Exploring History Through Conner Prairie’s Chautauqua Series

Stereograph Of Madison, Indiana Chautauqua – July, 1901

Stereograph of Madison, Indiana Chautauqua – July, 1901

In 1878, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was founded to provide those who could not afford the time or money to attend college (or those excluded because of gender or geography) the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a college education. The four-year correspondence course was one of the first attempts at distance learning.

The CLSC was an extension of the organized secular gatherings begun in 1873 by John Heyl Vincent, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, and Lewis Miller, a wealthy farm implements manufacturer from Ohio. The Chautauqua name came from the New York lake, adjacent to where the first gatherings took place.  

Besides broadening access to education, the CLSC program was intended to show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing, and theater-going, that – in CLSC founders’ opinion – posed a threat both to good morals and to good health. Under the leadership of director Kate F. Kimball, 264,000 people—three-quarters of them women—had enrolled in the CLSC by the century’s end.

The Rise of a National Chautauqua Movement

With the success of the CLSC, many new traveling Chautauquas were created, known as “daughter” or “sister” Chautauquas, giving rise to a national Chautauqua Movement. By 1880, these gatherings became forums for open discussion of public issues, international relations, literature, and science. By 1900, nearly one hundred towns, mainly in the Midwest, held assemblies on grounds patterned on the original Chautauqua.

The society spread throughout rural America, bringing entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, and specialists of the day. As we entered the 20th century, these circuits served as vital links to the outside world for some 6,000 small towns. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua was, “the most American thing in America”.

In the mid-1920s, the rise of commercial radio, movies, automobiles, and an expanded consumer culture signaled the end of the circuits’ popularity in rural America, and the last tent show folded in 1933. In our 21st century age of digital socialization, especially post-2020, there is a growing desire among adults to come together and engage in an informative, yet casual, way.

Chautauqua at Conner Prairie

That’s just what our Chautauqua series offers. At Conner Prairie, our mission to inspire curiosity and foster learning aligns effortlessly with many of the ideals behind Chautauqua. These singular evenings are an opportunity to learn, socialize, and engage with a thematic topic. Through presentation, interaction, and some fun and games, guests get an opportunity to gain historical knowledge from all over the state, with each evening’s stories coming from a different Indiana county. Light appetizers and themed cocktails accompany the storytelling, taking place in varying locations across Conner Prairie’s expansive grounds.

2024 Dates will be coming soon and we would love to have you join us!

Kim McCann, Program Developer at Conner Prairie

About the Author

As a Program Developer at Conner Prairie, Kim McCann creates programming content and helps to implement special events. She is an award-winning storyteller, hobby mixologist, and a lover of poetry.