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Chautauquas entertained, enlightened before TV, radio

POSTED: September 6, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Scientists and assorted tinkerers were just beginning to dabble in radio about the turn of the 20th century. It would be a couple of decades before entrepreneurs and listeners would realize its potential as a mass medium.

Silent movies were waiting in the womb. Television wasn’t even on the radar, which also hadn’t been developed at that time.

Nevertheless, people in those days of the late 1800s and early 1900s found ways to entertain themselves, at the same time educating themselves.

Chautauquas became popular all across the United States, but especially in rural areas. They got their name from the original Chautauqua in a lake community by that name in New York.

They spread to Gainesville in 1897. Chautauquas usually were several days long and included music, stage shows, speakers, lecturers, humorists and sermons by ministers. Religion was a part of the events because Methodists originated them in New York.

Local newspapers aggressively promoted them. Communities across the state and neighboring states competed for the best speakers, the most entertaining entertainment.

Chautauquas not only attracted local people, they drew audiences from other communities, even other states. They were good for hotel and restaurant businesses, and in the Gainesville area the health resorts because they usually were a summertime activity.

Railroads reduced their rates for passengers during Chautauqua time.

Many of the events took place on the campus of Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, later to become Brenau University, or public buildings such as the courthouse.

What were then called "secret societies," the Masons, Odd Fellows, Red Men, Knights of Pythias and Woodmen of the World, took a leading role in the local chautauquas. They would open the programs with a parade through town and would be joined by brass brands from surrounding communities. Bands often competed for prizes as part of the program. The Winder band won $25 in gold for its performance in the third annual Gainesville Chautauqua in 1899.

That also was the year famed orator William Jennings Bryan was the featured speaker at one day’s program. He was a popular personality at other chautauquas and drew an overflowing house for the one in Gainesville.

That summer’s Chautauqua ran from June 26 to July 8. It included numerous lecturers, concerts, quartets, a military band, competitive singing, fiddling, Sacred Harp music, orchestras, magicians, jugglers, comedians, a 100-voice chorus and a spelling bee.

A.D. Candler of Gainesville was governor at the time and naturally gave one of the speeches. Programs would begin early in the morning and conclude in the evening. A season’s ticket, which covered every event, cost $2.50.

One of the most in-demand speakers on the Chautauqua circuit was a Gainesville man, H.W.J. Ham, a journalist who edited the Gainesville Eagle and later published the Georgia Cracker. Ham served in the state legislature, where he earned a reputation as a witty and eloquent speaker. As he delivered his humorous speeches around the country, it became such an avocation that he had a difficult time filling the numerous requests.

As radio, movies and other forms of entertainment grew, chautauquas began to fade in popularity by the 1920s. However, they’ve never disappeared entirely, and some permanent ones continue to operate in different forms today across the country.

• • •

SSS tonic, an iron supplement, was touted as a cure-all for many ailments back in the day. It’s been around almost two centuries. Seldom do you see politicians openly endorse products or services today, but that hasn’t always been the case. Gov. Candler unabashedly promoted SSS in a full-page newspaper ad.

The governor’s name has stuck around Hall County a long time. Candler Street for many years was the location for an elementary school by that name. Presumably, the community of Candler on Candler Road, Ga. 60 south, was named for him.

And there once was a high school named after him: A.D. Candler High School in the community of Belton, which merged with its next-door neighbor Lula in east Hall County in 1956.

There also used to be a Piedmont High School in downtown Gainesville.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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