What is a Chautauqua Experience?: Schmitz to lead exploration of past reminiscences

Chautauqua Institution archivist and historian Jon Schmitz said the Chautauqua experience is worth thinking about.

“What is it really that people like about being here?” he asked.

In asking the question, Schmitz thought it would be good to look at a few people from the past who came to Chautauqua and recorded their experiences.

The result is “We Were Chautauquans: The Experience From Visits Made to Chautauqua in the Past.”

Schmitz and other Chautauquans of the present will read from reminiscences written by Chautauquans of the past.

The event is at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.

Rudyard Kipling famously dished on Chautauqua in an article titled “Chautauquaed,” printed in Abaft the Funnel, a collection of early pieces published by B. W. Dodge and Company in 1909. In his Talks to Teachers on Psychology, the 19th-century psychologist William James praised the sobriety, industry and intelligence of the place but after a week exclaimed with glee to be “back in the dark and wicked world” when he returned home.

There are, however, many positive accounts about Chautauqua, some more subtle, some more ordinary, and, by being ordinary, made more interesting.

Sidney W. Davidson wrote about driving to Chautauqua from New Jersey in August 1920. He and his wife would spend a couple of weeks on the grounds with Sidney Jr., who was 5 months old.

They drove in their first car, a Hupmobile sedan, whose axle broke on the way in Elmira, New York. They finished the trip by train.

An unidentified writer described the 1933 season, a difficult time as the Institution prepared for receivership.

“New faces were not the order of the day,” they wrote. “Most everyone had been here the year before and the year before that, and would be back the next year and the year after.”

This unidentified writer described the grocery stores in the Colonnade, Ralph, the blind newsboy, who sold papers from a stand near the Florida Fountain, and the steamboat that offered a 50-cent round trip excursion to Jamestown.

At the end of the reminiscence the writer concluded, “That’s the way it was the summer of 1933.

There is nothing like that first season at Chautauqua. Those WERE the days. It’s a marvelous experience to relive them — if only on paper.”

Included in this presentation of visions of Chautauqua past, Schmitz will screen a 1923 promotional film about Chautauqua. Schmitz said the film helped people know what to expect at Chautauqua.

“It was the post-war period, and Chautauqua found itself competing with other vacation opportunities,” Schmitz said.

The film reveals the Institution going through a change.

“Chautauqua wanted to maintain its identity as a place that brought together education, religion and recreation, but it had begun to emphasize recreation more than ever, recreation for the family, but particularly for the man,” Schmitz said. “Chautauqua provided an attractive vacation option for the post-World War I family.”