These travelling congregations of culture were started by a Methodist minister, John Heyl Vincent, and a local businessman, Lewis Miller at Chautauqua Lake, New York in 1874. It began as an outdoor summer school for Sunday school teachers. With those religious roots, it’s not surprising that many Chautauquas had religious elements, and were sometimes sponsored by various denominations. Most had ample entertainment and educational opportunities for those with more secular tastes.
Best known for their temporary manifestations, Chautauquas could be almost anything in a community. Chautauqua Circle women’s clubs popped up around the country to discuss books and better themselves in order to change the world. Inmates started Chautauqua Societies in prison for self-improvement.
Travelling Chautauquas operated much like a circus sideshow, rolling into town with massive tents and the accoutrements of speakers, musicians, and entertainers. In smaller towns they would stay a day or two. In larger towns, they were usually the center of attention for a week.
The first Idaho State Chautauqua took place in Boise in 1910. It lasted nine days. In the buildup to the event promoters extolled the quality of the speakers and the variety of entertainment. Sometimes calling it “the people’s university,” they described three divisions of each day.
The morning section would feature classes and schools, mostly designed around the domestic sciences and agriculture, but also including athletic instruction, discussions about literature and history, as well as bible classes. The University of Idaho supplied many of the instructors. In the afternoon the heavier lectures for book lovers and those seeking knowledge took place. The evening was a time for entertainment from musical acts and theater companies.
As the event—encompassing July 4—grew nearer, local businesses began to promote it to their own benefit. Tie-ins sold everything from lace curtains to building lots to flour with specials during Chautauqua.
The main speaker of the Chautauqua was to be Idaho Senator W.E. Borah, but there was speculation about who else might show up at the last minute. William Jennings Bryan was among the most popular speakers at such events across the country. Another was Dr. Russell Conwell, famous for his “Acres of Diamonds” speech, the point of which was that one could seek fortune far and wide yet miss the acres of diamonds in one’s own backyard. He delivered it more than 5,000 times.
The Chautauqua included ball games, cavalry drills, chalk art exhibitions, fireworks, readings, fashion shows, concerts, political speeches, exhibits, and more. The Chinese community in Boise was joyful because they were able to procure a “monster dragon” to wind along the parade route on the Fourth of July.
One feature of the celebration visible at the major entertainment venues was the Chautauqua salute. The waving of white handkerchiefs was a tradition that had grown from an event years earlier at the suggestion that a deaf speaker could not hear the applause of a crowd. Since almost everyone carried a white handkerchief, the resulting flutter was a glorious sight.
Chautauquas thrived in Idaho and elsewhere for a few more years, waning in the mid-twenties only as other forms of entertainment, especially radio, came to the forefront.
The end of the Chautauquas was perhaps foreshadowed in 1925 in Boise when former baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday deplored the rise of jazz music. Later, in that same tent, a Boise audience clapped “until their hands were sore” for a jazz performance.