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Chautauquas in Kansas

Chautauqua in OttawaChautauqua began in 1875 primarily as a forum for adult education at Lake Chautauqua, New York. Almost immediately imitations began to spread throughout the country. Towns built permanent pavilions to house these summer cultural programs. In an attempt to lure bigger audiences, the programs increasingly replaced traditional scholars with popular orators and theatrical acts of the day. This trend became the norm with the rise of traveling Chautauquas around 1900.

The first Chautauqua in Kansas was at Bismark Grove, Lawrence, in 1878. Several more towns began to participate, including Topeka, Abilene, El Dorado, and Pittsburg. In 1883, Ottawa held a Chautauqua in Forest Park, where it was an annual event until 1915.

As organizers of the 1896 assembly explained: "Chautauqua is a great university whose students are scattered in homes, on farms, in shops and factories, in towns and mining camps, in cars and ships, wherever a human soul carries the love of learning. Then once a year they flock to the great assembly to study under competent professors, to round up the year's work, to receive diplomas, to form new classes, and to go back to life's duties refreshed and inspired."

Many participants camped at the park during the Chautauqua assembly. In 1897 activities at Forest Park lasted for 12 days.

Winfield was another site of a "permanent" summer Chautauqua from 1886 to 1924. Lincoln Park at Cawker City was the third Kansas town with a well-established Chautauqua beginning in 1897.

Organizers of traveling Chautauquas offered a wide variety of acts. Their programs included famous theologians, world travelers, politicians, moving pictures, and musical groups. After 1900 traveling Chautauquas made the rounds from town to town across the country. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate, was a favorite speaker on the Chautauqua circuit.

After 50 successful years Chautauquas began to lose their audience appeal. The Great Depression in the 1930s hastened their demise but their closing can be largely attributed to the radio, automobile, and talking pictures. These innovations brought an end to small town isolation. By 1932 only a few Chautauquas remained.

Entry: Chautauquas in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.