August the Time for Chautauqua
Quad River News Aug. 20, 1984
By Bill Gladstone

For about the first quarter of this century August was Chautauqua time in Grant City. The accompanying photograph was taken in August, 1914. It shows the huge chautauqua tent setting on 'Munn's Corner' (now the site of the Farmers Bank). The speaker that day was William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, known as the Silver Orator of the Platte, had three times previously (1896, 1900, 1908) been the nominee for president of the United States, first as a Democratic Populist, then as a Democrat. Bryan is also remembered as the lawyer who presented the prosecution's case in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee.
It is interesting to note some of the modes of transportation of that day. In the foreground are both teams and single hitches pulling buggies. There are a couple of horses with saddles. The cars pictured are most interesting with the one shown on the right being of special interest. Just behind it is a bicycle. No doubt many of the people in attendance had walked, and I'm sure that many had arrived in Grant City on the passenger train.
The chautauqua was an educational presentation wrapped in entertainment. The chautauqua circuit was an outgrowth of the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly which met for its first season in the state of New York in August, 1874. It was a two week session for training Sunday School teachers and combined recreation and entertainment with educational training.
By the turn of the century the chautauqua circuit had evolved. A typical chautauqua organization was the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit which operated in the midwest and brought its show to Grant City. It operated 12 units. Each unit stayed about a week at each site on its circuit and the performers would move from one site to the next, sometimes staying only one day at a place, sometimes for only two or three days and sometimes staying the whole session. It seemed that they operated only during the summer months.
The first chautauqua to appear in Grant City was in 1903. It set up in Houser-Verbeck Park in the west edge of Grant City. William Jennings Bryan was scheduled to speak during the Saturday afternoon session. An August, 1903, issue of the Worth County Times tells that 8,000 persons were in Houser-Verbeck Park to see or hear Bryan, but he did not arrive that day because of the death of a friend. The article says Bryan did arrive the next day, but some four or five hours late because persons crowded into the tent to hear his lecture that day.
The chautauqua returned to Houser-Verbeck Park in 1904 but this time the attendance was not good enough to make it a paying proposition and Houser & Verbeck did not sponsor the event again. There is no record of a chautauqua being in Grant City in 1905, 1906 nor 1907 but in 1908 Grant City became one of the stops on the Redpath Circuit and continued to be until the mid to late 1920's.
I was born just a few years too late to have had the privilege of attending a chautauqua. I did, though prevail upon Kathryn Mathews to write of her rememberances of the chautauqua day.

 

 

THE CHAUTAUQUA IN WORTH COUNTY
By Kathyrn Prugh Mathews

One of the highlights of entertainment in Worth County in my childhood was the chautauqua which rolled into Grant City with its huge canvas tents. It was always in August and they always set up their tents on the northwest corner of the square where the new Farmers Bank is being built.
By August the farmer's work was not quite so busy, so they could spend one or more days attending the performances. The townspeople attended in full force every afternoon and evening session.
Season tickets were sold as well as single performance tickets.
It was a cultural event as well as being educational and entertaining. The programs consisted of melodramas, instrumental music, vocal music, political speeches, religious speeches, as well as speeches by famous people of the day. There were style shows and magicians, and one or more snappy bands performed.
One of this county's most talented musicians, Fern Sanders, played for many years on the chautauqua circuit. I think her circuits were more in the eastern part of the United States.
One of the famous chautauquas was the Redpath. The Redpath Circuit was here in the midwest. A new troupe of entertainers would appear every day or two and then move on to the next town on the circuit. The entertainers were from Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis and other metropolitan areas.
During the week of the chautauqua, the children of the area who wanted to participate, practiced every morning for a program they would present for the chautauqua crowd later in the week. The director trained them for plays, musicals, etc. After this entertainment the children were always treated to a picnic. Not only was this a valuable educational experience for the youngsters but it also helped insure that there would be a good attendance at the performance.
The costumes and clothes the chautuaqua entertainers wore were the latest fashions of the city. The local seamstresses and ladies that were deft with a needle took notes on what the latest styles were.
Most of the people who attended the performances sat on planks, but there were some reserved seats which were folding chairs, and they were down near the stage.
To a little girl, chautauqua week was a week of dreams and fantasies and one of the most important weeks of the year.