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MailTribune.com
  • Chautauqua events faded, but they led to Ashland landmarks

  • I noticed a lot of articles about the Chautauqua festival lately in the stories from 100 years ago. It looked like the festival was going pretty strong in 1914. Whatever happened to it?
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  • I noticed a lot of articles about the Chautauqua festival lately in the stories from 100 years ago. It looked like the festival was going pretty strong in 1914. Whatever happened to it?
    — Jim, Ashland
    Chautauqua was a movement that sought to bring education and enrichment to Americans at annual stops across the country. The very first assembly was in 1874 near Chautauqua Lake in New York, led by Methodist Minister John Heyl Vincent, and expanded nationwide until its decline in the 1920s. Each year, people would flock by the hundreds, and many would camp, to hear Chautauqua's lineup of traveling speakers and musicians.
    "The Chautauqua Society is, in a single sentence, a vast and thoroughly organized plan for home study," wrote Chautauqua Association of Southern Oregon founder Judah S. Smith in the June 18, 1894, Ashland Semi-Weekly Tidings, found courtesy of a helpful Southern Oregon Historical Society volunteer.
    Chautauqua events offered rural Americans affordable classes on elocution, cooking, Bible study, singing, crafts, nature study, painting and physical training, among other topics.
    Rev. J.S. Smith was a Central Point Methodist minister, and the Ashland Chautauqua opened July 5, 1893. The "tabernacle" structure was initially slated to be at campgrounds in Central Point, according to a 1992 Table Rock Sentinel article, but three weeks before the event, a G.F. Billings argued that Ashland offered electricity, city water, better hotel accommodations and easier train access.
    To better accommodate growing demand, larger Chautauqua structures were built in 1905 and 1917, but attendance later dropped, and the organization folded in the mid 1920s.
    Although Chautauqua was a nationwide movement, the local chapter laid the groundwork for a couple of Ashland's largest draws today. The Ladies of Chautauqua Park Club successfully persuaded the city of Ashland to remove an unsightly abandoned flour mill where Lithia Park now sits.
    By the mid-1930s, the Chautauqua structure's roof was sagging, so the city removed it. To Southern Oregon Normal School (later SOU) English instructor Angus Bowmer, the unroofed structure resembled the Elizabethan stages in England, and with modifications, the structure became the first home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
    Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com.
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