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Chautauquas at Crystal Lake Park

Grounds that are now part of Crystal Lake Park were at one time home to a series of Chautauquas. Chautauquas helped citizens of the time experience first-hand their local and national culture.

Theodore Roosevelt once characterized the Chautauqua as "the most American thing in America."

To understand the Chautauqua movement in the United States, we must first look at its roots. The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught through lecture, discussion, and other educational opportunities in a school outside of Athens called Lukein (named after the nearby Temple of Apollo Lukeior). The school was the foundation for the later movement known as Lyceum.


The U.S. Lyceum movement was created in 1826 by Josiah Holbrook of Millbury, Massachusetts. Holbrook organized groups of all economic, social classes and both sexes. They came together to study, speak on and discuss natural science, history, and community problems. Many sister organizations sprang up here and there, borrowing the name Lyceum from Holbrook.

The idea spread so that by 1850 there were 3,000 Lyceums. ln his travels to promote self-improvement, Holbrook visited Illinois. The Lyceums eventually ran into practical difficulties. Competition for speakers developed, which led to paying cash honorariums. ln turn, the cost of attending Lyceums went up, preventing the masses from participating in a broader education. The Lyceum had been operating for nearly fifty years when Dr. John H. Vincent, secretary of the Methodist Sunday school and later Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Lewis Miller, a businessman active in church affairs (and Thomas Alva Edison's father-in-law), founded the Chautauqua Institution. The first Chautauqua began on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, New York on the evening ofAugust 4, 1874.

The Lyceum movement was never actually related to the Chautauqua, but the two had a common background: the urge of individuals to band together for self-improvement. The ordinal purpose of the Chautauqua involved dramatic interpretation, lectures, outdoor study, camping, physical culture uplift, inspiration-all at very little cost.


In 1878, The Chautauqua Literacy and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was organized for the purpose of supplying popular education stimulus throughout the year to adults of mature age. This home reading circle, which promoted intellectual discipline, gave busy men and women a comprehensive survey of the field of human learning. The CLSC exerted an incalculable influence on Americans and made the name Chautauqua a synonym for popular education throughout the world.


A definite course of reading was arranged on a schedule designed by CLSC to give a world outlook, including history, literature, art, travel and science. A reader enrolled by purchasing a set of four Chautauqua books. Students could read according to the prescribed program or at their own pace. The books were supplemented by a monthly magazine titled The Chautauquan, which included articles related to the yearly themes. An examination was offered as a free service, but was not a requirement to complete the program. Certificates were granted each year, and a diploma was issued at the end of four years to those who completed the full course.


The first Chautauqua in illinois was the Piasa Chautauqua at Chautauqua, Illinois. It was established in 1883 and incorporated in 1886. By 1906, the Piasa Chautauqua had a well-equipped store, a restaurant, three hotels, a barbershop, a newsstand and a popcorn and candy stand. More than 100 cottages and several boarding room houses provided living quarters on the grounds. Tents could be rented for long-term stays.


The first Twin City Chautauqua was held at Crystal Lake Park, Urbana, on August 14-23, 1896. The following appeared in the June 3, 1896 issue of the Champaign County News :

"The Twin City Chautauqua gives every promise of being a success... Twenty great orators have already been secured and it is expected that by the middle of June at least ten more will be booked. The musical part of the program is being arranged. Some of the leading bands of the state and many of the best singers will be present. some of them the entire time. Chautauqua day, August 14, will be free to everybody...

Farmer's day, Aug. 15, is to be full of good things ... Missionary day, Sunday, Aug. 16, is to be one of the best and will be full of interest to all lovers of the missionary cause.

The speakers for political days so far are Dr. Robert Mcintyre, John P. St John, Elder W. H. Boles and Hon. M. L Daggay, Governor Altgeld, and many others will be solicited after the great national conventions have been held. John G. Wooley, Dr. Carlos Martyn, Rev. Sam Small, Sam Jones and others are among the speakers already secured.

It is expected that the railroads will furnish excursion rates. Season tickets are being sold and many are writing to the manager, C. W. Meneley, concerning tenting privileges and he had found it necessary to employ an assistant to answer his many correspondents. The park is being put in excellent condition. The lake will be thoroughly dredged and everything arranged in finest shape long before the time of the assembly.

All children members of the loyal Temperance legion will be admitted free during the entire meeting."

The Twin City Chautauqua opened on Friday, August 14, 1896, in Crystal Lake Park. The bluff overlooking the lake was dotted with seventy-five tents and a large canvas auditorium with a capacity of 2,000 where sessions were held. When one entered the Chautauqua grounds there was a street between two rows of tents, eating and refreshment stands, which led people directly to the auditorium.
Chautauqua Manager C. W. Meneley gave a short speech in which he expressed his satisfaction at the bright prospects for the success of the Chautauqua. He also introduced Dr. Bently, who was in charge of all the platform work. This was the beginning of the Chautauqua era in Crystal Lake Park that would last for more than forty years.

Perhaps the most controversial presentation at that Chautauqua was a debate over the parity of gold and silver and which ought to be the basis for our nation's currency. Mr. W. H. Harvey of Chicago, author of "Coin's Financial School" took the affirmative, while Mr. Edward Rosewater, editor of the Omaha Bee, the negative. According to the Champaign County News of August 19, 1896, the debate was a heated one.

"The debate, considered on its merits as a contest of brains, was overwhelming in Mr. Rosewater's favor. His batteries of fact and logic carried away Mr. Harvey's works and left not a single one of the great free silverite's arguments standing ... That Mr. Harvey received the most applause was due solely, so far as The News can learn, to the fact that a great majority of the crowd were free silverite's and hence prejudiced in his favor from the start. But thinking men agree that, measured as a great mental combat, the Omaha editor scored for the most points."

It was announced that on the next to the last day, that the Chautauqua had a deficit of $1,200 and it was put to a vote whether or not they should incur additional expenses. All the season ticket holders voted to omit Sam Jones, who was to be a speaker at political days after the national convention was over. On Sunday, the Rev. G. L. McNutt called on the people to help out C. W Meneley in the deficit still remaining and make the Chautauqua a permanent thing. McNutt demanded help from those who held complimentary tickets, praising Menelsy's efforts while admitting management mistakes. It seems that the politics were one-sided. By the end of the Sunday service, an additional $500 had been raised. Meneley continued as general manager of the Twin City Chautauqua Assembly for a number of years.

In 1897, the platform manager was the Hon. M. L. Daggy of Greencastle, Indiana. The 1897 Twin City Chautauqua ran August 6-15 in Crystal Lake Park.

The 1897 program included Miss Jane Addams of the famed Hull
House of Chicago, under the auspices of the Confederation of Women's Clubs. An address was given by Booker T. Washington, of Tuskegee, Alabama, on "Solving the Negro Problem in the Black Belt of the South."

Perhaps one of the great sights was a procession of 1,000 wheelmen (bikes) from Champaign to Urbana, led by the Knights of Pythias Band of Champaign. The Diamond Medal Contest under the auspices of the W. C. T. U. was conducted by Mrs. Mary E. Kuhl of Champaign. This contest was held on Women's Day at the Chautauqua.

Following is a representative sample of speakers, singers and bands that participated in the Twin City Chautauqua:

-The Famous Slayton Tennessee Jubilee Singers
-Dr. and Rev. L. C. Bentley of Williamsport. Indiana
-John G. Woolley, Subject, "An Apostle of Temperance"
-Mrs. Ella Stewart, Subject, "Why Women Want the Ballot?"
-Dr. Eugene May, Subject, "Yellowstone Park"
-W. H. Dana, Subject, "In Arctic Waters"ยท
-F. R. Roberson, Stereopticon lecture, "Norway"
-Twin City Chorus
-Twin City Symphony Orchestra
-The Meneley Trio
-Dunbar Male Quartet and Bell Ringers
-Miss Helen Keller, Address, "Happiness"
-William Jennings Bryan, Lecture, "Travel to the Did World"
-Dr. Frederick A. Cook, Lecture. "Fist Man to Have Reached the North Pole"

Over the years of the Twin City Chautauqua, William Jennings Bryan and Dr. Frederick A. Cook drew the largest crowds - an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 people.

In 1909, the Twin City Chautauqua was moved to Chautauqua Park (known then as Busey's Grove). The new Chautauqua Park grounds adjoined Crystal Lake Park on the north. The new Champaign County Fair Grounds was located on the south. The grounds were larger than those of Crystal Lake Park and allowed for more space for tents and teams of horses. The new grounds were lighted with electricity and water was supplied by the city. The Chautauqua Park Grounds are part of what is now Busey Woods. In 1911, the Twin City Chautauqua was moved to the Champaign County Fair Grounds. The sessions were
held in the Fair Grounds Auditorium, and for the first time the Chautauqua was under the management of the Redpath-Slayton Lyceum Bureau. This Lyceum Bureau was the oldest and largest
in America.

The Twin City Chautauqua continued through the 1930s. It came to an end with the Great Depression and the arrival of the radio and automobile.

Text from Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.


official program for Twin City Chautauqua, August 1916 Image courtesy Bill Smith Published in Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.
Chautauqua graduating picture of class of 1904 first row: Mrs. (Boone) Maxwell, Mrs. Anna Grant, Mrs. Bell (Mrs. Gertie), Mrs. Frank Gere, Mrs. Whitmare second row: ?, Mrs. Julian, Mrs. Boggs, ? third row: Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Staley Boggs, Addie Reese, Mrs. Willis Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois
sitting outside tents at Chautauqua Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois
tents at Chautauqua Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois
group of Chautauqua visitors Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois
Renner family at Chautauqua, 1911 includes Julia Renner, Mrs. Lott, Sylvia Renner, Grandma Renner, Stanley Hadden, Fred Reed, Fay Renner, Mrs. Euos Renner, Edna Renner, Euos Phillips, Wendall Renner, Ina Renner, Dorothy Renner



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