The Chautauqua Experience

A summer camp for adults is how I described where I was going to anyone who asked, because I wasn’t sure if I said to Chautauqua, there’d be instant recognition.  How do you explain to someone who has never been to Chautauqua what it exactly is?  The word itself originated with the Iroquois Indians who named their lake in upstate New York, close to the Pennsylvania border, Lake Chautauqua. The Europeans who took the land, added the word to their vocabulary. The lake, narrow in the middle and ballooning out on each side, resembles one of the two literal translations— “two bags tied together” or “a pair of moccasins tied together.”

If you look up chautauqua in the Merriam -Webster dictionary, you’ll see it defined 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.”

The site of the original “summer camp” is officially The Chautauqua Institute, but there is also a town Chautauqua, New York located seventeen miles northwest of Jamestown. The Chautauqua Institute is a 501 nonprofit education center and summer resort for adults and youth located on 2,070 acres. Over the nine-week season, over 100,000 people visit the Chautauqua Institute. Each week focuses on a specific topic, and every day there are lectures, classes and concerts. The week I attended with my husband Peter, the general theme was “The Vote and Democracy” and the interfaith lecture series theme was, “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.” The novel to read and discuss was Outlawed by Anna North. North gave a reading and discussed some of the book’s themes towards the end of the week, sponsored by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle( CLSC). Anyone can become a member of CLSC by purchasing a membership. Interested in starting a book group in your community to discuss the season’s selections then click here.

One side of the week’s schedule!

The lectures are just one component of the experience. On the grounds are schools of music, dance, theater, and art plus the Chautauqua symphony orchestra, Chautauqua theater company and Chautauqua opera company and Chautauqua Writer’s Center.  Recreational pursuits can include swimming, sailing, lawn ball or tennis. It all depends on how you’d like to spend your time, but spirituality and connection to others is at the heart of all Chautauqua communities—as there are others. While the Chautauqua Institute was the first and the largest, the Chautauqua movement swept across the United States during the final decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century. At one time there were two hundred Chautauqua’s, settlements of permanent buildings that hosted a seasonal offering of activities. While most closed during the depression due to economic hardship and a shift in entertainment interests to radio and movies, a handful survived.  The Chautauqua Trail is a nonprofit organization that keeps track of the Chautauqua’s in North America, currently numbering approximately twenty.

Although not affiliated with a specific religious denomination, the first Chautauqua begun in 1874, has religious roots. Specifically started to provide education for Sunday School teachers on the site of a former Methodist Camp, founders John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller quickly expanded their concept.  Initially the protestant faith was associated with Chautauqua, but today, nearly every faith group. has a chapel or building on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institute. Spiritual practices of World Religions, Torah study, and Islam 101 were just some of the items on the schedule the week of my visit.   

 While the Chautauqua camp was seasonal, the thirst for knowledge was so great, the Chautauqua Institution expanded their adult education beyond religion into science, history and literature. A correspondence course  known as the  Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle gave working and middle-class people the opportunity to take college level classes. This was the inception of the idea of adult education and continuing education. Known as The Chautauqua movement, it was immensely popular. The Circuit Chautauqua brought speakers and performers to thousands of small communities where they could hear scientific lectures or attend a chamber music performance, perhaps followed by a chance to ask questions and discuss what they’d witnessed or learned.

Times and circumstances change and The Circuit Chautauqua fell out of fashion. The hard times of The Great Depression followed by World War II put people’s focus on basic survival. Post World War II provided opportunities for more people to attend college, including women, and the interest in “adult education” waned. But now with more people living longer, an adult learning renaissance is taking place. People of all ages can enjoy what a Chautauqua has to offer, but for those with a little more leisure, the offerings are substantial.

            Thank you for reading.  Follow me on Twitter at SN Maril and read one of my recently published flash pieces, “Cilantro”.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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