In the days before television, when our grandparents were much younger, entertainment was a very rare commodity in most small towns across the Midwest. Many little, out of the way towns struggled just to hear a fuzzy radio station, and very few, if any, had a movie theater.

So, it was little wonder that everything came to a grinding halt when the Chautauqua came to town. The children would pick wild raspberries and blackberries to peddle to the neighbors and hope to raise a little money for the 15-cent admission fee.

This traveling show circuit would set up a huge tent in the city park or local campground on the outskirts of small-town America. Those who remember the Chautauqua agree it was somewhat different from a traveling circus or a medicine show. The Chautauqua would bring musicians, theatrical troupes, noted explorers, opera companies and first-class orators into even the most isolated communities of the Ozark foothills and the high plains of Kansas.

It was more than simply summertime entertainment. The Chautauqua was more dignified and designed to bring culture and education to the heartland. The event generally came through Kansas in mid-July and August, the hottest time of the year. The famous orator, and one time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan was on the circuit one summer. It was so hot that he held a chunk of ice in one hand to keep cool while he talked with the other hand. He was known to speak for two hours at a time, and when he would overheat, he would rub the block of ice around his face and over his head.

Bryan was not the only famous name to make the Chautauqua circuit. The famed Billy Sunday of Chicago came along to preach his sermon. He had been a baseball player who became a great evangelist.

There were many such Bible lectures, character sketches, ventriloquist acts, vocalists, violin and piano selections, authors and humorists, and even child readings by Emma B. Smith, America’s greatest child impersonator. One of the most memorable seasons involved an Alaskan Eskimo girl, who spoke of her family life, living in an igloo and about the food they ate. In some communities the crew would even take a few local kids and make them part of the act in a theater production.

What is often called the “Chautauqua Movement” began in 1874 on the shores of beautiful Lake Chautauqua in southwest New York State. The original idea was to provide a training camp for Sunday school teachers. The camp soon became famous for its great programs and its promotion of progressive ideas. It offered continuing education classes for adults and young people, correspondence courses, and in 1878, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was formed as America’s first book club.

The concept expanded and became a recognized forum for discussion in many other fields of science and political interest as it spread across the country. The traveling Chautauqua circuits, with their big, brown tents, continued through the mid-1920s before their popularity began to fade across rural America.

The original Chautauqua Institution in New York, however, has grown and thrived over the years and retained its reputation as a cultural center. Each summer it has regular programs featuring well-known authorities from the worlds of business, science, politics, music and education. These programs attract as many as 300,000 participants each year. For information, go to

To contact Ted W. Stillwell, send email to or call him at 816-252-9909.