What is Chautauqua? A short story.

Placeholder when loading item promotions

After writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed to death on stage at the Chautauqua Institution on Thursday, the idyllic New York community of Chautauqua is known for its annual summer educational and cultural programs and tranquil lake frame, has been thrust into the international limelight. For those on the ground, Friday’s events pierced the image of a utopian summer retreat – typically marked by thought-provoking panel discussions and swims leisurely. Sam Peters, 19, who has attended Chautauqua Institution events since he was a child with his grandfather, said the mood after the attack was one of incredulousness, with many Chautauqua regulars asking, “How did this happen?”

But what exactly is “here”?

For some, the lowercase c “chautauqua” is a common noun used as an abbreviation for an educational event consisting of lectures, performances, and/or concerts, and not tied to any particular geographical environment. As it turns out, Chautauqua — the city and institution that gave birth to the word — has a rich history that led to a social movement that defined America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The western New York site, about 1½ hours from Buffalo, has been visited by several prominent figures in US history, including four sitting Presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), Susan B .Anthony, Sandra Day O’Connor and Mark Twain. President Theodore Roosevelt attended several times, calling it “the most American thing in America.” Socialist labor leader Frank Bohn once said, “If you don’t know Chautauqua, you don’t know America.”

The name Chautauqua is said to come from a word in the language of the indigenous Erie peoples that means a bag tied in the middle or two moccasins tied together — a reference to the odd shape of the lake that bears the name: two elongated bodies of water, just barely tied together. The town of Chautauqua was founded just west of the lake in 1805.

In 1874, two Methodists, philanthropist Lewis Miller and Rev. John Heyl Vincent, founded the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, an academic resort and educational experiment to train Sunday school teachers and church workers. Gradually, the congregation outgrew its religious origins and eventually grew into the Chautauqua institution we know today.

A few years after the founding of the original congregation, it expanded into other areas of general education. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was founded in 1878 with the mission of providing a “college prospect” to those who could not afford higher education.

One of the first experiments in distance learning, the four-year CLSC course was taught at home via mail correspondence and guided reading. It should help people to use their free time in a more rewarding way (rather than playing or drinking, for example). Students in outlying areas—often women and farm workers—formed reading circles to stay motivated and share the cost of books, spreading Chautauqua’s influence beyond western New York. At the end of their studies, they were invited to Chautauqua to receive certificates of completion.

The success of the CLSC gave rise to the so-called Chautauqua movement, which spawned “daughter Chautauquas” in remote areas of the United States from the 1870s through the 1930s. Eventually, the word chautauqua became a generic term to be described a series of educational events in rural areas. Around the turn of the century, traveling chautauquas, also known as circuit chautauquas or tent chautauquas, began to appear, with speakers and performers hired by talent agencies. According to some historians, the movement peaked around 1915 when 12,000 congregations held a chautauqua.

The movement faded in the 1920s. Historians cite a number of causes: a rise in car culture; the increasing dominance of evangelical Christianity, which was at odds with the freethinking nature of the Chautauquas; and improved educational opportunities for women. The depression also made funding more difficult.

Nearly a century later, several active Chautauquas remain in operation outside of western New York in places such as Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania and Ridgway, Colorado. And the original Chautauqua institution continues to thrive, attracting more than 142,000 visitors each summer over a nine-week season. Guided by four pillars – arts, education, religion and recreation – the organization has its own theater company, symphony, opera, ballet and fine arts center as well as courses, interfaith lectures, a rotating chaplain and outdoor recreation.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the institution the embodiment of the “pursuit of happiness.” “Happiness with a capital ‘H’ means lifelong learning and the improvement of the brain, heart, body and spirit throughout life,” he told the Chautauquan Daily. “And there is no place on earth that embodies that rigor and that joy more than the Chautauqua Institution.”

Mary Khosh, who has been going to Chautauqua for 50 years, said the institution has handled difficult talks with grace in the past, making Friday’s attacks all the more shocking.

“It’s not a place where nobody shy away from discussing something controversial. It’s a place where you do discuss difficult issues,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Chautauqua is that it is inclusive, welcoming and warm. And I hope people don’t get so scared that they’re going to change all that.”

Comments are closed.