by Jack Weber

Long before there was a festival celebrating Alliance as the Carnation City, there was the annual weeklong Chautauqua.

The Alliance Review, August 20, 1917

The Alliance Review, August 20, 1917

Usually held in late July or early August in the early part of the 20th century, residents from throughout the area would flock to the khaki-colored big top on the grounds between Ramsey Court and Shadyside Court for all kinds of entertainment, ranging from musical concerts to dramas to impersonations and lectures from educators, humorists, authors, and clergymen.

Today, little is remembered of those yearly events sponsored by the Daughters of Veterans that would draw capacity crowds. A short road off of Shadyside Court is designated as Chautauqua Court, not far from where the Redpath Chautauqua would set up its stage and deliver a lineup of some of the greatest talent of its day during the 1910s and 1920s.

It’s only fitting that a “circuit Chautauqua” would visit the Alliance area every year as the entire Chautauqua movement was co-founded by a longtime trustee of Mount Union who was inspired by the summer school sessions held annually at the institution.

The Beginning of the Chautauqua

The Alliance Review, August 19, 1921

The Alliance Review, August 19, 1921

The Chautauqua Institution, an education and social movement that provided entertainment and culture for an entire community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen, preachers, and specialists of the day, got its start when Akron industrialist Lewis Miller and Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent purchased land on the shores of Lake Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York, and set up a camp.

Two years earlier, Vincent, editor of The Sunday School Journal, had begun to train Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer school format. Meanwhile, Miller, manufacturer of agricultural implements, served as a trustee of Mount Union from 1865 to 1899 and was president of the board for most of those years. He was inspired by summer school sessions that had been held at Mount Union starting in 1870, making it one of the first institutions of higher learning to offer a summer term.

In 1944, Mrs. Mina Miller Edison, daughter of Miller and the widow of famed inventor Thomas Alva Edison, received an honorary doctor of human letters from Mount Union. In an interview with The Alliance Review, Mrs. Edison spoke about both her husband and her father who later became superintendent of the Akron Methodist Church and was an inventor himself, holding approximately 200 patents. As far as Chautauqua was concerned, she confirmed that her father and Vincent patterned the project from summer schools established at Mount Union.

Mount Union’s Connection

According to “A Select School,” the history of Mount Union written by Newell Yost Osborne, Vincent also credited Mount Union as being one of of a variety of sources out of which the Chautauqua movement had grown.

Osborne also noted that in a public memorial service to Miller after his death, Mount Union President Tamerlane Pliney Marsh stated that, “[Miller] thought the Chautauua movement was somewhat indebted to the conjoint experience and service of [Vincent] and himself in pushing the interests of Mount Union College.”

Both Miller and Vincent, who later served as a bishop, are remembered on and around the Mount Union campus with streets named in their honor. Miller is also the namesake of Miller Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus.

Out of the Chautauqua that Miller and Vincent had created in New York grew the circuit Chautauquas, highly popular from the early 1900s to the mid 1920s, that would travel from town to town, stopping for a week at a time, much like a carnival or circus. Based on the earlier lyceum movement, the purpose of the tent chautauquas was self-improvement through lectures and discussions on literary, scientific, and moral topics. The goal was to deliver educational, spiritual, and cultural stimulation to rural and small-town America.

Very popular in their day, U.S President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua was “the most American thing in America.”

Chautauqua in Alliance, 1921

The Alliance Review, Augusut 15, 1921

The Alliance Review, August 15, 1921

In 1921, the Chautauqua visited Alliance in mid August. The cost of a season pass to attend all seven days was $2.75 for adults and $1.38 for children, which included war tax. The opening acts on the first day included the Euterpean Artists, a six-woman musical group led by saxophonist and pianist Beatrice Baughman, who also delighted the large crowd with several character impersonations. Later in the day, Edwin Whitney, who gave his optimistic American comedy titled “In Walked Jimmie.” Besides many other musical groups, the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “Pinafore” was one of the main attractions for the week. Among the lectures given were “The Fountain of Psyche,” given by Hilton I. Jones, and “Traitors to Justice” by Judge Marcus A. Kavanaugh.

Although the tent chautauquas are a thing of the past, Ohio Humanities sponsors an Ohio Chautauqua tour across the state that features re-enactors who portray historical figures telling their  stories.

And the story behind the Chautauqua began in Alliance.