In our world today we do not suffer from lack of communication: TV, radio, daily newspapers, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. The big question today is, how much of it can you trust to be true?
When I was in China and India in World War II we went weeks and weeks without international or national news. Sending a letter home took three weeks and a reply the same. There were no daily newspapers and we learned of the dropping of the atom bomb four or five days later and then no details. In China, in 1945 we had no electricity, radio, dirt floors, no glass in the windows and only openings for doors plus no heat when it turned chilly in October. We did receive mail and newspapers but they were weeks old. We did have movies if the generator operated. Once in a great while we would have a USO show and did have a library full of paperback books. What we think of as "culture" was missing as was the same with our grandparents at the turn of the century.
This brings us to the subject of this article: Chautauqua. It was an adult education movement in the United States highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chautauqua movement brought entertainment and culture for the whole community with speakers, teachers, musicians, showmen, preachers, and specialists of the day. The movement began at Chautauqua, New York, hence the name. At the height of the Chautauqua movement in the 1920s several hundreds of them existed and have since dwindled.
Spirit Lake Beacon (1891) — "Memorial Day 1891 will long be remembered in Spirit Lake. On this occasion, the Auditorium in the Park will be used for the first time. Elaborate preparations will be made for a thrilling celebration of the growing anniversary. The principal speaker will be Rev. O. H. Tiffany, of Minneapolis who is one of the noted orators of this country. It is hoped the soldier element and all friends in the county and elsewhere within the range of this place will join us in this fitting observation."
A wooden pavilion was built with a large stage and equipped with curtains and necessary musical instruments. The wooden windows were hinged at the top and propped open to furnish light, fresh air, and lake breeze. A capacity crowd was 300-400. If one couldn't find a seat there were the open windows to brace against. The speakers, musicians, and performers could usually be heard as the audience sat spellbound with eyes and ears tuned to the platform.
A dining hall and kitchen were located east of the pavilion. The ticket office, about the size of a fish house, was located at the end of the sidewalk. An icehouse and outdoor toilets were on the campgrounds, which extended eastward and down to the lake. Passenger boats unloaded at the dock before meetings and then to return the inspired visitors back to their cottages around the lakes.
The Steamer "Sunbeam" would make the main points on the lakes in the interest of the Chautauqua, arriving at the grounds at 2:30 p.m., the time of the beginning programs and return at the close of the afternoon and evening programs. Docks also provided for launches. (The Steamer Sunbeam is now buried at the Clair Wilson Park.)
R.A. Smith in History of Dickinson County — "Early in 1892, enterprising spirits installed the Spirit Lake Association. An auditorium was erected on the East Okoboji shore between town and the shore of Spirit Lake (Gilbert Park area today). A musical festival occupied eight days with a program of unusual merit. A Mr. E. C. Whalen superintendent of the Chautauqua at Lake Madison, South Dakota, was impressed with the idea that Spirit Lake would be a center for the Chautauqua movement. The Spirit Lake Association merged into the Spirit Lake Chautauqua Association. Shares of stock were offered at $100 each. Possession of a share entitled the holder and family free access to all Chautauqua privileges and leaseholder interest in a lot in the Chautauqua plat. The first assembly was held in July 1893."
Spencer Reporter (1893) — "Mr. E. C. Whalen, secretary of the Spirit Lake Chautauqua Movement stated that the association will capitalize for $50,000. They have bought and platted seventy acres of ground between the Town of Spirit Lake and the Orleans Hotel. The purchase includes the auditorium in which the musical convention was held (1892)."
The following information was taken from an article written by Fern Flatt Peterson, Curator of the Dickinson County Museum in 1976 — "The July 23-31, 1910, program was also very enjoyable, costing $2,000. Ciricillo’s 27-piece Italian Band, costing $225 for one day, Monologues by Jeanette Kling, Dr. Frank Crane, Chicago minister Edwin Brush, magician and Jubilee Singers who entertained several times daily.
In 1911, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, explorer, who claimed the 'conquest of the North Pole,' told of his trip in a most convincing manner to a sympatric audience of 1,500. The last day of that series the highlight was reached when Billy Sunday lectured on booze. War clouds were beginning together in Europe, tensions were mounting everywhere and minds were centered on the ominous threats of war. Leisure, uplifts, and entertainment faded into the background as the serious business of national survival took precedence and so the thrilling and uplifting Chautauqua passed from the American scene. The Chautauqua continues to remain an exhilarating, shining memory to many who were privileged to experience those glorious days."
Today we have the Okoboji Summer Theatre and the Pearson Lakes Art Center plus television to enhance our "culture." My thanks to Jonathan Reed for locating a photo of the Chautauqua Pavilion.