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Utopia By The Lake

July 2024
16min read

One summer evening in the mid1960’s there was a concert on the porch of an old hotel in western New York State. Gingerbread pillars towered three stories into the darkness above the conductor, and figures leaning from the windows were silhouetted against the yellow rooms behind them. Below the porch, where the lawn sloped away to a lakeshore, the audience strolled back and forth or sat on the grass beneath old-fashioned Japanese lanterns that had been strung between the trees. As though on cue, a round, brightorange harvest moon rose over the lake, making a white path across the water to the other shore. The orchestra swung into “The Blue Danube.”


This scene, which might just as well have happened at the turn of the century, followed one of the most remarkable annual celebrations of ancestral piety in the United States. The hotel was the Athenaeum on Chautauqua Lake, in the Appalachian highlands ten miles above Lake Erie. The place was Chautauqua Institution, which was celebrating its ninetieth anniversary as a summer music festival and a resort of high culture. Earlier that evening, in the huge old wooden-roofed Amphitheatre set into the hill above the hotel, five thousand people had gathered. There the assembly leader, standing on a platform in the pit of the Amphitheatre, read from a book lying open on the ornate walnut podium in front of him, just as other leaders had done every year since 1915: The time is coming, when to the old question, “Who are here tonight who were present in 1874?” there will be no response,—a hush, a sudden turning to see if no one is there and then a solemn silence as the leader on that evening announces: “Not one.” What year will that be? It must be a long time hence; for there were children in that auditorium on the first night in 1874, who were but six years old, and who in 1944 will be seventy-six, and one or more of them may be present that season.

Then he asked the question; and a very old man in the front row rose feebly and tipped his hat.

The crowd burst into wild applause; they were honoring, really, what Chautauqua had meant during the old man’s long life; in ninety years seven Presidents of the United States, opera singers, band leaders, revivalists, ambassadors, and aviators had come to Chautauqua. F.D.R. made his “I Hate War” speech here; Admiral Byrd, fresh from the South Pole, had landed his plane on the golf course; and Teddy Roosevelt, who dropped by in 1904, called it “the most American place in America.” And through it all, the earnestness, the sentimentality, and the idyllic atmosphere had prevailed.

Two dazzlingly successful gentlemen from the Midwest devised the notion of the first Chautauqua Assembly. The Reverend Dr. John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister from Galena, Illinois, met Lewis Miller, an Akron mill owner, inventor, and philanthropist, in the early iSyo’s. Miller had made a fortune from an invention called the Buckeye Mower, a reaper with the cutting arm hinged so that it could fit through a barn door. A devout churchgoer, Miller was looking around for new things to perfect and seized on the important (”as the twig is bent …”) Sundayschool movement. Together the two men devised a summer training program for Sunday-school teachers. Miller, who provided the financial backing, suggested that a country location be found so that the benefits and attractions of a vacation could be added to the program.

They found the ideal site in Fair Point, a piece of land jutting out slightly into Chautauqua Lake in western New York, where the outdoor platform, tents, and log benches of a defunct camp meeting were for sale. Dr. Vincent, who was much later to become a bishop, had long hated camp-meeting hysteria and was trying to dissociate the Methodist Church from the phenomenon; he was particularly pleased to convert an old, dead meeting into the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.

Letters were sent out, and 142 Sunday-school teachers came from twenty-five states, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and India—from every corner of the Methodist world and its mission fields—to attend classes, which were held in four tents set in the grove of trees by the lakeshore. On that first evening, August 4, 1874, the two-week program of lectures and sermons opened with the singing of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and various Scripture readings, beginning with “the day goeth away …” (Jeremiah 6:4), as in the light of pine-knot torches flaring in boxes of dirt an incredible two thousand local people sat jammed on log benches, swatting at mosquitoes coming up from the lake in the August dusk. (For ninety-eight years since, “Old First Night” has always begun with the same hymn and the same readings.) By August 12 an estimated ten to fifteen thousand people had flocked, walked, and sailed to the grounds to hear a particularly popular preacher, T. Dewitt Talmadge. It rained a lot those first seventeen days, but people just put up their umbrellas and stayed on, wading through the muck after each lecture to dripping tents, where they lodged and ate, or creaking away in wagons to the little towns around.

With the assembly burgeoning beyond their wildest expectations, Miller and Dr. Vincent decided to settle their families at Chautauqua the next summer. They built rustic cottages, half chalet and—because they were loath to lose the spontaneous camping atmosphere of the first season—half tent. Miller’s cottage may have been the first prefab house to be assembled in America; painted white with raspberry trim, it had a white—and raspberry-striped canvas extension pitched on the verandah for guest bedrooms. The program was lengthened another week, to twenty-four days, and enrollment was opened to include members of any Christian denomination. Dr. Vincent taught, among other subjects, classes on life in Biblical times and the geography of the Bible. A relief map of the Holy Land was constructed along the lakeshore, with tiny hills, white plaster villages, and a stagnant little Dead Sea; Chautauqua Lake served as the Mediterranean.


The curriculum was expanded, too, to include “night concerts on the lake,” though it’s not clear whether the musicians or the audience, or both, floated. In the afternoons, that second summer, there were “scientific conversazioni ,” and one lecturer donned the garb of a Middle Eastern shepherd to deliver a talk on “Jordan and Its People.” A ramshackle, makeshift guest house, two stories of wooden framework with canvas walls inside, rose on the hill above the gingerbread cottages rapidly being thrown up by the first Sunday-school teachers, who had invited their families and boarders. The building was christened “Knower’s Ark” because of the clever speakers who stayed there, and advertisements for the boarding houses (Sunday dinner with chicken: seventy-five cents) appeared in the new paper, The Chautauqua Daily Assembly Herald , along with schedules of lectures and musical events. The cottages, festooned with trimming as delicate as lacework, lost their rawness among the trees covering the grounds. And President Ulysses S. Grant, once a parishioner of Dr. Vincent’s in Galena, sailed down Chautauqua Lake in a floating palace steamboat and set his seal of approval on the venture. God, education, the President, and the good life had met on the lakeshore. Chautauqua was a boom resort.

During Chautauqua’s first summers the complexion of America was changing. Following the upheaval of the Civil War, the stable rural order of the early Republic was giving way to an urban and industrial society. A hundred sentimental paintings, the most famous Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties , depicted country boys leaving farms for the lure of the city and regular wages. This movement had created a big market for nostalgia; if you hadn’t made it in the city, the grinding routine of the farm seemed awfully secure, and even if you had made it, the old home town took on the hazy outlines of a muchloved memory. Chautauqua, born of a much older American yearning—the hunger for education—bloomed in this climate as an ideal country village where people beginning to cherish the memory of a departed agrarian society could spend several bucolic, informative weeks every summer.


By the third summer, in 1876, Chautauqua was established beyond a doubt. The program now ran eight weeks, from the first Sunday in July to the last Sunday in August, and Frances E. Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, became the first woman speaker to appear on the lecture stage, thrilling everyone with stories about the horrors of drink. This was the hundredth year of the Republic, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was supposed to draw all the crowds who had the money and leisure to travel. But so potent was Chautauqua’s appeal that three assemblies—one in Michigan, one on an island in the St. Lawrence River, and one in Iowa—were set up in imitation of the original, complete with tents, boarding houses, silver-tongued orators, and lectures on the Holy Land.

Two years later a permanent roofed, open-air Amphitheatre was built into the hillside, and the Grecian Hall of Philosophy (also called “the Hall in the Grove") rose. Within a few years two-decker steamboats were landing at the three-decker pier building with its ice-cream pagodas, a tower, and a flag. And by 1881 the Hotel Athenaeum, modelled after the Grand Union at Saratoga, had replaced the old canvas Palace Hotel. The Athenaeum had gingerbread pillars three stories high on the sweeping verandahs and a cupola so top-heavy that it had to be torn down in the 1920's because its weight was pushing the rooms below through the foundations. The story goes that there was no loom in the United States big enough to weave carpets for the acres of polished Athenaeum floor, so the builders had to send to France. The Athenaeum’s parlors had, of course, no place for dancing or card playing, and the dining room was completely “dry.” The diversions at Chautauqua were for the mind.

For people who couldn’t get to Chautauqua, Dr. Vincent started in 1878 the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—the first book club and correspondence course in America. This was a four-year course: the first one offered the chief civilizations of the world; later there were courses on history, literature, and science. The response was overwhelming. All over the land, farmers, storekeepers, and their wives met in village groups one afternoon a month to talk about things that once only a preacher might have known. A group in an Iowa town debated what Aristotle’s teachings meant, while in Ohio another pondered Napoleon’s campaigns. A letter from a farmwife explaining to the circle’s secretary why she was late with her assignment expresses the terrible hunger that Chautauqua somehow filled: I live on a farm, and my husband has no help except what I give him. All of the time I am not doing housework, I am obliged to drive the horse at the horsepower … I have done my reading while driving the horse for the last two months, but I cannot write while driving.


Each year, when a four-year course was completed, there was a graduation ceremony, known as Recognition Day, at Chautauqua for all the readers who could get there. The old Grecian Hall of Philosophy was replaced in the early i goo’s by a temple modelled on the Parthenon. A long walkway led up to this new Hall of Philosophy from a white archway at the foot of the walk. On Recognition Day a gilded wooden gate was hung in the arch, and the graduates literally went through the Golden Gate, led—as a photograph from 191 o shows—by sixty flower girls, in pairs, who strewed the path with gladiolas, daisies, and roses as the graduates passed under the arch. The diplomas carried arcane terms conferring distinction, depending upon how many books a graduate had read. There was a seal for each reading course completed, a special seal (which nearly everyone got) for having read through the Bible, and, highest of all, for the reader of numerous books beyond the assigned number, membership in the “Guild of the Seven Seals.” But these honors, faintly smelling of the fraternal lodge, were not really what Recognition Day was about. As Dr. Vincent wrote, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was meant for ambitious people who still foster “ideals,” who in good health although no longer young, hope and resolve to go on and on and up and “higher yet” until they shall be accounted among those “who are worthy to be crowned. ”

And Recognition Day was when the “Golden Gate” shall be opened and children with their baskets of flowers, conforming to customs from time immemorial, will strew with blossoms the pathway of pilgrims under the arches of the “Hall on the Hill.”

In other words, study was a way to salvation, and graduating was heaven. Which was probably not an exaggerated metaphor for the whole new world that circle books offered the lady who had to help her husband “at the horsepower.”


As part of the same impulse to provide culture and refinement to the world, the leaders of Chautauqua chartered Chautauqua University, and for a while an accredited degree was given. The charter was dropped in 1890, when the leaders realized that Chautauqua was never meant to give academic credit. The preachers and doctors and schoolteachers who came already had degrees, and everybody else who came had worked for a lifetime without one. They wanted Chautauqua’s “culture and refinement” because they were starved for it, not because it carried a degree. Besides, there was more prestige in studying because you didn’t have to than in studying because you did. Chautauqua offered culture as a status symbol and as a vaguely transcendental means of salvation to an America that was ready for it on both counts. President James A. Garfield, the third President to visit, after Grant and Rutherford P. Hayes, said that Chautauqua was trying to “open out fields of thought, to open out energies, a largeness of mind, a culture in the better senses, with the varnish scratched off.”


There were dissident voices, however, even then. One of the clearest, cutting through the summer air, belonged to William James, the psychologist and brother of the novelist. Raised in the East and in Europe and steeped in much older, rooted cultures, James was appalled by the brushed-on stuff at Chautauqua. He admitted that he had been temporarily pleased by the facilities and amenities: I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spellbound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middleclass paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear. And yet … And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them … in this unspeakable Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear. …”

Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church sociables and teachers’ conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro. And, to get human life in its wild intensity, we must in future turn more and more away from the actual, and forget it, if we can, in the romancer’s or the poet’s pages. The whole world, delightful and sinful as it may still appear to one just escaped from the Chautauquan enclosure, is nevertheless obeying more and more just those ideals that are sure to make of it in the end a mere Chautauqua Assembly on an enormous scale. … Even now, in our own country, correctness, fairness, and compromise for every small advantage are crowding out all other qualities. The higher heroisms and the old rare flavors are passing out of life.

Most people, however, thought Chautauqua was doing extraordinarily good work. By 1886 more than thirty imitation assemblies had sprung up, most of them faithful copies and most of them with Dr. Vincent’s blessing. Sometime in the 1890's travelling tent shows, unauthorized by the parent Chautauqua, picked up the commercially hot Chautauqua name and offered a combination of popular music and political oratory all over the Midwest. The travelling Chautauquas watered down their culture; as a result, Booker T. Washington or Billy Sunday would find a trained seal or Swiss bell-ringers on the same program with him. William Jennings Bryan’s favorite platform was a travelling Chautauqua tent, and he said in 1914: The privilege and opportunity of addressing from one to seven thousand of his fellow Americans, in the Chautauqua frame of mind, in the mood which almost as clearly asserts itself under the tent or amphitheatre as does reverence under the “dim religious light"—this privilege and this opportunity is one of the greatest that any patriotic American could ask.

The travelling Chautauquas, like the original, became national organs of communication. Anything said at Chautauqua was sure to be heard—all over the Midwest, at least. When, in 1904, Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American place in America,” he really was acknowledging the same quality that appealed to Bryan and repelled William James: the American dream of the educated pastoral man, the utopia in the wilderness.

And everybody came to Chautauqua. The Studebakers built a “cottage” at Chautauqua, as did a cadet branch of the Heinz family. The Brown shoe people from St. Louis came for the season, and so did the Norths, who owned the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The queen of the summer people, at the very top of Chautauqua’s society, was Lewis Miller’s daughter, Mina, who had married Thomas Edison in 1886. Cars and pickles and Buster Brown shoes and circuses and the electric light bulb the staples of home life were the support of Chautauqua, the ideal village.

Although the program got more and more sophisticated, with symphony concerts and Russian choirs, and although a yacht club was formed and an athletic program started by Alonzo Stagg flourished, nevertheless life was as strictly regulated as ever. There was a service each day in the Amphitheatre at 9:30 A.M. , directed by the chaplain of the week, who had preached to a capacity crowd of eight thousand the preceding Sunday; at eleven some political or literary lecturer spoke; and in the evening there was another lecture or concert in the Amphitheatre. The afternoon was reserved for games and naps and club meetings. Bats so the story goes—had been imported and encouraged to eat the mosquitoes, but otherwise there wasn’t much more comfort than in the first days. The hotels and boarding houses, from the grand Athenaeum dominating the lakefront to flimsy structures with crazy stacked porches leaning against the side of a ravine, housed people either wild for culture or compelled to seem so. It was surely the least relaxing resort ever conceived. The hotel help, usually college students or schoolteachers, couldn’t clear the tables fast enough lest they miss some “event”; Alexander Woollcott, when he was a Hamilton College undergraduate in 1907, wrote from Chautauqua to a friend : You needn’t sniff at my occupation for the summer. Almost all the waiters at Chautauqua are college men and we get our board and room for our pains. All we have to do is to come at meal times, serve our table and clear it away. … It’s a great place with six or eight entertainments every day all free. They have the finest music … of any resort in the country. … Last week they had the Prize Spelling Match. … I went in for New Jersey and covered her with glory by missing the first word they gave me.

The grounds, lying along the lakeAshore for about a mile and a half and stretching a half mile up the hill, were encircled, except along the lakeshore, by an iron fence of palings six feet high. There was a gate at the boat dock where the steamers arrived and a wicket gate at the top of the hill, which for a while in the early i goo’s was connected by interurban streetcars to the railroad station three miles away. For years after they appeared, no automobiles were allowed in and to this day they’re only permitted to load and unload baggage. The sole vehicles on the grounds in those days were huge baggage wagons, which loaded up at the boat dock with Saratoga trunks and then wound along shady lanes between wedding-cake tiers of porches, distributing their cargo until they got to the road gate, where they picked up another load and worked their way back down to the dock. Eventually, when contributions no longer supported Chautauqua—after the Depression—the fence came in handy; then people were charged a single admission fee to the grounds, the fee covering all the programs. But in the early i goo’s the fence still served its original purpose: to set Chautauqua apart and underline the discipline it took to get Christian culture. On Saturday night the gates were locked, and all through the Sabbath ten thousand people stayed locked in—until Monday morning only medical emergencies got through. Stories linger today of people impaled on the fence while smuggling in Sunday papers or tobacco.

Life on the grounds at Chautauqua loosened up ever so slightly after World War I; some college students were permitted to dance even the Charleston in 1930, and Chautauqua’s resort aspect became a little more evident. For one thing, Chautauqua was outmoded as a national forum. The radio, the Ford, and the movies had completely killed the travelling Chautauquas in the twenties; people didn’t need to wait in some snowbound village all year for a week of lectures. For similar reasons, the Amphitheatre also lost its place as a national podium.

But as the program was released from the necessity of being all things to all Americans, instruction no longer had to be the guiding aim. Arthur Bestor, a former history professor who was president of the institution and program chairman from 1915 until 1944, brought the first opera to Chautauqua in 1926—sung, typically, in English—and created the Chautauqua Symphony in 1929. That same year a very modern gray concrete-enclosed theatre was built, all angular planes and purple glass lanterns reminiscent of both Bauhaus and an eighteenth-century gazebo, for the Chautauqua Opera Company and the summer repertory company of the Cleveland Playhouse. A lady from Pittsburgh wrote home to her puzzled family that her party stood in line after the opera, in evening dress, to get ice-cream cones at the vine-covered pergola by the post office. The “utmost offering … to the brute animal in man” was still “ice-cream soda-water.”

Looking at the pictures of the twenties and early thirties (the institution kept an official photographer), one is struck by the social nature of events—an echo, perhaps, of that false tranquillity that the world outside the Chautauqua fence felt between the wars. The ushers for the interdenominational Amphitheatre church service, young men from the best old Chautauqua families, stand in handsome rows like a chorus line, jutting chins topping Arrow collars, in blue blazers and white flannels. Genial Dr. Bestor, who grabbed every celebrity he could find for the capacity crowds in the Amphitheatre, had Amelia Earhart to tea with his family under an arbor, all of them looking stabbingly happy and young. At other times he was host to Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, and composer George Gershwin, who wrote his Concerto in F in one of the practice sheds on the grounds.

In 1929, with the help of Mrs. Edison, Dr. Bestor staged “The Festival of Light,” a joint celebration of the centennary of cofounder Lewis Miller’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the electric light. It was ironic, really. Thomas Edison had never liked Chautauqua—he thought it was humbug—and while Mrs. Edison spent the season there, he was off on camping trips with his friends Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Warren Harding. But Dr. Bestor and Mrs. Edison asked him, so he came, bringing Henry Ford and publisher Adolph Ochs with him. Mrs. Edison entertained Mrs. Ford on the white-pillared porch of the Women’s Club, and the ladies had their pictures taken, seated in rocking chairs, holding nosegays. On an evening late in July, with eight thousand people in the Amphitheatre and another two thousand standing around the rim, Dr. Bestor, Edison, Ford, and Ochs stood on the platform with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra behind them. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, the flag waved overhead, and the light shed by electricity, by Chautauqua, and by America on all the world was celebrated.

That was the climax in a way, though Chautauqua endures. It went bankrupt during the Depression, and all the old trees covering the grounds were sold—not to be cut down but to have little tin strips fastened on them with the names of donors to the Chautauqua Foundation.

The program continues today. There are still the symphony, operas, plays, and the summer school. The special events of the past few seasons have included a typical eclectic jumble of Van Cliburn, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Peter Nero. Robert F. Kennedy spoke there the summer before his death, and Marian Anderson gave one of her last concerts in the Amphitheatre.


There are still few cars and, supposedly, no liquor. The tranquil summer air is heavy with the scent of hollyhocks, and the sound of tennis balls makes a counterpoint to the orchestra rehearsal in the distance. But somewhere the Utopian ideal froze, and Chautauqua became less a place of pilgrimage and emulation and more, perhaps, a memory of childhood—and an irrecoverable dream.


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