JEFFERSON, Iowa, May 9, 2022 — A century ago the hottest ticket for entertainment in Greene County – or sometimes for religious or educational programs — was for the “Chautauquas,” which often would pack 2,500 people into a huge tent set up every August at what today is known as Chautauqua Park here.
Mikki Schwarzkopf, one of the most persistent researchers for the Greene County Historical Society, will present a program at 2 p.m. this Sunday, May 15, at the museum in Jefferson on nearly two years of occasional research she’s done into Chautauquas.
Between 1901 and about 1930, the Jefferson Chautauqua Association brought such nationally prominent speakers here as evangelist & former Major League Baseball pitcher Billy Sunday; Congressman & attorney William Jennings Bryan; alcohol abolitionist Carrie Nation, and farm visionary Henry Wallace. There were dozens of others who became stars on the circuit.
“These programs were so popular because they started up in a time when people were really isolated,” Schwarzkopf said. “Remember, the only access most people had to the outside world back then was the occasional newspaper. No TV, at first no radios. These speakers would come in and give our people kind of a connection to what was happening” nationally and around the world.
The Jefferson Chautauqua Association was formed in 1905, and shares of stock were sold to help the organization purchase a tent and chairs, and schedule and pay the traveling speakers.
“Originally the programs were more religious and informative,” she said. “They turned more toward entertainment as time went on – and politics in the later years.”
In the 1930s, with the proliferation of radios and cars, the Chautauqua programs began to fade.
“Scheduling them was always tricky,” Schwarzkopf said. “You had to have them at a time when farmers wouldn’t all be in the field, and not up against the county or state fairs. So here in Jefferson, they seemed to have more of the Chautauqua programs for a week in early August.”
Admission and refreshments for her 2 p.m. Sunday program are free.