Chautauqua Drew Thousands to College Grounds


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“The Chautauqua is the most distinctly American thing in this country!”

So proclaimed Teddy Roosevelt, himself a frequent speaker at the phenomenon that swept the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Originating on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State, the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly program began in 1874 as a religious program but quickly became a nationwide movement that has been described as a “lecture series, community concert series, camp meeting and lyceum combined in the atmosphere of a tent circus.”

In 1904 the movement reached Monmouth College, where for the next two decades it would become a summer fixture on the campus.

Organized by a group of leading citizens—Monmouth College president Thomas Hanna McMichael was its first president—the Monmouth Chautauqua Association brought an endless parade of orators and preachers, bands and orchestras, and other cultural attractions to the people of western Illinois.

Monmouth’s leading citizens became stockholders and a board of directors negotiated with national Chautauqua touring companies to bid on their top acts.

In the first year, the committee spent $2,300 on programming—approximately $66,000 in today’s dollars—and $500 on tent rentals. But ticket sales brought in more than $2,700, with concessions and rentals ensuring a profit.

A tent city would be erected on the college campus fronting Broadway and 9th Street, and for 10 days in August families would camp out in rented tents or commute in their Model Ts to hear the likes of perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, sculptor Lorado Taft or Progressive governor Robert LaFollette.

Reserved seats were 10 cents; children under 10 were free; and an automobile pass could be had for $1.50. The average yearly attendance was 2,500 to 3,000 persons, although an estimated crowd of 5,000 gathered for Bryan’s 1905 program. Also in 1905, Booker T. Washington was a featured speaker, and downtown businesses closed so everyone could hear the renowned black educator.

The 1906 program featured “baseball” preacher Billy Sunday and future vice president Henry Wallace. The Rock Island Southern interurban brought attendees from Galesburg, Abingdon and Cameron.

The 1910 Chautauqua was held in conjunction with the Grand Army of the Republic convention, and campfires were built on the grounds by the Civil War veterans, who were treated to a visit by Illinois governor Charles S. Deneen. Monmouth residents were urged to decorate their homes and businesses. The Rock Island Argus promoted an interurban train to Monmouth.

In 1911, more than 50 tents covered the campus hillside. For the convenience of visitors, the main tent was equipped with a telephone.

By 1912, Chautauquas had taken the country by storm. More than 1,000 were held that summer, with audiences totaling 25 million. Many communities in the Monmouth area, such as Aledo, joined the Chautauqua movement.

Monmouth went wild when it was announced that William Howard Taft would headline the 1917 program, but its hopes were dashed when the former president was taken ill after a speaking appearance in Nebraska, forcing a last-minute cancellation.

Also popular in Monmouth were the Junior Chautauquas, in which area children—including future Monmouth College piano instructor Gracie Peterson—performed musical selections, usually based on popular hymns and Bible stories.

The last Monmouth Chautauqua was held in 1924. The event that had entertained and informed the public for an entire generation fell victim to a new type of diversion—the motion picture.

For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.

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