Chautauqua: Educating Rural America

Imagine rural life in 1898.  No cars.  No radio.  No telephone.  No electricity.  At the time only about 50% of caucasian children between 5 and 19 were in school and the percentage was dropping.  For African American children the percentage was a dismal 30%.  Adults were even less educated, spending all their time working on the farm, and rural communities were in essence completely isolated from what was happening elsewhere in America.  However, on July 4 that year 4,000 people attended the inauguration of the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder under the shadow of the massive Flatirons.  Its goal was to bring a schedule of continuous education to rural Americans who were hungry for information, knowledge and entertainment.  Today, the Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three still in existence and the only one west of the Mississippi which has been in continuous operation, still upholding its original values of lifelong learning, love of nature, simplicity, music, oration and art.  That's 116 years!

But the story of the rural Chautauqua is much, much bigger than the one here in Boulder.  Chautauqua was an American movement that started with a goal toward education and enlightenment of adults, and was an offshoot of the earlier mid-1800s Lyceum Movement.  The first Chautauqua was founded in 1874 on the banks of Chautauqua Lake in New York State, where it got its name.  It was created to provide summer education to locals in an attractive setting conducive to learning.  The popularity of the idea spread and soon there were many Chautauqua movements including a large establishment of tent Chautauquas throughout America.  "Chautauqua" in case you are interested, is an Iroquois word which means, "bag tied in the middle", which the lake in NY resembles.

The most American thing in America.
— Theodore Roosevelt

During the late 1800's there were circuits of performers, speakers and educators who traveled between the Chautauquas, bringing the latest entertainment, news, political and religious information from around the US.  It was, at the time, really the only venue for rural America to learn about what was happening and what was popular outside of their communities.  The Chautauqua flourished and grew through the early 20th Century.  However, changes were on the horizon.  The invention of radio and the automobile, which freed rural America from much of their isolation, the women's suffrage movement (and subsequent 19th Amendment in 1920), that provided better education for women, and ultimately the Great Depression all contributed to the eventual demise of the Chautauqua movement.

The Colorado Chautauqua land is now owned by the city of Boulder along with the Dining Hall, Auditorium and Academic Hall.  The city leases these back to the Colorado Chautauqua Association.  Sixty of the 99 cottages are still available for rent, all of them with full access to the elaborate trail system maintained by Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks.  The OSMP claims over five million visitors each year.  

While the history of the Chautauqua is interesting, what is far more educational is spending a day at the Colorado Chautauqua, hiking the trails that lead from the Rangers Cottage, enjoying a great lunch on the veranda of the Dining Hall or listening to a great performance in the Auditorium.  It is most definitely an enlightening experience.