50 States in 50 Days: Chautauqua – a Hidden Gem of Western New York

By James Wolfe, Press Attaché

A Chautauqua Institution House
Photo by James Wolfe

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On a small point on Chautauqua Lake, in the southwest corner of New York State, Reverend John H. Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller launched a small experiment in adult education for Methodist Sunday school teachers in 1874 that quickly started a nationwide movement and profoundly changed the face of education in the United States. Vincent’s The Chautauqua Movement (1886) has been hailed as “the first modern theory of adult education in the United States.” For 9 weeks every summer, people from all across the United States still gather in the idyllic grounds of the Chautauqua Institution to enjoy the ongoing programs based on the four pillars of Arts, Education, Religion (multi-denominational), and Recreation. In the 1980s, Chautauqua hosted a “Soviet Week” program that featured the exchange of performers, scientists, and lecturers with the Soviet Union until the latter dissolved.

Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua Institution
Photo by James Wolfe

In its heyday, the Chautauqua Movement saw hundreds of copycat “Chautauquas” spread throughout the country, either in fixed locations like the original or traveling from town to town with giant tents. The original Chautauqua University was a correspondence program that conducted most classes through the mail and targeted adults. Programs at the original and “daughter” Chautauquas included music, theater, dance, classes in the arts and performance, and lectures. Guest lecturers at the original Chautauqua Institution included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the latter delivering his famous “I Hate War” speech there.

Chautauqua University’s leader William Rainey Harper was recruited as the first president of the University of Chicago in 1892, taking with him ideas from Chautauqua and introducing at a major university the areas he helped pioneer at Chautauqua, including university extension courses for adult education, a university press, affiliations with other academic institutions. Once adopted by the University of Chicago, these practices spread quickly until they were commonplace throughout U.S. universities.

Chautauqua Belle and Miller Bell Tower
Photo by James Wolfe
Chautauqua Institution’s Bestor Plaza
Photo by James Wolfe
Chautauqua Institution Street Map
Photo by James Wolfe
Transportation in Western NY Amish Country
Photo by James Wolfe

The original Chautauqua Institution is still home every summer to an opera, ballet, symphony, theater, and series of popular entertainment, lectures and visiting religious figures. Chautauqua Lake attracts many fishermen, sailors, and others as well – and even has a functioning steamboat, the Chautauqua Belle. Nearby Jamestown – the hometown of comedienne Lucille Ball and musicians Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs – has a small airport, but the nearest larger towns are Buffalo, NY, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Western New York’s Amish country is nearby, interesting for the electricity-free lifestyle, the horses and buggies, the fantastic baked goods, and excellent hand-crafted furniture for sale. Chautauqua County also offers a wide selection of antique stores. If you are planning to see Niagara Falls, it’s worth a detour to spend a few days – or more – in this unique corner of the state.

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