The Devils Lake Chautauqua
In 1874, a summer school for Sunday school teachers was founded on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State. Participants stayed in tents, and eventually built permanent homes. Over the years, the assembly grew until it became Chautauqua Institution, a 750 acre educational center. It still exists, and between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 7,500 people are in residence on any given day. Classes are offered in everything from music to literature to the arts to boating and even tennis. Guest speakers have included Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin Roosevelt as well as experts in fields like economics and politics. Attendees can attend theater, opera, and dance performances. Performances in the amphitheater have included opera and ballet stars, the U.S. Army Field Band, and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
Chautauqua Institution is a wonderful experience for anyone able to travel to western New York State. But talent agencies recognized that not everyone can do so, so they created “circuit” or "tent” chautauquas – traveling events that became popular, especially throughout the west. A Chautauqua was established at Devils Lake in 1893. Speakers over the years included Teddy Roosevelt, Carry Nation, Billy Sunday, and William Jennings Bryan.
On this date in 1896, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican noted that the Devils Lake Chautauqua season was in full swing and promised a full schedule. Approximately 550 people were camping on the grounds. The schedule was so ambitious that extra performances and presentations had been added. 1,200 people attended a concert by the Temple Quartette of Minneapolis, and concert goers said it equaled “any $2 concert they ever listened to.” Upcoming lectures included “American Composers” and “Thirty Days on an Arabian Horse in Syria.”
The traveling Chautauqua provided an opportunity for communities to come together over the course of a week. They could hear speakers and see performances that would ordinarily be out of their reach. Chautauquas provided stimulating discussion on the important issues of the day.
The 2016 season is underway in Devils Lake. North Dakota First Lady Betsey Dalrymple gave a presentation on the history of the governor’s residence. A 2016 Young Artist Concert was well attended. Other talks and concerts will continue though the summer. Over the years, traveling chautauquas have come and gone. The Great Depression put an end to most of them. But the Devils Lake Chautauqua has stood the test of time.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Devil’s Lake Chautauqua.” 12 July, 1896.
Devils Lake Bicentennial Committee. A Bicentennial of Devils Lake, North Dakota.” Devils Lake: Ness Printing Company, 1976.
University of Iowa.
Accessed 24 May, 2016.
North Dakota Chautauqua.
Accessed 24 May, 2016.