Excited Sarnians agog when the “Chautauqua” rolled into town

The Chautauqua was set up in Sarnia’s Bayview Park, which once overlooked Sarnia Bay about where Lambton Public Health and Highway 402 are now located. Photo courtesy, Lambton County Archives, 19JA-HA-Parks

Phil Egan

U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt called it “the great travelling university” and by the time it arrived in Sarnia in 1918, Chautauqua had been going four decades.

Immensely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “The Chautauqua” was designed to both entertain and educate. It was a festival of culture and featured speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, and specialists of the day on varied subjects and disciplines.

This adult education movement had spread from its founding in Chautauqua, New York, in 1874. “Circuit Chautauquas,” or “tent Chautauquas” of the type that came to Sarnia’s Bayview Park in 1918, were appearing all across the rural U.S. and into Canada.

By 1918, Chautauqua had permanent offices in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and Dallas; in Toronto and Calgary in Canada; and in Sydney, Australia.

Prior to the erection of the big tent in Bayview Park on April 8 of that year, the Sarnia Canadian Observer ran the first of four stories entitled, “Now Tell Me, What is a Chautauqua?”

It described “a place where folks could get together and hear the best and the biggest men in the country speak; hear the best music by the best musicians; see the best plays put on by the best talent and have a few days of recreation – instructive, inspiring and entertaining as well.”

The newspaper claimed 6,000 U.S. towns and cities States had a Chautauqua each year. So popular was the movement a tented image of the event appeared on a 10-cent American postage stamp.

Chautauqua actually visited Bayview Park twice in 1918.

A three-day event in April was the city’s first “joyous” exposure and led to speculation the capacity houses could have continued all week.

With the heavy losses of the First World War on everyone’s mind, Captain W.J. Hindley spoke on “The Reign of the Common People,” giving a soldier’s views on the reconstruction period that would follow the war.

As The Observer reported: “The festival closed gloriously with the concert of Balmer’s Kaffir boys, assisted by Mr. Balmer and Miss Elsie Clark of Rhodesia, South Africa.”

The Sarnia Summer Chautauqua ran for six days, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 2, 1918, with both morning and afternoon programs.

As the somewhat straight-laced Chautauqua movement became more liberal over time, the bawdier entertainment of Vaudeville became more respectable and the two blended together in the 1920s.

Vaudeville survived as an entertainment form, but as a mass movement the immensely popular Chautauqua faded into the pages of history.