Utopia By The Lake


With the assembly burgeoning beyond their wildest expectations, Miller and Dr. Vincent decided to settle their families at Chautauqua the next summer. They built rustic cottages, half chalet and—because they were loath to lose the spontaneous camping atmosphere of the first season—half tent. Miller’s cottage may have been the first prefab house to be assembled in America; painted white with raspberry trim, it had a white—and raspberry-striped canvas extension pitched on the verandah for guest bedrooms. The program was lengthened another week, to twenty-four days, and enrollment was opened to include members of any Christian denomination. Dr. Vincent taught, among other subjects, classes on life in Biblical times and the geography of the Bible. A relief map of the Holy Land was constructed along the lakeshore, with tiny hills, white plaster villages, and a stagnant little Dead Sea; Chautauqua Lake served as the Mediterranean.


The curriculum was expanded, too, to include “night concerts on the lake,” though it’s not clear whether the musicians or the audience, or both, floated. In the afternoons, that second summer, there were “scientific conversazioni ,” and one lecturer donned the garb of a Middle Eastern shepherd to deliver a talk on “Jordan and Its People.” A ramshackle, makeshift guest house, two stories of wooden framework with canvas walls inside, rose on the hill above the gingerbread cottages rapidly being thrown up by the first Sunday-school teachers, who had invited their families and boarders. The building was christened “Knower’s Ark” because of the clever speakers who stayed there, and advertisements for the boarding houses (Sunday dinner with chicken: seventy-five cents) appeared in the new paper, The Chautauqua Daily Assembly Herald , along with schedules of lectures and musical events. The cottages, festooned with trimming as delicate as lacework, lost their rawness among the trees covering the grounds. And President Ulysses S. Grant, once a parishioner of Dr. Vincent’s in Galena, sailed down Chautauqua Lake in a floating palace steamboat and set his seal of approval on the venture. God, education, the President, and the good life had met on the lakeshore. Chautauqua was a boom resort.

During Chautauqua’s first summers the complexion of America was changing. Following the upheaval of the Civil War, the stable rural order of the early Republic was giving way to an urban and industrial society. A hundred sentimental paintings, the most famous Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties , depicted country boys leaving farms for the lure of the city and regular wages. This movement had created a big market for nostalgia; if you hadn’t made it in the city, the grinding routine of the farm seemed awfully secure, and even if you had made it, the old home town took on the hazy outlines of a muchloved memory. Chautauqua, born of a much older American yearning—the hunger for education—bloomed in this climate as an ideal country village where people beginning to cherish the memory of a departed agrarian society could spend several bucolic, informative weeks every summer.


By the third summer, in 1876, Chautauqua was established beyond a doubt. The program now ran eight weeks, from the first Sunday in July to the last Sunday in August, and Frances E. Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, became the first woman speaker to appear on the lecture stage, thrilling everyone with stories about the horrors of drink. This was the hundredth year of the Republic, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was supposed to draw all the crowds who had the money and leisure to travel. But so potent was Chautauqua’s appeal that three assemblies—one in Michigan, one on an island in the St. Lawrence River, and one in Iowa—were set up in imitation of the original, complete with tents, boarding houses, silver-tongued orators, and lectures on the Holy Land.

Two years later a permanent roofed, open-air Amphitheatre was built into the hillside, and the Grecian Hall of Philosophy (also called “the Hall in the Grove") rose. Within a few years two-decker steamboats were landing at the three-decker pier building with its ice-cream pagodas, a tower, and a flag. And by 1881 the Hotel Athenaeum, modelled after the Grand Union at Saratoga, had replaced the old canvas Palace Hotel. The Athenaeum had gingerbread pillars three stories high on the sweeping verandahs and a cupola so top-heavy that it had to be torn down in the 1920's because its weight was pushing the rooms below through the foundations. The story goes that there was no loom in the United States big enough to weave carpets for the acres of polished Athenaeum floor, so the builders had to send to France. The Athenaeum’s parlors had, of course, no place for dancing or card playing, and the dining room was completely “dry.” The diversions at Chautauqua were for the mind.