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Johnny Vardeman: Chautauquas were popular gatherings in late 1800s
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Chautauquas, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were a conglomeration of educational lectures, music, sermons, comedy and sometimes political oratory.

The chautauqua movement originated in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., an outgrowth of a kind of long-running camp meeting setting that evolved into lectures and music. Its founders were Methodist ministers Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, who wanted to stimulate a thirst for knowledge. Vincent lectured in Gainesville in December 1897.

Chautauquas spread through the North and West, growing into the South in the late 1800s. They were aimed at rural areas, which had less access to educational opportunities, entertainment and prominent speakers, and sometimes would run for more than three weeks.

Gainesville came into the picture in 1897, and its chautauqua was enough of a success that it inspired a Chautauqua Association led by such prominent citizens at the time as H.H. Dean, H.H. Perry, as well as A.W. Van Hoose and H.J. Pearce of Georgia Female Seminary and Music Conservatory, the predecessor of Brenau College. Interest was so high, $1,400 was raised in a few minutes to support the next chautauqua.

Unfortunately, the 1898 version was spoiled by rainy weather as many of the events were held outdoors, some at Chattahoochee Park at the end of what is now Riverside Drive. Many stayed in tents alongside Lake Warner in the park.

The chautauqua went into the hole by $400. Admission prices were low, $2 to $2.50 for the season, which allowed admission to a lengthy schedule of events.

Perhaps the highlight of Gainesville’s chautauqua history came in 1899 when former Democratic presidential nominee and renowned orator William Jennings Bryan spoke for two hours on “Pending Problems.” Gov. A.D. Candler of Gainesville, also a speaker, was instrumental in getting Bryan on the program.

When Bryan arrived at the train depot at the end of South Main Street, Gov. Candler escorted him in a parade around the square up Washington Street to Yonah Hall on the seminary campus. Crowds along the way waved their handkerchiefs as the entourage passed.

In his speech, Bryan railed against financial powers’ self interest, wars for conquest, trusts and imperialism. Hundreds shook his and Candler’s hands as they left the school auditorium, which we now know as Pearce Auditorium, center for most of the activities.

A parade featuring various organizations, carriages and buggies often preceded the opening of a chautauqua. One parade contained 100 floats and was two miles long. The programs in the days following would include a bevy of speakers, comedians, brass band contests, spelling bees, orchestras, competitive singing, quartets, fiddling, shape note choirs, jugglers, magicians, a 100-voice local choir, trained animal acts, flower shows, whistling recitals, yodeling and sermons.

Some years the Gainesville chautauqua would fall during the Fourth of July, and appropriate patriotic celebrations would be staged. People from all over the state and even other states would attend as the railroad would reduce fares for those attending.

Perhaps because stockholders had to cough up more money, the Chautauqua Association seemed to move out of the picture after several years. Various sponsors would come forward, including what became Brenau College and the local Chamber of Commerce.

Chautauquas spawned somewhat of a speakers bureau, with orators making money and names for themselves on a nationwide circuit. Gainesville’s H.W.J. Ham, nicknamed “Snollygaster,” became a popular speaker and humorist throughout the country. Another Gainesville product, the Rev. O.J. Copeland of First Baptist Church, also spoke at several chautauquas around the South.

The 1907 Gainesville chautauqua was tainted with controversy. The Georgia Female Seminary had changed its name to Brenau and wanted the new name attached to the chautauqua. Some in the community, including the Gainesville News, opposed that, saying that the chautauqua should promote Gainesville and its assets rather than a single entity.

The newspaper also criticized the Brenau chautauqua as “fake” and “a farce” because of the quality of the program. The chautauqua also charged season ticket holders extra for certain parts of the program, which didn’t sit well with some of those attending. Churches were disappointed because they had suspended Sunday services to allow their members to attend.

Brenau President H.J. Pearce countered that the chautauqua was conducted only in the best interests of the overall community and not just the college.

As a result of the controversy, however, the Gainesville chautauqua formed a circuit that also included Dublin, Newnan and Eufaula, Ala. More citizen involvement also was promoted, and the 1909 chautauqua that ran for 26 days in July was operated with 13 committees that included hundreds of Hall County residents.

Flowery Branch had its own three-day chautauqua in November 1913, featuring concerts, lectures and a magician. Buford also conducted one, and other communities across the state, including a big one in Macon, followed suit.

Chautauquas seemed to fade after one in Gainesville in 1918, though another was announced for the New Holland auditorium in October 1921. The advent of movies and radio provided more entertainment and information options for the people.

Nationwide, however, they continued into the 1930s. Several chautauquas remain permanent institutions around the country, including one in Monteagle, Tenn., and Plains, home of former President Jimmy Carter.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.