A century ago, it was a big deal when a Chautauqua came to town. Think of a Chautauqua as a traveling “Ted Talk” series — a popular event featuring lectures and performances carefully curated to inspire and educate.
Held under tents in rural areas and small cities, the Chautauqua became an American educational institution.
The Chautauqua came out of the lyceum movement, an earlier traveling self-improvement series of lectures and discussions that flourished around the time of the Civil War. After the war, lyceums lost their erudite focus and featured more vaudeville than education.
The Chautauquas re-embraced intellectual curiosity, oratory pursuits and exhibitions of culture.
Originating in Chautauqua, N.Y., early Chautauquas were organized by communities for themselves.
The first profit-minded Chautauqua business was started by Iowan Keith Vawter when he bought an interest in the Redpath Lyceum Bureau of Chicago in 1901.
He moved the headquarters to 916 16th St. NE in Cedar Rapids and renamed it the Redpath Chautauqua Bureau of Cedar Rapids. Also known as Redpath-Vawter, the company created the first Chautauqua circuit in 1904.
Cedar Rapids the Hub
Cedar Rapids quickly became the largest hub of Chautauqua activities in the Midwest, with 135 Chautauquas taking place in Iowa and surrounding states by 1909. The Redpath “system” had territories extending through the Plains states to the west and south toward the Gulf. Territories in the east covered New York and New England.
For $1.50 in the early 1910s, Midwest Chautauqua-goers could hear Dr. Lincoln L. Wirt speak of his arctic explorations and the Mauer Sisters perform cornet, flute and violin solos.
They could see a snippet of “Othello” performed by Edmund Kean and hear Detroit Times editor James Schermerhorn advocate for “fearless, non-partisan newspapers.” There were operatic vocalists, bell ringers from Switzerland, businessmen speaking on civic duties and suffragettes making a case for voting rights.
Warren G. Harding delivered Chautauqua speeches on Alexander Hamilton before he became president. So did Teddy Roosevelt, who lectured on the American work ethic. Roosevelt later called Chautauquas “the most American thing in America.”
At Coe College
Cedar Rapids Chautauquas were held at Coe College’s athletic field. Young men from Coe often took summer jobs with Redpath-Vawter.
Willis Lamkin, a 1926 Coe graduate, wrote of his memories as a Redpath-Vawter “property man” for a few summers, traveling with small and large Chautauquas. He set up and tore down tents and stages, ripped tickets and did all manner of odd jobs.
Cities with populations of a few thousand would get a five-day Chautauqua in a tent that held 300 people. Chautauquas on the seven-day circuit played to cities of 3,000 to 15,000, with a massive tent that could accommodate a thousand attendees.
Lamkin recalled watching William Keighley directing and acting in plays before leaving the circuit to direct Hollywood films. One year, Lamkin’s “duties as assigned” involved donning a pirate costume as an extra in a mutiny scene for a play called “Captain Applejack.”
Lamkin watched a Hawaiian troupe perform traditional island songs in grass skirts, helped child prodigy Mabel Sperry get her xylophone on and off the stage and heard 1924 Democratic presidential candidate John Davis speak.
He fell in love with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, “The Gondoliers,” performed by a 30-person troupe and a full orchestra. Lamkin remembered the sadness of the last day of the tour, lamenting that he’d never see most of the speakers and performers again.
The Chautauqua industry peaked after the first World War. In 1920, there were 21 touring companies operating 93 circuits in the United States and Canada. In 1924, 12,000 U.S. cities towns and villages hosted some form of a Chautauqua.
Each year’s arrival of Chautauqua time in Cedar Rapids came with a coordinated booster-driven effort to immediately secure the contract for the next year’s event. Cedar Rapids newspapers tell of business leaders parading from downtown to the Chautauqua site at Coe, led by David “Sousa” Turner to “whoop ’er up for Cedar Rapids and the Keith Vawter Chautauqua system.”
The Chautauqua was devastated by the Great Depression and then doomed by the rise of radio and television. Tent-based cultural programming would never recover.
Vawter bought interests in banks in Center Point, Coggon and Walker. He and his family would leave Cedar Rapids for Walker and then Marion, where he died of a stroke in 1937 at the age of 64. He is entombed in the Chapel of Memories Mausoleum at Cedar Memorial.
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Vawter was hailed for bringing culture to rural America. For much of his 25 years living in Cedar Rapids, signs on the edge of town proclaimed: “Cedar Rapids, Ia. Home of Keith Vawter. Founder of the circuit Chautauqua.”
Today there is no memorial, plaque or statue in his honor in Cedar Rapids.
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org