Montgomery County Illinois History

From its inception in 1874 down to the close of World War I, the Chautauqua movement spread throughout the Midwest. It was started as summer camp for Sunday school teachers at Fair Point on Chautauqua Lake in New York State. (1) It gradually broadened into a great educational factor and open forum. The Midwesterners seized upon this cultural straw in the wind with an eagerness that went far beyond what the originators had expected.

The founders of the original Chautauqua were Dr. John Vincent and Lewis Miller. Dr. Vincent was a Methodist Clergyman who later became a bishop. He was concerned about the quality of the instruction that was received by lay Sunday school teachers. Mr. Miller was a prosperous Akron, Ohio manufacturer whose avocation was Sunday school work. (2) These two men pooled their monetary and intellectual resources and the result was one of the most vital cultural impacts of the early nineteen hundreds.

It was several years after the original Chautauqua was founded that other Chautauqua’s began to spring up all over the United States, particularly in the Midwest. They could be found on the banks of lakes and in wooded spots particularly adapted to their use, but the big increase came with the introduction of the circuit Chautauqua. Besides the educational and moral overtones there was a place for magic acts, impersonations, vocal and instrumental music, the drama, selections from operas, and concerts. The schools and churches in the Midwest were very sympathetic toward the Chautauqua and its aims. (3)
 
By 1906 when the Litchfield Chautauqua was founded, the explicit religious connotations had somewhat abated from the movement, although culture was still synonymous with the movement in the small towns of the Midwest. The Litchfield Chautauqua is best remembered by those who attended as something faintly gaudy. The memories that are the first to come to mind are those of Model T Fords, moonlight canoe rides, and knee length bathing suits. (4) In the big brown tent that sat among a huge grove of trees, many acts passed for culture merely because they appeared on the same stage as had William Jennings Bryan and others of his stature.

In the early part of 1905, a few ladies and gentleman met in the parlors of the Litchfield Hotel to consider the feasibility of establishing a Chautauqua Assembly in Litchfield. (5) The men behind this movement were Mr. William Wilton, Mr. J. T. Ogle, and Dr. P. M. Kelley. These men were well known and respected by the people of the Litchfield - Hillsboro area, Mr. Wilton was the owner of the Litchfield Hotel and a bank director. Mr. Ogle was a prominent attorney and Dr. Kelley was known throughout the surrounding communities as a brilliant and capable doctor. (6) The purpose of the Chautauqua as stated in the Document of Incorporation was, "To establish a permanent Chautauqua for moral and intellectual purposes." (7) It was formed as a company under the profit sharing laws of the state and was authorized to issue two hundred shares of common stock at twenty-five dollars a share. (8) The main purpose of the founding group was not to make a tremendous profit. From information taken from the minutes of their meeting and interviews with various people who were indirectly involved, the general consensus was that these men had a genuine desire to bring culture to their community and the surrounding area. By reading the By-Laws and Constitution of the Chautauqua Assembly, one can conclude that the founders of the Chautauqua stressed the moral character of the community. Article IV of the Constitution states that, "Any person or persons of good moral character shall be eligible to membership." (9) Section thirteen of the By-Laws states that "No intoxicating liquors shall be kept, sold or given away or used as a beverage in any hotel, boarding or rooming house, restaurant, boat cottage, tent or other place or place, under any circumstances whatsoever." (10) This is not as ridiculous as it seems at first glance when one remembers that this was a period in our country's history of the great and continuous debate on whether the country should be "wet" or "dry". Being "wet" or "dry" was just as important an issue as whether one was Christian or Atheist, or Democrat or Republican. Section Fourteen of the By-Laws referred to the rule of prohibiting swimming or fishing on the Sabbath. This rule was rescinded in 1913. The editors of the Montgomery News were happy about the rule being invalidated and stated their opinion this way. "The old puritan ideas of Sunday being when the boys and girls were expected to stay in the house and read Josephis and Fox's Book of the Martysis is absolutely out of date.” (11) “If this be treason make the most of it." (12) Section Fifteen stated that the "proprieties of society would be the rule of the assembly grounds.” (13) As self-righteous as the Directors professed to be it still took cold cash to be one of the group of Chautauquans that lived on the grounds in their private cottages, during the summer season. The directors were not always able to convince the younger generation that this moral code was a definite prerequisite for every Chautauquan. There is a reference in the meeting minutes of August 1912 to a group of young people camping in a remote corner of the grounds sans chaperone but not without liquid "spirits." (14)

The site of the Chautauqua grounds was evidently chosen with great care, because even as overgrown as it is today this natural amphitheater and receding lake are still very beautiful. The grounds consisted of seventy wooded acres surrounding a seven acre spring fed lake. The big tent that was set up every season occupied a natural amphitheater where a sounding board and large stage were erected. Although   there was no modern sound equipment thousands could hear what was going on. (15) The tent itself accommodated 1500 people. The seats were "of two inch planks mounted on blocks and the backs are fastened to them by the ingenious clamp of cast iron." (16) There was a public playground, rest tents, a rustic dining hall that seated three hundred people, the actor’s dressing rooms, and many private cottages. (17) A favorite pastime of the younger people that attended the Assemblies was to hide near the dressing rooms and watch the actors as they were going back and forth between dressing room and stage. The cabins were ornate and were much more than just summer cottages. It was understood by most of the people that the cabins were an indication of the families’ prominence and wealth. (19) In 1907 when there were approximately eight hundred people living on the grounds the night time scene was described like this: "The grounds present a beautiful appearance at night, dolled over with electric lights   and the lake with a fleet of boats is a constant source of pleasure to the young people." (20)

The location was easily accessible to many surrounding communities because the Illinois traction system ran along the southeastern edge of the grounds and connected with five neighboring towns. The Grounds were open all summer for picnics, family reunions, and other social events. For the people living on the grounds for the summer it was a "favorite resort for those giving house parties and other social functions." (21) People who came to the two weeks of programs could pitch their tents without charge. The son of the farm families would sometimes sleep in the car or under the Spring Wagon, while the ladies of the family could "lodge in the ladies rest room, 50¢ a night if you furnish your own linen." (22) Mid August was the time when the Chautauqua ground began to hum with activity. The big tent would arrive first and then the actors, speakers, and musicians would arrive and be entertained by the prominent families in the community.

There were two kinds of Chautauqua talent that appeared on the Litchfield Chautauqua's stage. One kind was employed because they had done something worthwhile in politics, religion or along professional or scientific lines. Governor Folk of Tennessee, Senator La Follette, and Billy Sunday were of this type. The other kind were chosen because of their personal merit or talent. The people seemed to preferred the later.

A typical two week program of a Chautauqua night might have included some of both types of entertainment. There would usually be one or two "drawing cards" such as Billy Sunday or William Jennings Bryan. There was almost always a temperance such as Colonel George W. Bain. He was billed as the "Silver Tongued Orator." (23) A noted clergyman was almost always included in the program, for instance, Dr. Frank Wakely Gunsaulus performance prompted these words from the local reviewer: "His   address was a scholarly product." (24) For the farmers and other men who could only take their culture in small doses the program would include someone like D. Ward King, the inventor of the split log drag. When he spoke at the Chautauqua his subject was, "Good Roads Without Money." The Lesser attractions would have been someone like Wallace Bruce Ansbury who was an "interpreter of homely phases of life which were left unwritten and unsung.'' (26)

The musical part of the program was supplied by such acts as The International Opera Company. Their performance drew these remarks from the reviewers of the Montgomery News: "The International Opera Company are pronounced about the best musical aggregation of the session by those who claim they understand music.....The Houn' Dowg Song sound just as well to my ears as the operas of 'Fried Dearvolar' or 'Sick Travatore." (27) It is apparent that not everybody's idea of culture was the same.

A troupe such as Catha Woodland Players would have provided the dramatic section of the program. This particular troupe was composed of fifteen actors, entertainers and musicians. This was the review they received: "They presented 'A Midsummer’s Night Dream' in a most artistic and realistic manner under the trees and stars at night, but as it rained steadily all through the performance the stars were not visible to the naked eye.” (28)

One or two really bad acts were bound to show up in an otherwise successful season and the small town critics spared no words in letting their opinion be known. The following are two very good examples:

Tuesday night a slim, lady-like gentleman who writes for the Ladies Home Journal delivered a lecture on "The Pillar lifter". His name is Roscoe Gilman Scott and he is quite well known to the readers of the Journal..... There was no evidence that he wears a corset or a wrist watch. Some or his ideas were quite masculine but his voice was all shot to pieces, hence he didn't lift his pillar as high as he otherwise would. (29)

Dr. G. Whitefield Ray had two big snake skins, some parrot feathers and a lot of other paraphernalia.... (He) condemned everything to eat except meat. He claimed he lived on meat... and as a result he was as strong as Samson and as agile as a chimp. He claimed to have been a missionary and after his lecture he sold histories of his life for a dollar a throw. We don't believe he sold enough to justify another edition, because the audience was cold, unfeeling, unresponsive and full of doubting Thomases and tightwads. (30)

Others that appeared at the Litchfield Chautauqua throughout its active years were Miss Lenora Lake, temperance leader, Dr. Carolyn E. Geisal, temperance leader, Champ Clark, Democratic Minority leader, and Ruth Bryan Owens, the daughter of Williams Jennings Bryan. (31)

Besides the programs that were offered during the Chautauqua season there were arts and crafts workshops where one could learn anything from bookbinding to leather tooling. There was a domestic science course for the ladies and a physical education program for the young people. The young peoples' groups also had courses in Indian Lore and nature. There was a kindergarten for the younger children. (32)

In the Hillsboro community there has been for many years an observer who writes letters to the Editors of the Montgomery News. He comments on things that are going on around the community. He has been known to several generations as "Ol Bill Loper." These are a few of the comments that Bill wrote about the Chautauqua.

We went down to the tent and heered that musical company from Chicago git rid of the awfullest bunch of mixed noises that I ever heered. The tiners voice sounded like Doc Vick Bost's capon trying to crow. (33)

He also had some perceptive remarks to make about the quality of food that was served at the grounds.

I bot a sandwich that wuz stunted and hadent growed to full size before it wuz picked... the meat in it wuz ever bit as thick as a sheet of tissue paper and then to keept he the cockroaches, the ants, and other insects from carrying off the meat, they had stuck a toothpick through the sandwich. It wuz one of 97 they made when Chawtauky started and which they hadent sold yet. (34)

Besides the programs that were
The decline of the Chautauqua first became apparent in 1914 when it was decided that something new was needed to boost the attendance of the Chautauqua. Home talent nights talent were introduced both to bring out more people and to cut the costs of hiring talent from the Chautauqua Talent Agency. A queen contest was started to raise funds and draw interest in 1916. (35) This was the year that nightly motion pictures were introduced as a form of entertainment to supplement the stage performers. (36) This was in fact inviting the enemy into the fort because the popularity of motion pictures was one of the factors that was the cause of failing interest in Chautauqua. In 1916 a water pageant consisting of local people was introduced and the degree of its realism was noted by this article:

Mr. Dunn was very realistic in the scene where he came near being drowned. It was so realistic that a little fat traveling man from Morrisonville tried to rescue him....and he fought like a tiger when he was held back. (37)

In September of 1917 the minutes of the directors meeting noted that the financial conditions of the Chautauqua was in need of improvement and several money raising schemes were discussed. (38) The situation went from bad to worse and after several years of complete inactivity programs were started again, but the entire venture was met with very little enthusiasm. The last Assembly was held in 1931   and the organization was disbanded in 1938. (39)

Perhaps one of the more important reasons for the decline was the popularity of the automobile. By 1917 the Model T and other autos similar to it were very modestly priced so that many more families could afford them. Now leisure time activities were more available because of the automobile. The movies, the radio, and better communication and transportation in general meant that many people had found new ways of seeking "culture." The First World War was fast approaching and newspapers and radio made it very real to the Midwesterners. It was not a time to think about having fun at Chautauqua. All of these factors worked together to the disadvantage of the Chautauqua.

The effects of the Chautauqua on this community and many more of the same type throughout the Midwest has been far-reaching. First and most importantly it opened the door to culture in the small farm communities. By its correspondence educational programs, it set the example for many of our correspondence schools of today. Many of the book clubs, and other things of this nature probably owe the germ of their existence to the Chautauqua's "culture by mail" program. The face that is constituted an open forum for issues of the day has had great influence on Midwestern political and social thought and even in a lesser way affected the small weekly newspapers attitudes and writings. It most certainly was one of the forces that helped to bring Girl Scouting, Boy Scouting, and other youth activities into the Midwest. The domestic science programs that it started can still be found in the farm communities. There are now educational programs for women such as the County Institutes, and Home Bureau. The fact that it presented practical programs of learning for the farmers has helped to influence the farmer's opinion toward scientific farming methods. For the short time that it was an active force, the Chautauqua's spirit of education and culture became so deeply and permanently ingrained that some of the effects are such that they could never be completely separated from the pattern of the Midwestern culture as we know it today.

The Chautauqua today is tangled and over grown with brush. If one searches through the underbrush foundations of the dining hall, cabins, bathhouse, and the performers’ dressing rooms emerge. The Site of the big tent is the only relatively clear spot. The lake is slowly drying up and crossing the long foot bridge is now a precarious adventure. No one goes there unless it is by accident or a few who are fascinated by the past for man and his culture have moved out and nature has taken up residence again.

 

Footnotes

1. Gould, Joseph E., The Chautauqua Movement, (New York, 1961) P. 4.
2. Gould, P. 4.
3. Lucille Nieman, Litchfield, Illinois, earlier research unpublished, P. 9.
4. Mrs. Alberta Johnstone, personal interview May 9, 1967.
5. Lucille Nieman, P. 1.
6. Nieman, P. 1.
7. Rose, James A., Document of Incorporation, State of Illinois, P. 1.
8. Document of Incorporation, P. 2.
9. Constitution and By-Laws of the Litchfield Chautauqua Assembly 1906, P. 1.
10. Constitution and By-Laws, P. 12.
11. Constitution and By-Laws, P. 12.
12. Montgomery News, July 8, 1913, P. 1.
13. Constitution and By-Laws, P. 12.
14. Minutes of Meetings of the Litchfield Chautauqua Assembly, August 1912.
15. Lucille Nieman, P. 8.
16. Montgomery News, July 26, 1907, P. 3.
17. Lucille Nieman, P. 8
18. Mrs. Alberta Johnston, personal interview May 10, 1967.
19. Mrs. Merle Best, personal interview May 19, 1967. 
20. Montgomery News July 26, 1907, P. 1.
21. Montgomery News July 18, 1916. P. 1.
22. Montgomery News July 23, 1915, P. 3.
23. Montgomery News July 26, 1907, P. 4.
24. Montgomery News July 26, 1907, P. 4. 
25. Montgomery News July 2, 1907, P. 4.
26. Montgomery News July 26, 1907, P. 7.
27. Montgomery News August 23, 1916, P. 1.
28. Montgomery News August 16, 1912, P. 2.
29. Montgomery News August 24, 1917, P. 2.
30. Montgomery News August 8, 1916, P. 6.
31. Mrs. Evelyn Johnson, personal interview.
32. Mrs. Merle Best, personal interview.
33. Montgomery News August 1, 1916, P. 3.
34. Montgomery News August 22, 1913.
35. Montgomery News July 28, 1916.
36. Montgomery News July 28, 1916.
37. Montgomery News August 28, 1917.
38. Montgomery News Sept. 7. 1917.
39. Hughes, Edward J., Document of Dissolution, State of Illinois.

Bibliography

Gould, Joseph E., The Chautauqua Movement, (New York, 1961)
Constitution and By-Laws of the Litchfield Chautauqua Assembly, 1906.
Rose. James A., Sec'y of State, Document of Change of Name, State of Illinois, 1910.
Hughs, Edward J., Document of Dissolution, State of Illinois, 1938.
Rose, James A., Sec'y of State, Document of Incorporation, State of Illinois, 1906.
Selby, Paul A. M., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Montgomery County, Vol. II, (Chicago. Ill.)
Workers of the Writers Program, State of Illinois, Hillsboro Guide, (Hillsboro, Ill. 1940.)
Illinois Historical Records Survey Project, Inventory of the County Archives of Illinois No. 68, (Chicago, 1939.)
Minutes of the Meetings of the Litchfield Hillsboro Chautauqua Assembly, 1905-1938.
The Montgomery News 1905-1938.
Chapman Brothers, Portrait and Biographical Record of Montgomery and Bond Counties, Ill., (Chicago, 1892.)

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