By MIKKI SCHWARZKOPF
JEFFERSON, Iowa, April 7, 2021 – Chautauqua!
President Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing about America.” Chautauquas were based on the idea that learning continued throughout life. The Chautauqua Movement’s mix of education and entertainment was the predecessor of today’s NPR, and TED talks. At the time, it was dubbed “the common people’s college.”
Imagine no radio, TV, or other gadgets – only occasional newspapers. That was life in Jefferson and Greene County in the early 20th century. But Chautauqua week, once a year, brought the outside world to you. Speakers & entertainers traveled to small towns across the country.
Chautauquas were always held in huge tents. (Jefferson’s tent seated 2500 people!) And because they were held in tents, people today exclaim, “Oh, a Chautauqua was like a circus!” But no, Chautauqua was definitely not like a circus.
As Paul Stillman wrote in the 1905 Jefferson Bee: “Did you ever notice the difference between the advertising matter for a Circus and a Chautauqua Assembly? One is gay, bold, glaring, showy; the other is quiet, plain, substantial, wholesome. One appeals to the senses and to curiosity; the other to the intelligence and the reason.”
Jefferson’s Chautauquas ran from 1905 until 1931.
In the early 20th century, Chautauquas featured polar explorers, senators, World War I heroes, inventors, preachers, humorists, and musical performers of all kinds. Jefferson even hosted a native South American tribal chief.
You could buy a single or a season ticket. Mrs. M.C. Sayers got her money’s worth on this season ticket in 1915 and attended most performances.
Lots of local people got involved. Orel Garland wrote in his 1917 diary that “I and Aaron and Cecil B. went up in the morning to help with the tent… Nellie phoned Lillie and we all went to Jefferson to hear Verne Marshall on the war. Got back about 11:00.” A few days later, he wrote, “We all went down to Jefferson in p.m. to chautauqua. There was an indian chief singer and talked about Chile. Good. We all went up to the tent meetings at night.”
Nellie Oxenford also had diary entries about her visit. Aug. 7: “…we went to Jefferson to hear Verne Marshall speak on the war. A very large crowd there. 398 cars, 28 buggies.” On Aug. 12, “I went to Garlands for dinner and went to Jefferson p.m. to the Chautauqua.”
Our Greene County Historical Museum provided some old photos from Chautauquas here. No dates, but on some, names were written on the back. I’ll include those later.
Many of those performers who came here were famous at the time, but 100 plus years later, we only recognize a few names, such as these:
–Evangelist Billy Sunday, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
–U.S. Rep. William Jennings Bryan, of Nebraska, argued against the gold standard, and was famous as the prosecution attorney at the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” arguing against teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Bryan spoke so often on the lucrative Chautauqua circuit, that many chided him for neglecting his elected duties.
–Temperance fighter Carrie Nation, who broke up saloons and said, “Men are nicotine-soaked, beer besmirched, whiskey greased, red-eyed devils.”
—Farm leader Henry Wallace, head of a family that served the nation from the community of Orient, Iowa, came to the Chautauqua circuit as a campaigner against rural poverty. Known as “Uncle Henry,” he was a passionate advocate for farmers. A senator once told Wallace’s pastor, “I pity you to have to preach to a man as brainy as Henry Wallace.” Uncle Henry was an advisor to then-President Theodore Roosevelt, and promoted the Agricultural Extension Service. He co-founded Wallace’s Farmer magazine with his sons Henry C. and John in 1895. His grandson, Henry A. Wallace, became Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President to Franklin Roosevelt.
But I’ll introduce a few who spoke or performed here who were once famous but are now less well-known. I’ll finish with the evolution of our own Chautauqua Park.
One of the most interesting, but little known, were the Jubilee Singers.
These were groups of accomplished Black singers. The first group was from impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., formed in 1866. The university started in an old Civil War Army barracks, and taught former slaves, many of them still teenagers, how to count their wages, how to write the new names they had chosen for themselves, and how to read both the ballot and the Bible.
The university treasurer proposed taking Fisk’s most gifted singers on a fundraising tour of the North. They followed the northern path of the Underground Railroad, starting in Cincinnati. But they made very little money, while enduring cold and illness on the road.
After many weeks, the group began to sing spirituals – “Steal Away” and other songs associated with slavery and the dark past, sacred to our parents,” as soprano Ella Sheppard recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the music African Americans had sung in fields.
“Every church wanted the Jubilee Singers from that time on,” wrote Maggie Porter. They sang for Mark Twain, President Ulysses S. Grant, congressmen, diplomats, and also toured overseas for seven years, raising enough to save their school.
Jefferson’s Chautauquas began in 1905, so it was too late to host the original Fisk Jubilee singers. But nearly every year, groups of Black Jubilee Singers came to Jefferson, usually to raise money for Black colleges. These included The Nightingale Jubilee Singers, Williams Dixie Jubilee Singers, Sterling Jubilee Singers, Eureka Jubilee Singers, and others. The Eureka singers even dressed in clothes that slaves might have worn on plantations.
Greene Countians were moved by hearing spirituals for the very first time. Favorites were “Midnight When I Rise,” “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “Steal Away.”
CAROLYN E. GEISEL
She held three medical degrees and traveled thousands of miles under the auspices of the Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium, often giving more than 400 speeches in a season relating to social, moral, physical, and mental hygiene. Geisel established 16 rescue homes for girls and created chairs of health at many girls schools and colleges.
She recommended a yearly checkup for everyone, and believed people take better care of their automobiles than of their bodies.
In her 1914 Jefferson speech, she got us to ponder: “We could carpet this state with the bodies of babies who died in this country last year. Why do so many babies die? Because mothers are ignorant. We spent $90 million in taxes last year to educate farmers on raising pigs. Why don’t we spend as much money educating women to raise children? We have put science behind the farmer. Why not put science behind the mother?”
This scientist and inventor was a colleague of Thomas Edison and a close friend of magician Harry Houdini. Wood held many patents, including a torpedo that could detect the sound of an enemy propeller, which revolutionized warfare, and the 2-button light switch, which can still be found on older homes.
At the Jefferson Chautauqua, Wood produced handwriting on the side of the tent with a ray of light acting as his crayon. He invited audiences to wrestle a 24-inch gyroscope fitted with an equilibrator that could throw a man to the ground as if he were a rag doll.
He also amazed audiences by sending a monorail car on a slack wire above aisles in the tent. It also used the new gyroscope to keep the car level.
ANNA DICKIE OLESEN
Only two years after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, Minnesotans had the chance to vote for the first woman ever to be endorsed by a major political party for the U.S. Senate in the election of 1922. Anna Dickie Olesen, whose name was once known from coast-to-coast in political circles, counted William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt as good friends.
It was said that she spoke with such flair and magnetism that you could almost see the rays shining out among the audience. She was listed in “Who’s Who in America.”Her opponent was in Washington, D.C., and didn’t plan to return to Minnesota to campaign, because it was only “some Swede woman” running against him. A friend looked up in surprise, and exclaimed, “That’s no Swede. She’s a Welsh woman and the devil rides her tongue. You’d better get back to Minnesota!”
She lost the election, but commented, “Prejudice is the enemy of progress. Eventually there will be a woman in the U.S. Senate. Why not now?”
Chief Caupolican was billed as a “real Indian.” He was born in Chile, and he sang and spoke about mistreatment of South and North American native people. Despite his native headdress, he was a thoroughly modern man. In addition to Chautauquas, he performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera and in vaudeville.
SENATOR J.K. VARDAMAN
Senator J.K. Vardaman of Mississippi was known as “The Great White Chief” and was a controversial speaker. Vardaman had gained electoral support for his advocacy of white supremacy, saying: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” He appealed to the poorer whites, yeomen farmers, and factory workers.
The 1912 Jefferson program booklet described Vardaman as “The White Man’s Candidate,” mentioning that he was elected by a 6 to 1 majority after campaigning dressed in white, riding in a white carriage drawn by six white mules. The booklet states, “You may not agree with him on the negro problem, but he is…a fiery Southern orator and a universal favorite among the Chautauquas.”
THE LOCAL ORGANIZATION FOR CHAUTAUQUAS
The first Jefferson Chautauqua Association was formed in 1905. Shares of stock were sold in 1905 and 1906 to help pay the expenses for tents, facilities, and hiring entertainment.
The first directors included James A. Henderson, E.B. Wilson, I.A. Roberts, Paul E. Stillman, Edward W. Foy, John Stevenson, and A.J. Oblinger. The 1905 Chautauqua was very successful, and the directors set right to work to book dates and talent early, since there were over 40 Chautauquas across Iowa competing for entertainers.
The board of directors varied over the years, later including S.J. Sayers, J.A. Henderson, D.L. Howard, Paul E. Stillman, and J.M. Forbes. In 1930-31, members included Dr. J.K. Johnson Sr, P.L. Cockerill, Dr. D.E. Lyon, Clyde Slininger, W.E.S. Hutcheon, R.H. Maloney, and W.A. McDonald.
The first Chautauqua location was on the southwest corner of Lincoln Way and Grimmell Road, on an acreage owned by the Jefferson Loan Company. The Camden apartment complex sits there now.
A large tent was rented, and there were places to tie up horses. It included food stands and “sanitary facilities.” Season tickets were $2 for the week. Individual tickets were 25 cents.
For a few years, Chautauqua week was in July, but most years was held the first or second week of August, when farm work slowed. It never interfered with the county or state fairs since both were held later.
The Chautauquas were so popular that the local Chautauqua Association began looking for a permanent home.
In 1915, the association bought some lovely and wooded land from J.M. and Edith Forbes for the Chautauquas. Nearly 150 people across the county pledged money to purchase the land which later became Chautauqua Park and Kelso Park. Donors got the benefit of a free season ticket.
The original deed stated that if someday the Chautauqua Association no longer held assemblies & abandoned the property, the land would be given to the City of Jefferson. Donors were listed on the deed. If you’re interested in finding if your own ancestors were involved, all the donors are listed at the end of this article.
The entrance to the Chautauquas was on the east side, where a pillar with a commemorative plaque now stands, donated by Home State Bank and Jefferson Monument Works.
There was originally an impressive white arch marking the entry. A huge tent was raised near the west end of the park, where the skating rink is now. The tent could seat 2,500, as I mentioned earlier, and measured 90 by 150 feet. A popcorn stand was set up just north of the tent, and the vendor had a hard time keeping up with demand, especially when the wind was blowing from the northeast.
Along the south boundary, Russell Street, a row of tents was set up for rent. Many farm families tented for the whole week. Each tent’s rent was around $3, depending on the size. Business at the Head House hotel on the courthouse square was also brisk, with rooms at $2 per person.
Jefferson’s Chautauqua also drew travelers who were passing through town.
Chautauqua was only one week long, but the grounds were used for other events during the year. They were rented for family reunions, picnics, and wedding receptions.
Chautauquas lagged in the late 1920s, partly due to the Great Depression, radio, and new moving pictures. Chautauqua was only once a year, but big-name performers became available every day.
By 1931, the association was $672 in the red, and no more Chautauquas were held. So the park was given to the City of Jefferson, as planned. It wasn’t until 1962 that the west portion became Kelso Park, named after former city councilman Jack Kelso.
Congratulations and thanks go to the early Chautauqua organizers in Greene County. They brought residents education, culture, and entertainment.
LIST OF CHAUTAUQUA SUBSCRIBERS IN 1915
Black, John R.
Black, Thos. K.
Brown, Geo. M.
Cockerill. Chas. G.
Cockerill, Mrs. Hattie
Enfield, Minnie A.
Flack, Geo. W.
Frederick, Mrs. Ida
Gamble, Fred E. & Bro.
Haag, Minnie B.
Hamilton, Dr. D.C. Jr.
Howard & Sayers
Jefferson Bottling Works
Lyon, Will I.
Martin, Mrs. Mary K.
McDonald, W.A. Jr.
McDuffie, M. G.
Myers, Mrs. Mary C.
Noyes, Mrs. E.A.
Oliver, Mrs. D.W.
Ostin, Mrs. Densmore
Phillips & Cudahy
Smith & O’Brien
Smith, J.E. & H.E.
Smith, Walter H.
Stillman, Mrs. E.B.
Stillman, Paul E.
Taylor, S. H
Warrington & Cockerill
Mikki Schwarzkopf, of Jefferson, the author of this story, is a member of the Greene County Iowa Historical Society. She loves researching community history, and sharing it in stories and programs for the society. For this story on the Chautauqua Movement in Jefferson, she explored resources at the Greene County Historical Museum and was assisted by Abby and Margaret Hamilton, Dianne Piepel, Jane Millard, The Jefferson Public Library, and Tom Morain’s book “Prairie Grass Roots” on early Greene County history. You can write to her by email at email@example.com.