#52 Chautauqua Then & Now: “The Most American Thing in America,” July 5-7

Greetings Friends, and welcome to Wildfulness. This episode is all about the Mountain Chautauqua (pronounced “Shuh-TAW-Kwa”) movement here in Garrett County, and the 3-day re-enactment festival coming up July 5-7 in our very own Mountain Lake Park. It’s a celebration of this unique movement in our Nation’s and in Garrett county’s history, where you can experience live music, live dramatic re-enactments, food, speakers, and fun for all ages.


In the early 1900s, before radio and swimming pools, the arrival of the Chautauqua circuit in small-town America was as much a part of the summer experience as snow cones and roller coasters are today.

You will also hear personal stories and connections from a local perspective that will provide some additional context to the experience. Here’s a clip from one of the famous orators of the Chautauqua era, who brought passion and an elevation of the human spirit to the Chautauqua gatherings of the 1800s.

That was William Jennings Bryan, one of the great orators of the day, with his famous “cross of gold” speech, presented at the Democratic Convention in 1896 and said by some to be most famous American political speech ever given.


William Jennings Bryan speaking in 1908

Bryan was a frequent speaker at Chautauqua events around the country and a great draw, with his impassioned and dramatic speaking style often “mesmerizing the masses.”  We’ll hear in just a little bit, about other famous historic figures, some of which will be represented as re-enactors at the Mountain Chautauqua event here in July.

In my own mind, I think of this event as the third leg of the three-legged stool of festivals we are so fortunate to have here in Garrett County: Autumn Glory in October, The Celtic Festival in May, and now this Chautauqua event in July. The celebration is part of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the “modern day” Maryland Chautauqua program, a living history humanities program, which takes place in various counties throughout the state, and in Garrett County, comes to us under the auspices of the Garrett Lakes Arts Festival, with help from a variety of state and local grant funding. (More on that in just a bit.) Also, please be aware that The Chautauqua Festival and Program is open to the public and free of charge.  (There will be a charge for the historical home tour by Our Town Theatre.) Persons with special needs should contact the GLAF Office at 301-387-3082.  All information about the event is available at the GLAF website: artsandentertainment.org 

Click below for complete audio file:



As we explore Chautauqua and all it has meant to our nation over the years, I want to warn you that I will be sprinkling throughout this podcast episode some audio clips, like the one you just heard, that represent the many different varieties of music that were so important back in the day, drawing people in to the Chautauqua experience, with everything from camp revival music and gospel music (by the way that was Woodie Guthrie singing Old Time Religion written in 1870), to Stephen Foster’s parlors songs, to big band John Sousa-style concert pieces, and finally to opera.  So just be prepared for those interludes, and of course I will shed a little light on each of those as we come upon them.

So, who was it that said that quote about Chautauqua being “the most American thing in America?”  None other than Theodore Roosevelt. And, the famous orator William Jennings Bryan, who you heard a little earlier, proclaimed Chautauqua to be a “potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation.” How lucky we all are, to be able to participate in a revival of this experience, right here in Garrett County, which I have to think, can be really transformational.

MLP Boathouse PM 8-11-1908

“Chautauqua is at once a community, a learning center, a retreat, a vacation destination, and an American Utopia.  All of that comes together to create the magic of Chautauqua.”   Forbes magazine

The Chautauqua gatherings began around the 1870’s with what we would now call an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They started in New York, and then the assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with a vast and eclectic array of speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen, preachers, and specialists of the day. It was rooted in the camp revival meetings and gospel traditions, but also took on some popular characteristics as well, like acts that competed with what was going on with vaudeville. Now, here’s  Mary Helen Spear and Lori Youse, two of the movers and shakers of this event, to tell us a bit more about it and give us some context.


Copy of original Programme for Mountain Chautauqua


Programme shows great variety of speakers, etc.

Chautauqua was successful because it spoke to basic social needs of the day. We are a storytelling species. We need to congregate, to assemble, to share, to be part of something larger than ourselves. Given the values, technology and geography of its time, coming out of the Civil War and specifically the period of Reconstruction, Chautauqua was perfectly designed as an instrument of hope and progress through education for the people of America. That is what made Chautauqua the most American thing in America to Teddy Roosevelt, and what invites our interest in its origins, and how its Renaissance and revival is unfolding today.

And now, here’s our first musical interlude, and this one I’m pretty sure you will recognize. [Audio plays]

If you guessed Stars and Stripes Forever, you were right. During his prime, Sousa was one of the best-known musicians in the world, and his music was featured prominently at Chautauqua events. Many consider him to be the first American superstar. He and his band had fans in every America town, as well as overseas. When the Sousa Band started touring, people didn’t have radios or televisions. Some members of their audience had seen smaller bands or played music at home with their families, but a Sousa Band performance was their first exposure to classical music and professional musicians. It was also their chance to see a famous composer.


Sousa’s marches, from his dance hit The Washington Post to his patriotic march The Stars and Stripes Forever, were wildly popular. And people loved hearing them played by the actual composer and his band. Many towns declared it “Sousa Day” when the band came to town.

The Sousa Band was an ideal band for their time. As a newspaper reviewer wrote, “A concert by Sousa’s Band is more than a mere concert, it is a dramatic performance, a stirring lesson in patriotism, and a popular musical event, all on the same program.” In our own Chautauqua event in July, we will be hearing from some very skilled professional musicians, thanks to Dr. Sean Beachy, who has recruited some of his musician colleagues from WVU, including Dr. Neal Corwell , who will be playing the music of that time period, on multiple instruments, including but not limited to, the Euphonium…. And if you’re not sure just what a Euphonium is, it’s a doubled-belled brass instrument immortalized forever in that catchy song from the musical, The Music Man” called 76 Trombones. [Audio plays]

Well, if that doesn’t get your patriotic juices flowing, I don’t know what will! Kind of makes you want to march around the room with a phantom baton in your hand beating time to the music, doesn’t it!? Again, you will hear some representative examples of this kind of military marching music with its blustery brass from Dr. Neil Corwell, and also a brass quintet, at the Chautauqua event this July.

Chautauqua was a social and cultural phenomenon that permeated rural North America until the mid-1920s. At its height, the Chautauqua Movement attracted millions, although today only a handful of Chautauqua communities survive.

But the Good News is Chautauqua is experiencing a renaissance. People are discovering, or rather re-discovering, that lifelong learning is one of the keys to living a happy, fulfilling life. Current research substantiates that. Our lives are so full of technology.

MLP The Lake - Copy

In Maryland, the original Chautauqua tradition dates back to the late 19th Century when Chautauquas took place at Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County and at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County. The modern Chautauqua was launched in 1995 at Garrett College, and since then, this popular program has expanded to other parts of the state, educating and entertaining thousands of Marylanders every summer.

And opportunities for authentic community experiences have dwindled. The demand for these types of authentic cultural experiences is growing quickly. Existing Chautauqua communities are thriving and ones from the past are being resurrected. Which brings us, in just a moment, to our Mountain Chautauqua here in Mountain Lake Park.

But first, another interlude…. can you guess, this tune?

The composer is Guiseppe Verdi, and the opera is Il Trovatore. This particular section depicts Spanish Gypsies striking their anvils at dawn and singing the praises of hard work, good wine, and Gypsy women. It was a favorite at many Chautauqua events, where people could hear such large, epic orchestral and vocal works as they had never heard before, unless they had been to Europe, and these Romantic, large-scale musical pieces began to parallel the movement toward Romanticism in literature, with the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and his ilk becoming popular.


The “Anvil Chorus” scene, from Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore. A crowd favorite at many Chautauqua events.

Fortunately for you, when you come to the Mountain Chautauqua this July, you will hear some live opera, again, courtesy of Dr. Sean Beachy and his colleagues, but I’m not going to be the spoiler and tell you the details, suffice to say, you will be seriously missing out if you don’t come and experience it for yourself.

Maryland and Mountain Chautauqua

Now as you’ve heard, the Chautauqua movement didn’t begin in Maryland, it was birthed in Western New York, by Lake Chautauqua. For you linguists, you may be interested to hear that “Chautauqua” is an Iroquois word with a few meanings— “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and it describes the shape of Chautauqua Lake, located in southwest New York. This area was the setting for the first educational assembly (Chautauqua Institution) and so provided the name for the movement. The original Chautauqua in New York is often referred to as “Mother” Chautauqua. Here’s Al Feldstein, local historian, to talk about Mountain Chautauqua’s humble beginnings.

In Garrett County, the movement settled in as Mountain Chautauqua, established in 1882 by four Methodist ministers, who purchased 800 acres in what is now Mountain Lake Park. You can imagine what followed: hotels, cottages, boarding houses, a large Ampitheater, restaurants, churches, and a small man-made lake, of course. Eventually, tennis courts, ball fields, and a bowling alley were added. And we have pictures in the shownotes of these buildings, some of which are still standing today. Interestingly, this lake, when frozen during the winter, became the source of ice for the upscale dining cars on the B&O railroad and for local residents as well. (Also, don’t miss the online video that features recorded stories from the Mountain Chautauqua experience, it’s really good.)

The Amphitheater

Of particular note was the large amphitheater that housed the large crowds gathered to hear all the music, speakers, etc. Here’s Al Feldstein again to tell us a little about that interesting building and who spoke there. You’ll recognize some of these folks, I’m quite sure.

MLP Auditorium 1907 C. E. Gerkins Cumb - Copy


What kind of classes and sessions could someone expect? The summer programs were designed to offer classes for all ages, and included classes in liberal arts, fine arts, and natural sciences, incorporating often well-known speakers, artists, musicians, plays, and camp meetings for more religious content. True to its founding, these Mountain Chautauquas blended religious revivalism with cultural and educational activities. In fact, the founding ministers and administrators insisted that this Chautauqua maintain extremely high moral standards. You heard earlier that the charter included specific restrictions against drinking, gambling, dancing and card-playing, and these were actually written into the deeds for the properties, some of which are still in existence today in the hands of local Mountain Lake Park residents.

All right, so what specifically is on tap for this upcoming Chautauqua event? Well, in terms of famous folks, we will hearing up close and personal, from the woman suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, yes, indeed, she will be in the house, speaking and answering questions, as will Billy Sunday, John W. Garrett, Matthew Henson, and believe it or not, Jacques Cousteau and William Howard Taft!


And true to its multi-generational roots, the Garrett County Robotics (GaCo) team will help the audience travel back in time to 1883 with presentations about Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. (For those unfamiliar with who Matthew Henson was, and I’m guilty of that, Mr. Google says he was an American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic over a period of nearly 23 years.) And since we’ve been talking a lot about music and its importance, here’s part of my interview with Dr. Sean Beachy, Adjunct Professor at Garrett College, talking about all the professional musical performances that we will be graced with at this event, it’s very exciting. In addition to Dr. Neal Corwell on multiple instruments, featured ensemble, “Aurora Celtic” will be playing regularly throughout the event, and Greg Latta, also playing multiple instruments, will be playing as well. Finally, the local duo of Betty Mattingly and Tom Mattingly,  will perform on hammered dulcimer and banjo, in front of the Mountain Lake Park Ticket Office, from 1:00- to 3:00 pm on Saturday and 1:00- 2:00 pm on Sunday. Here’s Dr. Beachy.

Finally, if you’ve never experienced a live dramatic re-enactment, let me just say, that this first person historical narrative technique is a way of telling stories from a person’s life as they might tell them themselves, if they were still alive. It is a special style of storytelling. it combines the arts of storytelling, acting, improvisation, characterization, imagination, creative writing, biography, historical research, directing and then stepping immersively into the role of the historical figure.  It is a wonderful form of re-“membering” our his-story (and her-story), and we have a Youtube video of one that was done at one of the previous Maryland humanities Chautauqua events, that brought the famous Frederick Douglass, to life. It’s in the show notes at http://www.wildful.wordpress.com .

Example of dramatic re-enactment: Frederick Douglass:

Oops, it’s quiz time again…. Can you guess what this tune and its composer are?

If you guessed Stephen Foster, known as “the father of American music”, with “My Old Kentucky Home,” you guessed right. Foster was an American songwriter known primarily for his parlor and minstrel music. He wrote more than 200 songs, including “Oh! Susanna”, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,”  and “Beautiful Dreamer”, and many of his compositions remain popular today. ChatMy_Old_Kentucky_Home_10th_edHe has been identified as “the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century” and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries. Needless to say, Foster’s music was a big draw for Chautauqua events, as this so called parlor music was very, very popular.

And now, we are going to take a short pause for a word from our partners, sponsors, and grant organizations  –  we’ll be back in just a minute.


This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maryland Historical Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning, and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, or the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

 This Project has been financed in part with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, Project contents or opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

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This podcast is also brought to you in part by Deep Creek Times (www.deepcreektimes.com).  It’s the next best thing to being here.

 So, what happened to the Chautauqua movement? Why did it fade away?

Well, the movement pretty much died out by the late 1920s, early 1930s.  Most historians cite the rise of the car culture, radio, and movies as the causes.  There were several other important, yet subtle, reasons for the decline.  One was the sharp increase in fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity in the 1920s; the bland non-denominationalism exhibited at most Chautauquas couldn’t accommodate these impulses.  Many small independent Chautauquas became essentially camp meetings or church camps.  Another–seemingly contradictory influence–was the rise of the liberated, educated woman.


Chautauquas satisfied an unspoken learning need for rural women. The majority of participants were women at a time when strict social roles affected women’s educational opportunities. As educational opportunities for women became available elsewhere, Chautauqua learning offerings became less popular.

Chautauquas functioned for many lower- and middle-class women much as the elite women’s colleges did for upper-class women.  They were training grounds from which women could launch “real” careers.  When professional and educational opportunities increased, interest in Chautauquas dwindled. Finally, the Depression itself made Chautauquas economically impossible for organizers and audiences.

Equally interesting for us today is, what is behind the recent revival in Chautauqua events and re-enactments?

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Chautauqua Institution had become nationally known as a center for rather earnest, but high-minded, activities that aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement. Today’s interest, I think is at least partially fueled by a reaction to the intense technology and social media influences we see and experience today.


Connection via social media can still leave us feeling lonely and/or disconnected

Despite our “connectedness” via social media, we apparently, at least according to recent research, feel isolated to a pretty large degree, and have very few opportunities to connect in a non-tech driven environment. In addition, we have largely lost our ability to have forthright and productive discussions around controversial issues, without lapsing into largely uncivil and often downright damaging exchanges that we would never initiate or participate in face to face.  Chautauqua gatherings provide a forum for the civil and productive exchanges of ideas and opinions, and help inoculate us against the damaging effects of too much email, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter post, etc. In addition, generational divisions and disconnects are making it more difficult for us to talk with one another – or even to have the motivation to listen or engage in a conversation with someone whose views may be different from our own.

chatcommunityARTThe drivers of Chautauqua in the 19th century are different than the ones driving its renaissance today, but those drivers today are no less compelling.  Chautauqua was how collective thinking and consensus was fostered and advanced, long before we had ideation and crowd-sourcing online platforms. Also, this is where the arts come in: Can the arts draw people in, help foster that elusive sense of community, bridge generations – and can these kinds of experiences lead the way to deeper civic and civil engagement?

I believe that they very much can. It was John F. Kennedy in fact, who said this, of the arts:

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.”  by John F. Kennedy, Jr.

So in closing, I urge you to come experience Chautauqua this summer, and feel first-hand the power of the arts, the revival of the humanities as an antidote to our tech-heavy world, an eclectic array of live music that will lift your spirits and refresh your soul, and of course, take part in civil discourse that celebrates the advancement of new of ideas, and the elevation of the human spirit.

For Wildfulness, this is Lisa Cole, and until we meet again,

Stay Wild, My Friends.            img_1777


Wildfulness would like to thank Lori Youse, Mary Helen Spear, Mary Callis, Al Feldstein, Sean Beachy, and all of the folks who made this podcast episode possible. Special thanks to our partner, Deep Creek Times, the next best thing to being here. Also thanks to Garrett Lakes Arts Festival, The Garrett Arts Council, and all of the grant and funding organizations, see below, who contributed to the funding of this Chautauqua event.

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Links and Resources:

History of Chautauqua





One thought on “#52 Chautauqua Then & Now: “The Most American Thing in America,” July 5-7

  1. Pingback: Looking to put some Fireworks into your Relationship this July?

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