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Chautauquas in North Dakota


Around this time of year lots of us look forward to the end of a long work week, because we know what the weekend brings: escape to a relaxing lake cabin. North Dakotans at the turn of the twentieth century looked forward to their weekends, too. It was around now that they were excited about fun, relaxation, and education at a “Chautauqua” getaway.

Chautauquas were travelling exhibitions featuring important public figures, musicians, preachers, and more: endless entertainment for the whole community. They got their name from Lake Chautauqua in New York, where it all began in 1874. Folks in New York wanted a religious themed event that could train Sunday school teachers. In 1878 the event expanded to include a generous serving of the liberal arts. Attendees watched seminars on foreign language, history, art, literature, the classics, music, and more. It was such a big hit that it soon grew into several touring shows that reached all across America. And they didn’t just land in big cities like some of the entertainers of today. Chautauquas brought entertainment to communities large and small, and they were cheap enough so that almost anybody could attend. President Teddy Roosevelt called the Chautauqua “The most American thing in America.”

In 1903, the Fargo Forum reported that on today’s date the popular Chautauqua at Devil’s Lake was going well. “About a hundred tents occupy the grounds,” they wrote, and went on to say that “Carrie Nation attracted a very large number. The woman who wields the hatchet so effectively can talk nearly as well.” (Carrie Nation was a staunch advocate of prohibition who was known for destroying saloons with her famous hatchet.) Chautauquas were also a time for communities to show off their men in uniform; the Forum gloated that North Dakotan soldiers were “receiving compliments galore for the fine appearance they have been making.” And of course there was always room for fun and games; the Forum reported that “nearly every company is talking of organizing a baseball team.”

And it was all great fun, but as radio and movies gained popularity in the twenties and thirties, Chautauquas died out. In 1976, however, the North Dakota Humanities Council decided to bring the Chautauqua back! They spearheaded the movement that would grow to be called the “High Plains Chautauqua.” Thanks to them, visitors can enjoy historical reenactments of what Chautauquas would have been like in the good old days. It is fitting that one of Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite traditions was revived in what he always said was one of his favorite states.

Dakota Datebook by Leewana Thomas


The Fargo Forum, Monday Evening, June 29, 1903 http://www.highplainschautauqua.org/new_pages/history.htmhttp://www.crackerjackcollectors.com/Jeffrey_Maxwell/alphachautauquan/movement.htmlhttp://cms.montgomerycollege.edu/EDU/Department.aspx?id=12404