A grand experiment 125 years ago
My excitement builds daily as our July Chautauqua Assembly approaches. Last year, our first, brought seventeen days of new, glorious ideas from learned speakers, both men and women. Our newspaper called it a “great enterprise.” Their words spun in my head for weeks as I thought of moral duty, music, and worldly events. Should I realize my dream of soon becoming a teacher, Chautauqua will help me share exciting knowledge. There were so many people! Some came by train all the way from San Antonio and Houston, and it gave me shivers to meet other young people. We talked, shared refreshment, watched sunsets from above the river as evening breezes cooled. Other girls and I even waded in the springs below, careful to keep our skirts at modest heights.
As I am sixteen this year, Mrs. Chreitzberg accepted me for Chautauqua Choral Class. Cousins will come from Taylor. Mama, almost as excited as I, said she and her friends will take turns chaperoning, but there are still chores at home. Last year, Papa attended several lectures, even leaving his store early twice. He’s already claimed a tent site (free!) for us, and Mama is busy planning food. I look forward to wearing my simplest, coolest clothes with a good straw hat.
I’ve heard plans for a Georgetown Chautauqua Band, a suspension footbridge across the river, and other amenities . . . goodness gracious!
John Vincent and Lewis Miller launched an idea at Lake Chautauqua in New York in 1874 to train Sunday school teachers of all denominations. The movement raced westward, expanding to include lectures, entertainment, correspondence courses, and four-year plans for home readings—virtually a college substitute for working people. Chautauqua was educational rather than revivalist, religious without sectarianism.
By 1888, Texas Chautauqua needed permanent facilities, and a local committee initiated meetings and negotiations. Two members of the Chautauqua Managers Board visited Georgetown, escorted by 18 citizens. The Sun reported, “The visitors were highly pleased with the varied, grand, and picturesque scenery . . . and an orderly, intelligent, and hospitable community. . . .” Georgetown sealed the deal by donating 200 acres and substantial cash and building Chautauqua Temple west of town above the South San Gabriel by July 1889. Later additions included a stone cross and fountain, plus a handful of “summer homes” built by leading citizens.
Despite the town’s support, Georgetown Chautauqua had waned by the mid-1890s. Today, nothing remains of the site that lies between I-35 and the river near Burger King.
The Chautauqua Movement peaked nationally around 1915, but 17 communities currently remain, from Maine to Colorado. In Texas, Waxahachie Chautauqua Preservation Society maintains an octagonal, open-air auditorium built in 1902, hosting an annual meet on the last Saturday in September.