Key Concepts

PDF Print E-mail

CHAUTAUQUA:  THAT SPLENDID INSTITUTION

By Mary G. Butler


                  It was a warm and humid summer night in the small southwestern Michigan town.  As the professor finished his rousing oration, the audience in the huge tent rose as one, saluting the orator with a sea of waving white handkerchiefs – the Chautauqua salute. 

                  The Chautauqua salute was the symbol of one of the most important phenomenon in American society for over half a century.

                  Chautauqua began in New York state during the summer of 1874 as an annual religious and educational program held at Chautauqua Lake.  The idea spread as hundreds of independent Chautauquas were established at resorts and campgrounds across the country.  Always seeking a way to reach an even broader public, the traveling tent Chautauquas began in the first decade of the twentieth century. 

                  Chautauqua reached the peak of its national popularity in the 1920s, when it is estimated that one of every three Americans attended a Chautauqua event.

                  The western part of New York state witnessed the beginning of this adventure in learning.  In August 1874 a Methodist minister, John H. Vincent, and an Ohio businessman, Lewis Miller, started a summer school.  They wanted to instruct Sunday school teachers how to organize, manage and teach Sunday schools.  In addition to religious instruction, the Chautauqua Association provided lectures on popular social topics and family recreation on the shores of the lake.

                  Five years later, the Normal School of Languages was added to the curriculum.  In the following years, additional courses were introduced, until the Chautauqua became a summer university.  Before it was finished, the Chautauqua movement involved an extensive set of summer and year-long programs, publications, examinations, fees and awards.  

                  During the first years of the program on the lakeshore, the Chautauqua resembled a large summer camp.  As the program grew more popular and varied, permanent buildings were constructed, including hotels, lecture halls, club houses and summer homes. 

                  The first attempt to spread the influence of the Chautauqua experience beyond the physical confines of western New York state began in 1878.  The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was formed to offer a four-year home-study correspondence course in the humanities, sciences, theology and social studies.  In its first year, over 7,000 people joined the reading course, forming study circles all around the country.  In the next twenty years, the CLSC established more than 10,000 study groups around the nation, enrolling approximately 300,000 adults eager for more knowledge. 

                  There were thousands of people across the country who had been forced to give up their dreams of higher education for economic reasons – farmers, factory workers, and, in particular, women.  In her autobiography, the famous female journalist Ida Tarbell described the excitement in the meeting she attended where Dr. Vincent outlined his vision of a home study course.

                  The uplifted faces all about me told the story, particularly the faces of the women                   of thirty or more.  Women of that generation had had their natural desire of                   knowledge intensified by the Woman’s Rights movement, in which the strongest                   plank had been a demand for the                   opportunity for higher education.  These                   women were now beyond the day when they could go                   to college, but here was                   something which they saw intuitively was practical.

                  The study course reached Calhoun County relatively quickly.  The Battle Creek chapter of the Chautauqua Literary Circle was “small but flourishing” in 1880 as it diligently examined English literature.  These “zealous workers” devoted themselves to “taking the full course of study prescribed, and purposed to maintain their organization to the end.”

                  One of the CLSC offerings was the Health and Efficiency League, which included a correspondence course in health and hygiene developed by Battle Creek Sanitarium experts.  According to the 1913 History of Calhoun County:

                  The correspondence course embraces a series of prepared courses on food and                   diet, health exercises, home nursing and other types of hygiene, home                   economics. … In addition to securing individual students, an organized effort is                   made to form health clubs in every community, the members of which are to                   study in groups, and listen to lectures, demonstrations, etc., afforded by the                   department.

                  The Chautauqua Institution offered the equivalent of college degrees in the Schools of Philosophy, Education and Theology.  Over 50,000 people actually completed the four-year program of required reading and examinations to earn their Recognition Day awards.  Additional thousands enrolled in the Correspondence College, the Teacher’s Retreat and the School of Physical Expression.  Many more purchased the Chautauqua publications. 

                  The success of the publications can be seen in the striking example of Outlines of Economics, a textbook written especially for CLSC by economist and labor reform advocate Richard Ely.  This text, on what is generally considered to be an esoteric topic, sold 200,000 copies.  Understandably, Ely was fully convinced of the widespread influence of the Chautauqua concept.  In his 1938 autobiography he wrote:

                  No one can understand the history of this country and the forces which have                   been shaping it for the last half century without some comprehension of the                   important work of that splendid institution.

                  But even with the success of the Chautauqua schools and publications, there were still thousands of people across the country who yearned for the opportunity to improve themselves.  But this potential audience could not travel to New York state.  The obvious solution was to bring the Chautauqua to them. 

                  As early as 1886 there were 38 independent Chautauquas around the country.  Some were established at existing camp meeting grounds, like Michigan’s Bay View Assembly Programme and the Summer University at Petosky.  Others created their own “summer cities.”  Each “daughter” assembly chose which aspects of the Mother Chautauqua to adapt to its own geographic, religious or economic circumstance.  However, certain elements were common to all.  The camp focused on the central auditorium, or “tabernacle.”  Other necessary buildings included the dining room, a hotel, boarding house and cottages for participants.  Frequently the campus of the independent Chautauquas also included a cottage or tent for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, office buildings and a general store.

                  Eventually there were almost 300 daughter Chautauquas around the country (and six abroad), offering families a “vacation place with a purpose.”  Recreation, including swimming, tennis and lawn games, was an integral part of the Chautauqua experience.  But the demanding daily schedule, running from six in the morning until the nightly “quiet bell” ended the day at ten, was filled with classes, devotions and programs. 

                  Despite the success of the home-study course and the numerous assemblies scattered around the country, there was still a large element of the population left untouched by the Chautauqua experience.  This was especially true in the isolated small towns and rural areas of the south and midwest.  The challenge was to develop a program to reach these neglected areas. 

                  There was already an established lyceum circuit which operated across most of the country, bringing self-improvement lectures and discussion groups to large and small towns.  After the Civil War, commercial enterprises like the Redpath Lyceum Bureau successfully sponsored famous speakers on lecture circuits.  The independent Chautauquas wanted to attract these big names to their summer assemblies and they sought alliances with the lyceum bureaus. 

                  However, logistics were complicated and the lyceum bureaus had difficulty supplying the needs of all the far-flung Chautauqua assemblies.  Frequently, assemblies in different parts of the country were scheduled for the same dates, or performers had to travel long distances on the train between engagements.  There was great competition between the Chautauquas for the available talent, which raised the costs for all the participating assemblies.

                  Keith Vawter, a Chicago entrepreneur, solved the problem by buying a one-third interest in the Redpath Lyceum Bureau.  In 1904 he launched the first Chautauqua circuit, linking several assemblies and some additional towns without an existing Chautauqua into a special designed tour itinerary.  Lecturers moved on a specified course from one town to another, presenting a uniform roster of talent at each location.  This system provided full time work for the performers, shortened travel between engagements and reduced the expensive competition among assemblies. 

                  The first Redpath Chautauqua circuit served fifteen towns in Iowa and Nebraska.  By 1907 the route had grown to thirty-three towns and the fundamental pattern for the next twenty-five years was established.  According to the contract, Vawter furnished all the talent, tents, advance advertising and work crews.  The local citizens were responsible for the ticket sales in each location.  Typically the local sponsors had to sell between three to four hundred season tickets in advance in order to break even financially.  Breaking even was critically important to these local “guarantors,” since they were individually responsible for paying Redpath any deficit. 

                  In 1909 the seven-day Chautauqua program was introduced.  In each location, the schedule was the same.  The train rolled into town on Monday morning and the tents were set up by the traveling work crew.  By the afternoon the “tent city” was ready for business.  After the last program was completed on Sunday night, the work crew struck the tents, packed everything into a baggage car and the whole production moved on to the next town. 

                  The final refinement to the system came the next year.  Each performer was assigned a specific day on the program, which remained consistent during the entire summer season.  The first-day talent performed, then left for the next site.  In the meantime, second-day talent was arriving from a prior engagement.  A Redpath platform manager remained tin town for the entire week, directing the flow of the total production. 

                  Using this efficient system, several simultaneous Redpath circuits criss-crossed the country.  Michigan was served by Redpath-Chicago, which began the season in the south during the spring and worked its way north as the summer advanced.  The Chautauqua usually reached southwest Michigan in late July or early August. 

                   At the height of its influence after the end of World War l, there were twenty-one companies operating ninety-three different Chautauqua circuits around the United States and Canada.  In 1920 alone more than thirty-five million people attended programs in over eight thousand towns. 

                  In each circuit town the Chautauqua program was sponsored by a committee, usually local businessmen.   This committee signed a contract with the Redpath sponsor, guaranteeing full payment irregardless of the number of tickets sold. 

                  In the weeks before the arrival of the Chautauqua, there was extensive advertising.  Newspapers carried daily announcements of the program schedule.  Street banners stretched over major thoroughfares and flyers were distributed by small boys earning extra pennies.  Finally the Chautauqua train pulled into town early on a Monday morning.  There was a parade to the grounds and the crew of college boys, known as the “anvil chorus,” began setting up the massive brown tent. 

                  Calhoun County’s interest in Chautauqua first surfaced in 1902, when a movement began in Battle Creek to sponsor an assembly.  The Business Man’s Association called a mass meeting, at the urging of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium.  He introduced H. A. Collins of Havana, Illinois, who expounded on the benefits which a daughter Chautauqua would bring to the city. 

                  It will call to your city hundreds and thousands of brainy men and women every                   year, and Battle Creek cannot help but be benefited by their presence in or near                   the city.  In the first place they will spend much money here and in the second                   place they will make your city known even further abroad than it is now.

There was even a suggestion that a flyer promoting the Chautauqua could be placed in “every package of health food that leaves Battle Creek,” capitalizing on the cereal boom which was bringing hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs to the “Health City.”

                  Despite the rather ingenious promotional possibilities, the proposed assembly did not materialize.  It was not until 1908 that the “great educational treat” actually came to Battle Creek.  A ten-day program opened on July 17 on the shores of Goguac Lake.  The entire event cost the local committee $3,000 to mount, of which, $2,000 went to the speakers. 

                  With great enthusiasm, and exhaustive detail, the local newspaper described the scene that greeted the visitor to the lakeside encampment:

                  A stretch of several acres has been bound in by a barbed wire fence and the                   high, dry ground, bounded by trees east and west, with glimpses of the lake to                   the west, with the open sky, with                   rustling breezes through the leaves, makes an                   ideal camping place and an appropriate setting for the famous Chautauqua                   assembly.

                  After passing through the turnstile next to the ticket booth, patrons were greeted by the sight of a city of “small tents, medium sized, and of various shapes,” erected around the “mammoth auditorium tent, 90 by 140 feet, seating from 1200 to 1500 people.”  The main tent was obviously not new, being “weather-beaten, patched and seamed, but tough and rain-proof.  Two great poles support its center and give it a mountainous outline.”

                  Inside the tent, “the speakers’ stand faces the east and the dressing tent joins it from behind.”  The food concessions, which were open “all hours of the day and night,” were operated by the Chautauqua management.  The dining tent, right next to the main tent, was “carpeted with clean shavings.  A white counter decorated with shining glasses and ice cream cones” ran down one side and the center was “neatly arranged with tables for four throughout, where ice cream, lemonade, tea, coffee and dainty lunches will be served, costing according to order from 5 cents up.  The cooks’ tent looks promising with its gasoline ranges and appurtenances.”

                  The grounds were equipped with all the modern conveniences.  “The great tent, dining tent and grounds will be lighted with electricity.  An information tent, furnished with both phones, will connect city and vicinity.  The sanitary arrangements are all that could be desired.”

                  If the visitor became fatigued, both the Woman’s League and the Woman’s Club maintained “reception tents for the rest and accommodation of members.”  Mothers who brought young children could find relief in the “large square tent” which was also used for the “Seton Indian instruction program for children and adults.”

                  For the evening program, the entire campground blazed with light.  Electric lights were placed “methodically” around the grounds, but they “reached a climax of arrangement in the auditorium.  Strung high on wires, they reach from the side poles and from thence to the two center poles, looking like a galaxy of stars.”

                  The interior of the tent was prepared for the speaker. 

                  The platform, three or four feet high, is artistically covered and draped in red,                   white and blue with six half rosettes of stars and stripes at the foundation of the                   stand.  Red, white and blue drapes hang from the wall at the back, over which the                   stars and stripes are placed.  The doorway is blue drape, opening into the                   dressing room behind.

                  By eight o’clock, the “tent was well filled and the audience well-fanned, for W. C. Phelps, the grocer, had distributed fans with pictures of Scottish lovers in a field of wheat.”  All was ready for the program to begin, including the weather.  Right on cue, the “rain began to patter down gently as the speaker took the stand.”  Thus began the time-honored tradition of “Chautauqua weather” in southwest Michigan – rain!

                  For their $2.00 season tickets, Chautauqua patrons could attend all the varied attractions of the “Ten Day Educational, Music and Amusement Event of the Year” between July 17 and 26.  Single adult admission to any program was a quarter, while children paid fifteen cents.  The newspaper admonished its readers to save their money for the “privilege of the next ten days, and … [not to] drop their nickels for a few moving pictures.”

                  The first night opened with the orator, L. B. Wickersham, who “held the vast assemblage spellbound” with his discussion of “Day Dreams.”  He returned the next day to present his “even greater lecture, ‘The Chickens Come Home to Roost,’ delivered with impassioned eloquence, spiced with witty stories.”

                  Meanwhile, Mrs. Fuller Smith, “gifted entertainer of children,” organized the Seton Indian Camp, where the city’s younger set prepared for a pageant on the Chautauqua’s final day. 

                  For the next several days, orators alternated with sacred music concerts, trumpet quartets, cartoonists, male and female glee clubs, religious missionaries, handbell choirs, humorists, violin soloists and world travelers.  Lenna Frances Cooper, dietitian at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, presented a “domestic science lesson and a demonstration in the shape of potato croquette served to a large audience of ladies by white-robed waitresses from the Sanitarium.”

                  Grapes and birds proved to be particularly popular topics.  E. A. Potts delivered a “vital lecture” on ‘Sour Grapes’ while H. V. Adams countered with ‘Grapes of Gold.’ The “Great Bird Man” was a “rare treat for nature students.”  Col. I. W. Brown, who was billed as the “best authority on bird lore in the United States,” spoke for over an hour on the habits and habitat of the purple martin and the swift swallow. 

                  The greatest attraction of the first Chautauqua appeared on the final day.  The former baseball star turned the “Napoleon of evangelism,” Billy Sunday performed on Sunday, July 26.  The public reaction to his presentation was almost uniformly negative.  The audience felt that he was a “rank failure as a preacher of the gospel, although as a coacher on the side line of a baseball diamond, he might be a huge success. … The lingo he used sounded more of the barroom than it did of the Bible. “

                  Notwithstanding this minor disappointment, the city considered the area’s first Chautauqua a rousing success.  The large tent was full for most events and the promoters came close to breaking even on the event.  Although there was little profit in the venture, it did “better than any Michigan Chautauqua has done to date.”  The backers were already preparing for the next year’s event and promised to make the Chautauqua “a permanent feature of our summer event.”

                  They kept their promise.  Year after year the tents of the “People’s University” appeared on the shores of Goguac Lake.  The Industrial Association continued to offer “the combined privileges of High Class, Uplifting Entertainment, Boating, Bathing and Fishing among such perfect environments” to an appreciative public. 

                  In 1910 a separate Chautauqua Association was organized to take over the production from the over-worked Industrial Association.  National headliners appeared here regularly, including the crowd favorite, William Jennings Bryan.  The ten-day event was still a combination of uplifting oratory, music and popular entertainment. 

                  By 1913, the organizers were selling a thousand advance tickets and were, as always, promising “the best offering the Battle Creek Chautauqua has ever had.”  The added attraction this year was the opening night appearance of Mabel Cox, “a local girl.”  The singer was featured in the “Dinner Pail Man,” presented by the Redpath Grand Opera company.  The rest of the week was filled with appearances by the Bohumir Kryl band, “Dramatic Interpretations” by the Boy Scouts, a debate on “Is Socialism Desirable for the United States?” followed by children’s night and a sacred concert.  In the middle of the week, an afternoon program opened with the Marx Trio, followed by a lecture with the intriguing title, “The Dawning Consciousness of Woman’s Sex Loyalty.”

                  Despite the popularity of the ten-day Chautauqua, it was not until 1914 that the organizers actually broke even.  Unfortunately, the one unpredictable feature of the summer tent Chautauqua was the weather.  The summer of 1915 was an unusually rainy one and attendance was greatly reduced.  The Redpath lost money and members of the local organizing committee announced that they were resigning. 

                  The local Y.W.C.A. came to the rescue and agreed to sponsor the 1916 event.  Assuming a $1750 guarantee to the Redpath Lyceum bureau, the Y.W.C.A. booked sure-fire crowd-pleasers like William Jennings Bryan and raised the season ticket price to $2.50.  With high hopes they began the summer season, planning to put their Chautauqua profits into their building fund.

                  At the beginning there were problems.  The first evening session, featuring William Jennings Bryan, began in a “drenching downpour” – more Chautauqua weather.  The local newspaper commiserated with the sponsors:

                  In other years it has happened that no matter how dry the weather might have                   been before and after Chautauqua week, that week was sure to be marked by a                   continuous drizzle, increased at intervals to storms.  One concession to the                   probable rain has been made by the Chautauqua management this year, in the                   placing of a tent over the ticket-taker’s stand.

Despite the rain storm, several thousand were on hand to hear Bryan speak on “equal suffrage, prohibition and world-wide peace.”  He was introduced to the crowd by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and an early advocate of the Chautauqua concept.  While Bryan was in Battle Creek, the former secretary of state was a guest at the Sanitarium.

                  In his oration, the “Great Commoner” told his listeners that he had been on the Chautauqua circuit for twenty-one years “to present subjects worth while to audiences worth receiving them.”

                  Mr. Bryan based his talk on three pictures. …The first section, an argument for                   woman suffrage, had as its inspiration a famous Madonna.  The second division,                   an argument for prohibition, nationwide, was based on the painting ‘Breaking                   Home Ties.’  And the climax, the argument against war and preparedness, was                   based on the painting, ‘Christ Before Pilate.’

                  By the next morning the rain had stopped and spirits were rising.  The day began with the children’s hour, “all things considered, the pleasantest part of the whole busy Chautauqua day.”  Most of the time was spent in selecting the children who would take part in the “Bird Masque” on Friday night.

                  Boys as bluejays and woodpeckers, girls as canaries and red-winged blackbirds,                   hopped and                   fluttered about the platform this morning in the practice of the                                     dances for the bird pageant, and                   the spectators seemed to enjoy it all as much                   as the small ‘actors ’did.  The children are to practice every morning at 8:30, the                   story hour to follow.    No charge is made for the children who attend the story                   hour. 

                  The rest of the Chautauqua week proceeded as usual, with the standard assortment of lectures, musical programs, interpretative readings and humorous entertainment.  On Thursday Allen D. Albert, “an expert who has visited many cities,” took the podium.  He presented a diagnosis of the city of Battle Creek finding “much to praise … and also much to criticize.”  In general, Albert was unfavorably impressed with the city’s infrastructure, especially the condition of the streets, the number of sewer connections and the inadequate park acreage.  He judged that the “school system was behind the times, with only four of the twelve school buildings secure against fire.”

                  Lest he completely antagonize his audience, Allen searched for things about the city which he thought were positive.  He praised the low death rate, the absence of “organized commercial vice” and the uniformly good labor practices as well as the excellent food inspection and health quarantine systems.  He called Battle Creek the “richest city in the United States, in the sense of possessions earned by the people.”  He explained that the city had the “largest per capita deposits” that he had ever found in the nation.

                  On Friday night, the much-anticipated “Bird Masque” was presented.  A full tent of beaming parents watched as the children performed in the “unusual and greatly interesting” program.  The “quaint little production, half play, half fantasy, brought out the inmost spirit of bird life and the truth that men and birds, after all, are friends and brothers.” 

                  The masque and accompanying lecture must have been effective, for a Battle Creek Bird Club was formed on the spot.  The bird man, Ernest Harold Baynes, was quite accustomed to this response to his program.  This was the 92nd bird club he had formed in the months he had been traveling with the 1916 Chautauqua circuit. 

                  The musical highlight of the Chautauqua was the performance of the White Hussars, who “thoroughly delighted their audiences.  For it was music that made it hard to keep one’s feet from beating time, that made the blood flow faster.”

                  Despite the popularity of the programming, the season was not a financial success for the Y.W.C.A.  Even the money they made from the sale of concessions had to go toward covering expenses, leaving no money at all to put toward their building fund.  Completely frustrated, they “decisively declared” that they would not sponsor the event the next year. 

                  The Redpath agents were once again looking for a sponsor for the 1917 season.  Despite the acknowledged quality of the presentations, the Chautauqua was an “orphan” in Calhoun County.  This discouraging state of affairs did not last long however, as the newspaper announced that, not one, but two, Chautauquas would be presented in Battle Creek that summer.  Because more than half of the necessary advance tickets had been sold to meet the guarantee, Redpath decided to take a gamble and go ahead with the season.  In the meantime, the Maple Street Methodist Church had engaged the Lincoln Chautauqua.  Both programs did proceed and were pronounced artistic, if not financial, successes. 

                  The war years intervened and no local Chautauquas were held during the summers of 1918, 1919 and 1920. 

                  When the Chautauqua tours resumed after the war a few changes had been made.  There were more circuits traveling around the country.  Several smaller units offered three and five-day programs for the towns which could not support the seven to ten-day Redpath events.  During the 1920s the Mutual-Morgan Chautauqua company presented several successful programs in Marshall.  The “fifty local guarantors were able to forward $900 to the home office” at the conclusion of the four-day season in 1923.  All the 600 seats, plus standing room, were filled for the three-act comedy, “It Pays to Advertise” presented by the Misner Players. 

                  A three-day Chautauqua played in Augusta for several summers during the 1920s.  The season ticket was an affordable $1.00.  Although the sponsors did not make money, “that was not the object.  Augusta paid $500 for the Chautauqua and the low price for the tickets brought in a large crowd.”

                  The Redpath programs were also shorter in Battle Creek, running for only seven days, instead of the original ten.  In 1921, the Kiwanis Club became the local sponsors and continued in that role until the shows closed a decade later.  The tents were pitched in the “manual training grounds,” now known as the high school athletic field, along Champion Street.  The price of the season ticket went up again, to $3.00.

                  Youth work became an increasingly important part of the Chautauqua week.  For several years, there had been a Children’s Hour at the beginning of each day’s events.  The program included story time and rehearsals for the pageant the children presented on the last day.   By the 1920s, the children’s hour had evolved into a much more elaborate program known as “Junior Town.”  On the first day, the children gathered to organize their activities.

                  During Chautauqua week the Junior town will hold forth, the children electing                   their own mayor, marshal, town clerk, health officer and other officials and                   setting up city government for themselves through which they will learn                   something of citizenship.

The Junior Town participants met each morning at 10 o’clock to run their mock government and to rehearse for the obligatory musical show they would present on the final day. 

                  During the decade of the 1920s, the tent Chautauqua gradually became less important in the life of the city.  No longer the most exciting event of the year, it was now only one of the city’s “warm weather attractions.”  The area, and the country, had changed.  The geographic isolation of the small midwestern and southern towns was ending with the improvement of both roads and cars, not to mention the proliferation of mail order catalogues.  Rural electrification and the new means of communication – radios, telephones, talking motion pictures – brought all parts of the country closer together.  A wider variety of entertainment was now readily available to a large new audience. 

                  The onset of the Depression signaled the end of the Chautauqua.  The last touring tent show played in Calhoun County in 1931.  The final national tour of a Chautauqua was in 1932.

                  Although the period during which the tent Chautauquas were a dominant force in American cultural life was comparatively short, they brought national attractions to countless small towns across the nation.  Farmers and their wives who might never have ventured more than a few miles from their hometowns could see and hear, in person, the great public figures of the world. 

                  The Chautauqua also had a definite educational value.  The programs stimulated public discussion of the great social and political issues of the time – temperance, women’s rights, war and peace, imperialism and educational reform.  Chautauqua speakers were certainly leaders in the fight against the liquor interests and the annual summer programs probably played a role in shaping public opinion in favor of prohibition. 

                  Chautauqua covered the spectrum from inspirational and impassioned orations to small time magicians and bird callers.  It was an idea, an event and a period of time in this country’s history that will never come again, but has irrevocably shaped the kind of nation we live in today.  Truly, the Chautauqua was the “People’s University.”



THE PRIMA DONNA ARRIVES

                  At noon on August 11, 1915, a special Pullman car pulled into the Grand Trunk railroad station in Battle Creek.  The waiting crowd was rewarded with the fleeting sight of a “medium sized woman, of pleasing appearance, with round smiling face and large, blue eyes.”  Miss Alice Nielson had arrived.

                  “The most adorable of opera prima donnas” was in town to appear on the closing night of the Chautauqua.  Her concert, “as is already known, will draw the largest crowd” of the 1915 summer program, was “resplendent with many interesting features.”

                  The American-born singer was one of the regulars on the tent show circuit and was an audience favorite whenever she performed.  Raised in Kansas City, Nielsen began singing in church choirs and amateur opera companies.  She traveled the country, gradually working her way up in the musical world, until she finally went to Europe to sing among the “foreign-born Grand Opera stars.”  She performed at Covent Garden and even sang Mimi in “La Boheme” with the famed Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso.  She eventually came back to America and sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and toured across the country. 

                  The Chautauqua management pampered their most famous singer, sending her to her engagements in the “cozy home on wheels” especially designed by the Pullman Company for the comfort of celebrities.  The newspaper rather wistfully reported that, “in keeping with her policies, she granted no ante-concert interviews, but was a gracious and charming hostess,” as she allowed the reporter to tour her traveling quarters.

                  The railroad car contained a reception parlor, sleeping compartment, private lounge, spacious dining room, kitchen and special berths for aides, all furnished in a “lavish manner.”  The same car had been used by Teddy Roosevelt, President Taft, Lillian Russell and Sarah Bernhardt. 

                  Alice Nielsen left her mark on the Pullman car.  Reportedly, “everybody in the car sings, George, the chef, not excepted.  In the reception room there is a piano.  Scattered all through the car are hundreds of copies of sheet music.  Folios containing selections from the world’s greatest composers are kept under lock and key, many of them having been given to Miss Nielsen on her tours abroad and at home.”





LOCAL TALENT GOES NATIONAL

                  Little Mabel Cox, the hometown singer who appeared in “The Dinner Pail Man” in 1913, was not the only Calhoun County talent who traveled the Chautauqua circuit. A number of local celebrities lent their talents to the national Chautauqua.

                  Ella Eaton Kellogg, wife of the Sanitarium director Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, was a nationally-known health food expert in her own right.  She was a leading figure at the Bay View Chautauqua Assembly School of Cooking.  Another Sanitarium dietitian, Lenna Frances Cooper, appeared at several tent Chautauquas, lecturing on and demonstrating the preparation of health food meals. 

                  In 1911, Battle Creek attorney Louis Stewart toured the Pennsylvania circuit, speaking on temperance and the “Local Option.”  He was accompanied by one of the most colorful characters to appear on the Battle Creek health reform scene, Barnarr McFadden, also known as “bare torso McFadden” because of his delight in showing off his remarkable seventy-year-old physique.  McFadden operated a health spa in Battle Creek at various times between 1908 and 1922, once in the Fieldstone Building before it became the annex to Dr. Kellogg’s Sanitarium, once at Camp Custer and lastly, as the International health Resort on Capital Avenue.  He was a flamboyant, and genial, con artist with a gift for self-promotion.  He must have been right at home on the Chautauqua platform. 

                  Not all Battle Creek’s contributions to the national circuit were interested in social causes.  Impersonator Clarence Burgderfer, who died in Battle Creek in 1953, traveled to all forty-eight states with the Redpath organization.  He appeared on the same program with Herbert Hoover, Howard Taft, Helen Keller and the ever-popular William Jennings Bryan.  Burgderfer’s act included “mimic characterizations and humorous talks.”