Howell County's Chautauqua Experience

In my previous article, I discussed summertime activities in our county in the days before electronic media. The Chautauqua Movement was a big part of those activities, but the subject needed its own consideration.
The noun Chautauqua isn't commonly used today and needs a little explaining. Named for a lake in southwestern New York, the site of a literacy institution formed by a Methodist minister in the early 1870s, by the turn of the century, Chautauqua had reached the Ozarks and peaked around 1915. It was a performance event. At that time, there were over twelve thousand Chautauqua companies in the United States. A few Howell County citizens were performers. The railroad allowed a group to jump from town to town and put on a show.
Webster defines Chautauqua as: "any of various traveling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays, and that were modeled after activities at the Chautauqua Institution of western New York."
In my hillbilly vernacular, I pronounce the word as "Sha-tak-wah." In Iroquois, it has more than one meaning, but I prefer "two moccasins tied together," describing the shape of Chautauqua Lake.
Performances held here (mostly in larger towns) drew large crowds and were the cultural and intellectual highlight of the year. Most were outdoor events held in the summer. I find the first references to Chautauqua in Howell County in 1899, and in small groups called first called "circles."
The West Plains Gazette mentioned on May 11, 1899, that "A number of the Chautauqua ladies are attending the exercises in Siloam (Springs) today." On the next page, "Siloam Springs truly enjoyed the honor and pleasure of the company of the West Plains and Willow Springs circles at this place on Monday evening, fully appreciating the literary feast brought to them by their talented guests." This seems a much nicer cultural exchange than the fist-throwing, name-calling boys in their community baseball rivalries. In October of the same year, Gazette editor J.C. Kirby wrote, "Through our columns, the Chautauqua Circle wish to express their high appreciation to Reverend McElroy for his kindness in granting his services for a lecture under their auspices and for the benefit of the library. That it was a complete success is attested by the favorable expression of those who attended as well as by the door receipts." A good speaker capable of being heard in the days before sound systems was in great demand.
By 1900 the "circles" were often called assemblies as the crowds grew. One article mentioned a circle meeting in the home of merchant T.J. Langston with about sixty in attendance. The program included a short talk on the original Chautauqua organization, followed by a recitation and instrumental and vocal musical selections. Soon a residence would not accommodate the crowds, and the entertainment was more often supplied by traveling professional Chautauqua groups.
On the 4th of July,1900, Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, held "West Plains Day" at the spring, with excursion trains running from Springfield and Memphis for the event. Ex-Governor of Tennessee, Bob Taylor was the featured speaker in his lecture entitled, "The Old Plantation," a talk where he "pictured the life of his master and his darkies," with three singers bursting into old plantation melodies any time the word plantation was mentioned. Jim Crow likely kept anyone of African descent out of the celebration. A musical contest was held with a seventy-five-dollar prize, which West Plains won. The event was held in "Chautauqua Park," consisting of several acres at the spring. The West Plains musicians won and split the prizes, and everyone left with a closer bond between the two towns, with thousands in attendance. Despite the crowd, the organizer lost money.
Alexa Whitmire, daughter of West Plains' merchant T.J. Whitmire traveled with the Redpath-Vawter Chautauqua circuit in 1918. She was a twenty-three-year-old violin virtuoso and traveled all over the United States, including shows at West Plains. Alexa performed until 1921, and in 1981 was interviewed by the Arizona Republic newspaper about her life on the road. She told them that an organization like the one she worked for would come to a small town for a week. A crew would arrive before the event and set up a large tent and the seating, with the performers coming a day or two later. She told the reporter that the group kept their distance from the local residents they were performing for to avoid scandal. She was fired once for dating her husband to be. The pay was around thirty to fifty dollars per week, which she sent most of home. Traveling the country, she often met people from West Plains. She was married in 1922 to Harry Marquis, also of West Plains, and they lived the rest of their lives in Arizona.
In July 1915, West Plains hosted the "White & Myers System" for a six-day showing. The West Plains Journal announced, "West Plains has again demonstrated that this city has passed from the class where street carnivals, cheap shows, and slapstick comedy satisfies and taken its place on a higher plane where nothing but the best in the amusement and entertainment line is good enough...When a country town with less than 4,000 people, after a period of business depression, can successfully pull off a stunt of this kind and then immediately get twice the number of signers for a bigger and better one for the next year, that same town has certainly 'arrived.'"
Indeed the 1916 event was as big as the previous year's, held that year on July 25 to 30, with the "Ojibway Indian Players" enacting Longfellow's "Hiawatha." Fourteen of the group, assumedly Native Americans, gave a program in the morning and afternoon, "depicting Indian life and customs, assisted by Captain Dick Crane, frontiersman, and lecturer. At night the Indians performed the Hiawatha play following very closely the events as narrated in the poem." In its advertisements for the six-day event at West Plains, the promoters told readers, "This is your Chautauqua. Get that fact settled now. It is not conducted in the interests of any faction or class-high, low, rich, or poor. This is a real Chautauqua. It is not a camp meeting, a teacher's institute, or a vaudeville show. But it combines the best elements of modern thought and up-to-the-minute entertainment, both musical or literary. Every person in this community, whether he likes deep thought or simply entertainment for the moment, will find it here."
The event had something for everyone - including an exciting "soil and science lecture" on the sixth day. Something I'm sure everyone hung around for.
The West Plains Chautauqua attendance dwindled in 1920, following a relatively poor showing in the entertainment the year previous. Other communities, including Summersville and Mountain View, held small Chautauqua events more like the original vision for the group with religious overtones. For example, the Methodist Church of West Plains hosted a three-day event that sounded more like a revival.
Several factors, the First World War and the influenza pandemic that followed, led to the demise of the Chautauqua, though there are groups in the United States still functioning today. Radio and motion pictures filled the void, and the automobile were all factors in the decline in interest.


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