the benefits and attractions of a vacation could be added to the program.

They found the ideal site in Fair Point, a piece of land jutting out slightly into Chautauqua Lake in western New York, where the outdoor platform, tents, and log benches of a defunct camp meeting were for sale. Dr. Vincent, who was much later to become a bishop, had long hated camp-meeting hysteria and was trying to dissociate the Methodist Church from the phenomenon; he was particularly pleased to convert an old, dead meeting into the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.

Letters were sent out, and 142 Sunday-school teachers came from twenty-five states, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and India—from every corner of the Methodist world and its mission fields—to attend classes, which were held in four tents set in the grove of trees by the lakeshore. On that first evening, August 4, 1874, the two-week program of lectures and sermons opened with the singing of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and various Scripture readings, beginning with “the day goeth away …” (Jeremiah 6:4), as in the light of pine-knot torches flaring in boxes of dirt an incredible two thousand local people sat jammed on log benches, swatting at mosquitoes coming up from the lake in the August dusk. (For ninety-eight years since, “Old First Night” has always begun with the same hymn and the same readings.) By August 12 an estimated ten to fifteen thousand people had flocked, walked, and sailed to the grounds to hear a particularly popular preacher, T. Dewitt Talmadge. It rained a lot those first seventeen days, but people just put up their umbrellas and stayed on, wading through the muck after each lecture to dripping tents, where they lodged and ate, or creaking away in wagons to the little towns around.