The Chautauqua: The Original Ted Talk

Forest Park, Ottawa, KS

The Chautauqua was an education and social movement, popularized in 1875. Chautauqua assemblies were popular in rural America bringing entertainment and culture to the community, with speakers, musicians, showmen, teachers and preachers.

Teddy Roosevelt called it, “A gathering that is typically American in that it is typical of America at its best.”

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The movement started at Lake Chautauqua, New York. Almost immediately assemblies started popping up. Towns built permanent pavilions to house the programs hoping to bring in people and money into the community.

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Lectures were the tentpoles of the Chautauqua. Up until 1913, reform speeches and inspirational talks were the two main types of lectures.  Later topics included travel, current events and funny stories.

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Although not super political, some topics included temperance, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws.  The assemblies tried to present a balanced program.  In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican challenger, Kansan Alf Landon, spoke alongside two third-party candidates.

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The first Chautauqua in Kansas was held in Lawrence in 1878. Other towns jumped on the bandwagon like El Dorado, Abilene, Topeka and Pittsburg. 

In 1883, Ottawa held their first Chautauqua in Forest Park. The 1897 assembly lasted 12 days. Many participants camped at the park during the assembly.

Winfield hosted a Chautauqua assembly from 1886 to 1924. IN 1897, Lincoln Park at Cawker City was the third Kansas town  to establish a Chautauqua.

At the height of the Chautauqua Movement, (around 1915), nearly 12,000 communities hosted a chautauqua.

After 50 successful years Chautauquas began to lose their audience appeal. The Great Depression in the 1930s brought an end to the movement.  The radio, automobile, and talking pictures were also to blame. 

By 1932 only a few Chautauquas remained.

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