Buffalo County Historical Society July/August
by Edna Luce
The name "Chautauqua" comes from an assembly led by a Methodist
in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua, New York. Its purpose was to give the
who came to the lake for a vacation something to hear and do. The
programs consisted mostly of lectures, music and sermons.
During Kearney's "boom" period a plan was proposed to make the city
headquarters for a Chautauqua Assembly patterned after the New York
In the July 30, 1887 issue of Kearney New Era was the
With the new lake made from the Kearney Canal, it
was proposed to the Board
of Trade by the Rev. Dr. Archibald of Cincinnati, Ohio, that a
Association be formed in Kearney; Dr. Archibald will buy 320 acres of
and proposes that a stock company be formed with a capital of $50,000.
Proceeds would go to improving the grounds, making the lake, building a
pavilion and erecting such other buildings as would be necessary to
on a Chautauqua Assembly.
It would give Kearney a reputation as a summer
resort. He described the
New York Chautauqua grounds and saw no reason why Kearney, being
near the center of the United States, should not build up an Assembly
would be attended from the east and west, the north and south.
Board of Trade heartily endorsed the Chautauqua movement.
Nothing further was mentioned in the Kearney press about this proposal.
However, around the turn of the century tent Chautauqua developed with
the same type of programs, and Chautauqua was brought to the people in
their own community. By 1904 tent Chautauqua had reached Iowa, and
years later, Nebraska.
Grounds at Third Ward City Park
Kearney was included on the first Chautauqua circuit in Nebraska in
of 1907, which opened at Blair and closed in McCook. Local planning had
started a year earlier. In the Kearney Daily Hub of
15, 1907, announcement of a meeting on January 16 to form a Chautauqua
Association was made, and the next day the Hub carried the news
that a Kearney Chautauqua Association was formed and incorporated.
of the committee to solicit stock were V. C. Chase, S.A.D. Henline, E
Switz, G. E. Haase, E. B. Finch and John A. Miller. It was planned to
80 acres adjoining Third Ward Park running back into the hills to make
one of the most attractive parks in Nebraska. Stock shares were priced
at $1.00 upward.
looking over various parts of the city the committee settled on a plot
of 30 acres immediately north of and adjoining Third Ward Park for a
and permanent Chautauqua Park" Plans were announced in the June 19
"Concession fees were announced; season ticket price is $1.75 if bought
in advance. Williams Dixie Jubilee Singers will open on Saturday
July 15. They will sing twice a day for three days. Have you secured
tent? Of course, you're going to camp there. Henline, the tent man,
know how many tents will be wanted by July 1"
the June 22 Hub it was stated that there were no complimentary
and tickets were not transferable. Advance sale of tickets for $1.75
last until mid-night, July 1, then would be $2.00. The July 10 edition
stated that the Chautauqua management would like for all businesses to
close at 5:30 p.m. during Chautauqua days, July 13-21, and there would
be Union Sunday School at Chautauqua on Sunday.
for one brief week during the stifling heat of Nebraska summer,
meant music, entertainment, lectures and laughter to the Kearney
The opening days met more than the highest expectations. A list was
of who was camping and where, and stated that "the tent occupants will
enjoy the week living the simple life mid the cool breezes and
shade of the park." There were a number of concession stands for lunch
and refreshments, and a large dining hall west of the big pavilion. "A
well-arranged fountain provides pure running water constantly. Benches
and settees are amply placed on the grounds," stated the Hub.
Porter of the Kearney State Teachers College faculty was platform
announcer and local liaison with the circuit. He had been on Chautauqua
circuits before coming to Kearney.
three decades, beginning at the turn of the century, the huge brown
dotted the plains, bringing glamour to the main streets of America. For
an all too brief time the activity of town revolved around Chautauqua.
Ministers announced its arrival and extolled its virtues from their
businessmen closed their stores in the afternoon and farmers drove in
the country in spite of the heavy demands of summer work in order to
all sessions. It was the only summer holiday that most had. With the
of school in the spring until the last part of August they could talk
nothing else. To put it briefly, Chautauqua was a show in a tent which
was both educational and entertaining, "Culture Under Canvas"
brown tent held a peculiar fascination. Inside, it smelled of dust,
grass and new lumber. The hard board seats were less than comfortable
the gentle flap of the canvas lulled people into a pleasant lethargy in
the stifling heat ... but in spite of the discomforts they were held
by the entertainment from the platform. Chautauqua was the best
bargain of all time. For a season ticket the holder could see fourteen
programs, seven in the afternoon, seven at night. The afternoon program
usually featured a 30-minute musical prelude by the Company that was
to give the entire evening performance. This was followed by a lecture
given by some outstanding personality of the day. Bands, orchestras,
musical companies, quartettes, readers and sometimes, to the delight of
the children, a magician made up the entire weeks program. Later with
success, plays and musicals were added but these sometimes posed an
problem because some towns objected to plays being given on Sunday.
who later became prominent in TV and radio got their start on a
Circuit - Clarence Nash (voice of Donald Duck), Lucille Ball, Edgar
(Charlie McCarthy), Curt Massey, Everett Kemp, and Columnnist Drew
talks were a favorite with children. These fast-working cartoonists
us our first glimpse of comic strips. It was fun to watch the artist
a few quick strokes with his chalk and then with a flourish, tear the
picture from his easel and hand it grandly to the person in the
he had singled out as his model. The artist was posted ahead of time
always chose a prominent citizen who had signed the Chautauqua
lectures were the backbone of the original Chautauqua movement.
men were brought to small towns to deliver their messages to the people
... Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas Brooks
Fletcher, Warren Harding, later President Harding, and always a great
booster, George Norris, outstanding Nebraska Legislator, Dr. Russell
(1917), who gave his famous lecture "Acres of Diamonds" thousands of
and the greatest orator of all time, Nebraska's own William Jennings
with his "Prince of Peace" lecture. Gladys Grantham Benthack said,
men had positive beliefs and were not afraid to state them. We have no
brilliant speakers today nor do we have statesmen ... that day is gone
we have in their place, politicians, who say what the people want to
Benthack, a native of Kearney but now living in Lexington, Nebraska,
the niece of Charles F. Horner, one of the pioneers in the tent
movement. Redpath-Horner had the first Chautauquas in Nebraska and the
south and west. For three years she and her sister traveled the circuit
with their uncle and learned much about how Chautauquas were
circuit managers booked the towns so that the talent could reach the
town the next day, keeping seven Chautauquas going at all times. The
Chautauquas required nine crews, each of which consisted of a Platform
manager, whose job was to see that the townspeople were happy and that
things were running on schedule, and most important to get the contract
for the next year. There were two boys assigned to each crew whose
included putting up and tearing down the big tents ... sacking the
sections for shipment, taking tickets, and in general, keeping an eye
the entire set-up. Living in a town for an entire week gave the crew
attention from the townspeople. Picnics, ice cream freezes, watermelon
feeds, dinners, etc. In fact, they were royally entertained and made
good friends over the whole circuit.
CROATIAN ORCHESTRA - 1887
The crew boys were well trained in setting up the big tents and,
it was a responsibility. Pounding the many stakes was a chore and at
beginning of the season there were many blistered hands from using the
big mauls. As the season progressed, they toughened up and could sink
stakes with great rhythm and rapidity. Each crew took great pride in
set-ups, always hoping to outdo the other eight crews. A wet tent on
night was a disaster; 250-pound bags of canvas became 500-pound sacks
handle. The boys were unhappy, the railroad express men were unhappy
the Company was, too, because of the excess baggage charges.
SHORTER PLAYERS - 1887
A Versatile Company of Artists who Entertain In Many
Some towns were so enthusiastic about Chautauqua that they built open
pavilions to take care of the week's entertainment. Hastings,
and St. Edward in Nebraska did this. Some of these pavilions are still
standing. Leroy Walker tells about tent Chautauqua in Gibbon, Nebraska
in the city park there in the early 1920's:
"I remember particularly one tall, gangly, homely (very
As a child I imagined that he looked as Abraham Lincoln must have
But one forgot his looks when he spoke; for he was an excellent
I even remember, after 65 years a story he told. The story went
like this: The speaker had been talking from the platform in another
and two women down front were carrying on a conversation with each
paying no attention to the speaker. So the speaker talked louder and
and louder. The women talked louder and louder and louder. The speaker
suddenly stopped speaking. One of the women in a loud voice said to her
companion, 'I always cook mine in goose grease.'
"My father, S. A. A. Walker, a hardware merchant in Gibbon, was one of
the local men that signed the contract with the Redpath-Horner Co. for
the coming year. This local committee also signed notes, which meant
if the sale of tickets did not cover the contract the note signers
make up the difference. Several times he was required to use his own
to make the Chautauqua costs come out even.
"So it was that the idea of a home-town Chautauqua seemed like a good
and it was adopted. A local woman, Florence Buck, who was a dramatic
and who had had experience on the stage gave one program. Wrestler John
'Tiger John' Pesek gave a wrestling exhibition with another grapier and
L. T Osborn explained and named the holds. It was illegal to name a
Other local groups provided musical numbers.
"The local Chautauqua lasted for several years, long enough for the
to be used to build a roofed, but wall-less pavilion with bench seats
backs on a raised floor for the audience. One of these seats still
and is on Front Street in Gibbon. Vandalism in the off season on the
of the dressing rooms was given eventually as the cause of the demise
the local Chautauqua."
Many funny things happened on the circuits. One evening Ruth Bryan Owen
was speaking in Fort Collins, Colorado, when it started to pour rain. A
puddle started to collect in a fold of the canvas just above the
and the crew boy hesitated to interrupt her lecture to take care of it,
hoping it would go away. It didn't! Finally, it split the canvas and
water came crashing onto the platform. Mrs. Owen with great poise
her lecture and said, "Friends, you are present on an historic
This is the first time a Bryan has ever spoken on a wet platform."
Incidentally, in all the years of Chautauqua, even after stage plays
introduced, the stage was never called anything but the "Platform." The
entertainers were always known as the "talent."
The crew boys always had to print the name of the town on the floor of
the platform for the use of lecturers in case any of them might slip up
and mention the wrong town.
The peak year for tent Chautauqua was 1924 when 30 million Americans in
twelve thousand towns attended programs of political oratory, plays,
entertainment and lectures of the "hearth, home and heaven" variety.
the coming of talking pictures, radios, more cars, air conditioning,
the beginning of the depression of the 30's, the idea began to fall and
it finally died in 1932. There has never been anything like Chautauqua
that has affected the lives of so many people.
Grantham Benthack, Tent Chautauqua, 1904-1928; Leroy A.
Chautauqua in Gibbon; Kearney Daily Hub, July 30, 1887;
15, 16, June 19, 22, July 10, 1907; New Era Standard, August
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