Tuesday, August 17, 2021


Chautauqua Meetings and My Hometown

Chautauqua Institute

I continue my musings today about historical things of interest in my home. Back in the last century, my husband worked as a handyman. (My that makes us sound so old.) He found some unusual booklets when he and his partner were rehabbing a nun’s convent that had once been a private home years earlier. They were programs for Chautauqua meetings that took place in Aurora in the early 1900s. This was the first I’d ever heard of a Chautauqua meeting. Chautauqua is Iroquois for tied in the middle. A description of the lake in northwestern New York where the Chautauqua meetings were first held.
Bermis Point, Lake Chautauqua

A Brief History

They held the first Chautauqua meeting on Lake Chautauqua at a Methodist campground during their off-season. It was established by John Heyl Vincent, and Lewis Miller in 1874. They hoped to bring more professionalizing to teaching Sunday School. Their focus was education, not revivalist.

After a few years, the Chautauqua meetings expanded to include adult education of all kinds, as well as correspondent courses. They formed the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle to bring a “college outlook” to the middle-class and less educated. Their educational opportunities over time included art and public affairs.

By the end of the 19th century, The Chautauqua Institute was nationally known as a place to cultivate intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement.

Its members and graduates spread the word about Chautauqua, and they expanded into tent-meetings in parks and other venues. in over 12,000 towns by the early 1900s. At the height of the movement, it attracted millions to hear preachers, educators, explorers, travelers, scientists, politicians, and statesmen. Singers, violinists, bands, orchestras and even vaudeville acts were on the agenda as well.

Original Aurora Train Depot

The Aurora, Illinois connection

Now back to the booklets and the activity in my city. Aurora is the last stop on the metro line from Chicago. The line during the early 1900s went across the Fox River past the downtown toward the west. 

Riverview Park circa late 1800s

The original line stopped at Riverview Park on the west side of the Fox River. (It was long ago torn down for a housing development). Riverview Park sported a dance hall, rollercoaster, ice cream shop, boat rides and many other activities that made it a perfect venue for a Chautauqua meeting. People from all over the area would ride the train from as far away as Chicago to the Chautauqua Meetings. A week-long event that ran all day through the evening. Speakers of note were Booker T. Washington and William Jennings Bryan with a variety of entertainment from Shakespeare, concerts and lectures on science, history and public policy.

Riverview Park Depot

The Chautauqua Institute provided the speakers. At a time, when the need for education was growing, these were great venues to inspire the mind. These miniature versions of The Chautauqua Instituted spear-headed the desire for the masses to receive higher education. 

Riverview Park in its heyday.

Chautauqua Meetings disappeared in the 1930s due in part to the invention of cars, radio and the movies. The Great Depression offered the final blow. Towns could no longer afford to finance them.

It surprised me to learn that The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle have locations across the US and Canada even today. And a traveling Chautauqua tours the mid-Atlantic states in the summer with the same variety of entertainment and lectures as it has since its inception.

The idea reminds me of the many conferences for various professions that take place every year. The mission of the Chautauqua Institute to bring higher education to the masses has expanded beyond its original vision.

Have you heard of Chautauqua Meetings?


Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her at www.cindyervinhuff.com




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  1. I never have heard of these meetings. Thanks for the informative post. It sounds like it would be fun to attend one even now. From your description, it sounds like they moved away from any Christian education?

  2. The neighboring larger town near us has a Chautauqua festival that has been going on for quite a few years. I've only Bern two or three times over the years, but they always have fascinating historical characters performing.