The term Chautauqua originated from the Methodist camp meetings held on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in western New York. Begun in 1874 as a training ground for Sunday school teachers, the idea evolved into a national movement that included the development of a correspondence course known as the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) in 1878 and the formation of permanent and circuit Chautauquas. During Oklahoma's Territorial Era, settlers organized CLSC as a form of self-improvement and education in Guthrie (1890), Clarkson (1895), Enid (1899), and other early towns.
However, the term Chautauqua is probably best remembered for the circuit Chautauquas that followed the railroad lines and performed in the small farm communities. Rural families enjoyed the performers who brought excitement to their otherwise routine life. Traveling or tent Chautauquas started in the Midwest around 1903 and were prevalent in Oklahoma by 1910 to 1912.
Under brown tents Oklahomans listened to religious leaders and politicians, including William Jennings Bryan. Oklahomans William H. Murray and Thomas P. Gore also hit the circuit trail. Families gathered to be entertained by musical groups, theatrical productions, magicians, and unusual acts such as the Australian Bird Circus. The moralistic "Mother, Home, and Heaven" lectures were a favorite topic until orators turned to social issues such as prohibition, women's rights, labor problems, and settlement work. In 1918 lectures focused on World War I, and the Oklahoma Council of Defense "Four Minute Men" and Red Cross speakers dominated.
Chautauquas reached their zenith in 1924 as thirty-five million people celebrated its Golden Jubilee. However, this form of entertainment met its demise with the advent of radio, motion pictures, and automobiles. The last tent Chautauqua show occurred around the Great Depression. At the turn of the twenty-first century Chautauquas, sponsored by local arts and humanities councils and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, again gained popularity as scholars presented workshops and portrayed historical notables.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Chautauquas," Vertical File, Historic Oklahoma, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. "Chautauqua," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. Benjamin W. Griffith, "Chautauqua," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Regan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989). Theodore Morrison, Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).
Linda D. Wilson
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