1912: Come to Prescott's First Chautauqua!

Another great article from our resident historian Drew Desmond….

Be sure to check ot his blog: http://prescottazhistory.blogspot.com

 

Teddy Roosevelt once said: "Chautauqua is the most American thing in America!"

"Chautauqua is an institution that began in the late 19th century to provide higher education opportunities through the combination of lectures, concerts, and public events."

It was also a grand celebration of the freedom of speech and in 1912, Prescott would climb aboard.

"The Chautauqua Movement...grew out of (the) Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.  As its members and graduates spread the Chautauqua idea, many towns–especially in rural areas where opportunities for secondary education were limited–established “chautauquas.”

"The Chautauqua Institution had broadened to include adult education of all kinds, as well as a correspondence course–the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, designed to bring “a college outlook” to working and middle-class people.

Hosting a chautauqua was not cheap, however. Guaranteeing $3600, "the Chamber of Commerce...decided to stand sponsor for the chautauqua assembly" which would (eventually) run from June (15)-30. Committees were formed to handle the grounds; the program and advertising; finance; transportation; and an executive committee. Members of the executive committee included names familiar to Prescott historians including: Harry Heap, EA Kastner, WA Drake (for whom that town is named), and Morris Goldwater.

Most often a Chautauqua lasted a week. Prescott's, however, would be twice that long. Plans were completed by the various committees of the Chamber. Even though the County Fair budget would have to be robbed to completely finance the Chautauqua, everyone considered it worthwhile. With great anticipation, the day finally arrived.

Generic poster for upcoming Chautauquas.


"Mrs. Ida Cole, who (came) to Arizona as the official exponent of the Chautauqua Institution, gave an illuminating talk as to its purposes, defining Chautauqua as a four years course in home reading culture, to which only 20 minutes conscientious work need be given daily."

"Chautauqua gives fine mental discipline, judgment and discrimination," she said. "It appeals to the home--furnishing just the required environment which the true mother seeks for her children."

An art exhibition was shown while Mrs. Cole lectured on "the seven great schools of painting." It was illustrated with "exact reproductions of the original masterpieces both in size and color."

These included the Mona Lisa; Rembrandt's self-portrait; Eramus by Holbein; Infanta Marguerite by Velasquez; L'Indiferent by Watteau; and the "Age of Innocence" by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

"The people who cannot visit Europe can now see for the first time, what a masterpiece looks like," Cole said.

It must be remembered that during this time unbridled capitalism was running amok in America. There were no 8 hour workdays, holidays, minimum wage or safety regulations. Laborers had to bid against each other for employment, taking the lowest pay just to have a job. Children were sent to work in unsafe factories instead of going to school, so families could make ends meet. Monopolies wiped-out competition, then terribly overcharged their customers using the extra proceeds to place Congress completely in their back-pocket, making it deaf to the needs of everyday Americans.

So with this backdrop, it is easier to understand why so much of the oratory presented at the Chautauqua was pro-trade union and even pro-socialism!

One speaker who wowed the crowd was socialist Charles Edward Russell, who delivered "one of the strongest, most impelling addresses ever heard in Prescott," the newspaper proclaimed. "Over 700 people were in the audience which followed the words of the orator in breathless silence."

He spoke of the plight of the poor and middle-class when capitalism goes unchecked and the hidden costs that brings to society as a whole. He quoted the Bible liberally while making his points and he also "hailed the women's suffrage movement."

Teddy Roosevelt knew exactly what was being taught at the Chautauqua, which makes it all the more striking for us today that he pronounced it "the most American thing in America."


Indeed, back then, people not only respectfully received opposing viewpoints, but knowing that neither any person nor perspective is infallible, they actively sought them out to discern their best ideas! The Chautauqua was a grand celebration of free speech in the highest.

Famous people of the day came to Prescott to speak at the Chautauqua. One orator, "John Mitchell, was about to ascend the Chautauqua platform (when) a telegram was received...asking if Mitchell would go on the ticket as vice-president" under Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party!  (Mitchell ultimately declined, leaving that distinction to Hiram Johnson.)

Mitchell's lecture was The Philosophy, Purpose and Ideals of the Trade Union Movement. "The address was a strong exposition," the paper announced, "and for two hours, each step of the argument was greeted with hearty applause." 

Besides artwork, other exposures to fine culture were provided. The Cambridge Players performed the finest scenes from Shakespeare as well as solos, duets, and trios of music.  Another day an operetta was performed.  Dr. David Starr Jordan performed "biblical pantomime" and classical greek dancing. 

A reading circle was birthed. "The course for the year consists of five bound books and twelve magazines, costing but $5. Certificates are given for one year's reading and a diploma for the full course of four years." 

Classes of all kinds were offered including practical information for the local farmer. Professor McOrmie lectured on potato and dry farming. 

There was also levity. Dr. William Spurgeon, of London, delivered a humorous speech with "timely anecdote." He later offered sermons with special music.  Jess Coffer, a comedian, had the crowd in stitches.  Charles E Russell performed "musical novelties" with nearly every bell one could play. 

Prescott's own St. Joseph's Academy staged "The Quest for the Holy Grail." A children's choir was formed, practiced, and performed beautifully. 

A full field-day was set aside for competitive sports. 

Interestingly, on the last day, Mrs. Cole spoke of the need for newspapers to reform from what would become known as "yellow journalism" or what we might call "fake news." She suggested that the solution to the problem lay in the choices and pressure of enlightened consumers. 

As elsewhere, the Chautauqua was quite popular and continued for several years in Prescott.

Postage stamp commemorating
the Chautauqua movement.

"It is probable that no single wholly American institution, with the possible exception of the Model T, left a greater imprint upon the social and cultural life of the rural communities of the nation than the Chautauqua movement. During the peak year, 1924, an estimated 30,000,000 Americans sat in the brown tents pitched nearby some 12,000 Main Streets and enjoyed the lectures, music, drama, and other cultural items making up the typical Chautauqua week offering." 

Ultimately the Chautauqua Movement began to decline for several reasons, receiving its knock-out blow with the Great Depression. However, the Chautauqua is experiencing a bit of a renaissance today; not as a traveling circuit, but as a vacation destination in Colorado and New York.

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012