In the summer of 1953, Chautauqua Institution was in its 80th year, prompting some reflection on its origin — a material representation of which was published in The Chautauquan Daily in two parts on July 7 and July 10, titled “Early Days of Chautauqua,” by Kate P. Bruch.
She wrote that in September 1871, she attended a small camp meeting at Fair Point on Chautauqua Lake, “the place now known as ‘Chautauqua.’ ” She had been invited by Dr. W.W. Wythe and was accompanied by Margaret Miller, the wife of Jacob Miller, Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller’s brother. At the time, the grounds belonged to the Erie Conference Camp Meeting Association.
Bruch wrote that “Mrs. Miller and I rented a tent that was located on lot No. 16,” the very lot on which the Lewis Miller cottage was later constructed. Hiram Pratt, superintendent of the grounds, told Bruch that until May 1871, “the sound of an axe had not been heard in that woods.”
The trees were immense in size, Bruch wrote; there were seas of nodding ferns, “a profusion of wild flowers, creeping vines, running pine, beautiful mosses and lichens.” The lake was delightful, and Bruch found along it a combination of “cultivated lands — dotted with farm houses” as well as great stretches of uninhabited shoreline covered with thick forest. The lake contained “cool, clear water that sparkled and danced in the sunlight, or gave subdued but beautiful reflection of the moonlight.”
Almost a year later, in August 1872, Bruch, her sister, Lydia P. Kitt, and Lewis Miller attended a session of the “Ohio State Camp meeting for the promotion of Holiness,” held on the fairgrounds in Canton, Ohio. They sat under a tree, separate from the congregation while the religious services were in progress, and they discussed the desirability of camp meetings. Camp meetings were raucous, spontaneous affairs, they said, led by itinerant preachers and devoted to soul-saving and conversion. So it came as a surprise when, after listening to the singing of worshippers at the Canton meeting, Miller asked Bruch and Kitt, “Girls, why would it not be a good thing to have a Sunday School Camp meeting?”
When the women protested that they had had enough of camp meetings, Miller said, “Oh I do not mean a regular camp-meeting; I ought rather to call it a Sunday School out-door meeting or S.S. Wood’s meeting or Institute or Convention, where all persons interested in Sunday School work could meet — say for three weeks — for bible study, normal class work, and general instruction relating to Sunday School work.”
He added that there could be music, lectures and pleasant recreation, and it would all be mingled with “appropriate devotional exercises.” They ended up calling it an Assembly. But first, Miller would have to sell the idea to John Heyl Vincent, then the secretary of the Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Union. Miller wanted Vincent to be head of the Department of Instruction, but from the beginning, Vincent did not think an outdoor Sunday School camp would meet with success.
That detail notwithstanding, Bruch told Miller that “when you are ready to have the out-door meeting, let me name the place.” Miller asked Bruch what she had in mind. She wrote that she answered, “Fair Point, Chautauqua Lake.”
In August 1873, Bruch attended the Fair Point camp again, this time with Jacob Miller and his wife. They were chaperones to a party of young people. She wrote that they reached the “camp ground on the last day of the camp-meeting,” camping there for 10 days before Lewis Miller joined them. “Mr. Miller and party were the guests of our camping party during their stay at the Lake,” she wrote.
Bruch wrote that during their visit, Miller reported that he had discussed the outdoor Sunday School meeting with Vincent. They had taken a carriage ride from Akron to Mount Union, Ohio, to attend commencement exercises. During the trip, Vincent agreed to the plan and “consented to take charge of the Department of Instruction.” They visited Fair Point together in August while the camp meeting had been in session and found the location to be desirable.
They consulted with Dr. Wythe, who favored the project, obtained the consent of the trustees of the Camp-meeting Association and fixed on August 1874 as the time for the first Sunday School Assembly.
Bruch wrote that “there was much to do in ‘settling’ furniture, carpets and curtains in the cottage and tent, and in getting tickets and other things in order for the coming Assembly. The only boarding house was a large, rough building on a hill above us, where we got our meals, as did all who came to lecture or instruct.”
Bruch wrote that Miller felt responsible for the comfort and entertainment of those who came to lecture, providing lodging in his cottage or in the tents nearby. There was great pleasure in meeting and associating with the distinguished persons, “but the many calls upon our time and strength left no time for systematic study. The ‘many things’ would go all wrong for the Marys, if the Marthas were not ‘careful and troubled,’ ”Bruch wrote.
Vincent’s work was beyond praise, and “whenever he spoke, for a longer or shorter time, the people crowded forward eagerly, to hear every word he said,” Bruch wrote. “His wit and his wisdom, were like the waters of a clear, bubbling spring always sparkling and refreshing.”
As for the president of the Sunday School Assembly, Miller “was in demand always and everywhere. He seemed untiring in his efforts to keep all things running smoothly.”
Everything in that first year was deemed a success, but the end would finally arrive. “I will never forget the circumstances attending the last session of the Assembly, the evening before the final breaking up and parting of the next morning,” Bruch wrote. “It was a meeting of thanksgiving and praise to God for the wonderful success of the undertaking.
“Everybody seemed happy, and there was general rejoicing,” she continued. “Words of praise and congratulation were spoken of some who had contributed to the success of the Assembly.” But Lewis Miller was nowhere to be found, nor was his absence noticed. His name was not mentioned anywhere. Bruch and her friends resented the lapse, seeing that the “Father of Chautauqua” — at once the strong foundation and beautiful superstructure — had been utterly ignored.
Upon returning to the Miller home, they found the man exhausted on the couch. He had been called upon to repair some of the machinery used for pumping water “and had been hard at work all evening.” His friends were full of indignation at the omission of his praise during the evening meeting and “could not refrain from giving expression to our feelings,” Bruch wrote. “Mr. Miller lay quiet while we gave vent to our wrath, then simply said: ‘Well, ladies never mind; it matters little who gets the praise, if only the thing is a success, and the work goes on.’ ”