Monday, January 27, 2014

The Mother Chautauqua

Location:   Chautauqua, New York
Year:   1874

Chautauquas were the United States' first form of continuing education.

The Chautauqua Movement was founded in the late 19th century by Methodist Minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller.  Vincent and Miller bought a large site in western New York State on Lake Chautauqua near the Town of Chautauqua, where they held classes on various subjects and provided stage plays and musical performances.  They later licensed the idea to others, and yet still others copied it.

There were three types of Chautauquas: 

The "Mother Chautauqua" as it was called, had its permanent site on Lake Chautauqua. 

Major cities, such as Chicago, and larger towns had their own permanent "Independent" Chautauquas, all modeled after the Mother Chautauqua. Most of the Independent Chautauquas could be found in exurban areas a brief train ride away from the urban center they served.  

"Daughter Chautaquas" were mostly itinerant, traveling in wagons, and  later automobiles and trucks, throughout rural America.  Daughter Chautauquas were peopled with musicians, booksellers and elocutionists, Shakespearean actors, teachers, doctors, specialists of various kinds, preachers, lecturers, and family entertainers.  In the years before mass media, Daughter Chautauquas were rural America's chief source of cultural entertainment and learning.  

President Theodore Roosevelt was once quoted as saying that a Chautauqua was "the most American thing in America". 

As radio reached more and more American homes, it supplanted the Chautauqua as the citizenry's main source of information and entertainment, though several Chautauquas still exist, including the Mother Chautauqua.

Imitators often were called "Traveling Medicine Shows," and featured snake-oil salesmen, dancing girls, gambling, and other illicit pleasures.

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