A CENTURY OF CHAUTAUQUA

An octagonal-shaped wooden building in Waxahachie began hosting hundreds and then thousands of enthusiastic farmer families and small-town residents from all over North Texas when it opened in 1902.  They came in wagons and on horseback to camp out for a week to ten days; they slept in tents and under their wagons; and for the first time in their lives they enjoyed a chance to hear humorists, watch jugglers, listen to statesmen talk of patriotism and actors read Shakespeare.

Before the turn of the last century, a few Waxahachie residents reported with great excitement their travels to the famous summer adult education center on Chautauqua Lake in western New York State where they heard speakers, musicians, preachers, and scientists.

Organized in 1874 by a Methodist preacher and a businessman, Chautauqua started as a training program for Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer camp setting.  It grew in popularity and soon “daughter” Chautauquas began springing up all over the United States.  In the early days, the most popular lectures were inspirational and reform speeches.  Over the years, the fare lightened with the addition of current events, story-telling, and travelogues—often in a humorous vein.

The first Waxahachie Chautauqua Summer Assembly met in 1900 in a pavilion constructed along a creek in West End Park.  More than 75 tents dotted the landscape that first year.  With the completion in 1902 of the 2500-seat Chautauqua auditorium, the pavilion became a dining hall.  The new all-wood building, constructed at a cost of $2750, boasted large wooden windows that slid upward into the wall to create an open-air facility, which boasted electric lights.  Drinking water came from a large, nearby water tank.  At times crowds from 5,000 to 7,000 milled in and around the building.  Buggies often pulled up beside the windows to offer extra seating and at least once, tents stretched out from the windows to protect the audience standing outside from the summer sun.

The list of programs and the response of the audiences paints a clear picture of how eagerly rural and small-town residents grasped for an opportunity to know about the world and to be challenged with new information in those days before widespread communication.  A professor from Trinity University captivated the audience with experiments showing the many uses of liquid air.  A group of local men shared their world travels with a packed auditorium and people standing in the windows.  In 1906 a standing-room-only crowd arrived for a demonstration of wireless telegraphy. A packed house paid fifty cents a ticket to hear William Jennings Bryant, the famous populist orate on “The Price of a Soul.”

The attendees enjoyed plenty of social life.  A Chautauqua Parlor offered popular piano and vocal solos and tables set up for games of Forty-Two.  The local Young Men’s Chautauqua erected a social tent complete with electric fans and ice water.  Later, they added sofas and rugs.  The group became known as the “matrimonial agency” because of the number of couples that met at the social tent and later married.

Music brought in crowds especially when the U.S. Marine Band performed in 1914.  Scottish music and the Highland Fling became a 1922 hit.  The next year an electrical storm interrupted for twenty-five minutes a lecture and demonstration of electricity and the radio.  John Phillip Sousa changed his schedule at the last minute in 1925 and crossed out Waxahachie on his hand-written itinerary and in its place wrote “Korsikana,” obviously meaning the lucky town of Corsicana a few miles down the road.

World War I themes turned to patriotism and the war effort.  A war tax boosted the new ticket price of $2.50.  A 1918 program highlighted war inventions–two-wheel automobiles or gyrocars, airplanes with gyroscopes, ultra-violet rays, and hearing torpedoes—for a spellbound audience.

By the 1920s at the height of its popularity, twenty-one companies operated ninety-three Chautauqua circuits in the United States and Canada.  Often, one performer finished his presentation and left for the train as another arrived.  When circuits began booking performers, access opened to New York City actors presenting plays such as “The Melting Pot,” “Little Women,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pinafore.”

By 1926 the talent began arriving via automobile, which caused one performance to be cancelled because the actors coming from their show in Ardmore, Oklahoma, ran into bad roads and did not make it in time for the production.  Will Rogers the cowboy humorist, on his third U.S. tour, made a stop in Waxahachie in 1927.  As the audience waited for his show, they listened in delight to a radio program amplified with music.  Although he spoke for 101 minutes, some in attendance left disappointed because he did not do his famous trick roping, for which he named himself the “poet lariat.”

Several cultural, social, and financial events—advent of the automobile, the popularity of the radio, and the Great Depression–began a slow erosion in the attendance at Chautauqua.  Ticket sales declined, forcing local supporters to underwrite more and more of the Chautauqua expenses.  By 1930 the Chautauqua Assembly in Waxahachie came to an end.

The old building slowly declined and its door shuttered in 1971 as the city considered tearing it down.  Members of the community formed the Chautauqua Preservation Society and began fund raising to restore the building.  The Texas Historical Commission awarded the building a state historical marker, and it was placed n the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1975, with the restoration complete, the grand old building reopened with a July 4 celebration.  It serves today as a city auditorium hosting reunions, conferences, civic and educational events, and high school graduations.  The Fort Worth Symphony performs several times a year.  And a new generation has a visual reminder of an era when people came from miles around, eager for a sampling of the latest in culture and entertainment.

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