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Jack Klasey: The Chautauqua Assembly comes to town

July 29, 2018

In 1901 — before radio, television and movies — an organization with an odd, hard-to-spell name exposed Kankakee County residents to the wider world beyond its factories and farm fields.

In July of that year, the Chautauqua Assembly brought what it described as “10 solid days of amusement and instruction under the forest trees” to area families. Those “forest trees” were located at Gougar’s Grove on the bank of the Kankakee River, south of the city. Chautauquas would become an annual tradition at Kankakee until the mid-1920s.

Named for the city in New York state, where the movement originated in the late 1800s, Chautauqua Assemblies were well-established in many communities by the time the first Kankakee event was scheduled. Chautauquas filled their days with programs that included musical groups and individuals, speakers presenting travelogues, readers of dramatic or poetic works, magicians, comedy acts and men or women who spoke on inspirational (often religious) themes.

In a letter to the Kankakee Gazette before the first Chautauqua opened here, Manager G.C. Meneley wrote, “The talent we have employed exclusive of their local expense, will cost us about $3,000. We think that we have the best kind of a summer outing to offer the people of this community when the amount of privilege and entertainment is taken into consideration.”

A sampling of programs from that first Chautauqua included concerts by the Famous Dixie Jubilee Singers, an illustrated lecture on “China and the Philippines,” a solo by Miss Helen Darlington, of the Castle Square Opera Co., and an inspirational talk titled “Take the Sunny Side.” Throughout the 10 days of the event, more than 80 programs were scheduled.

The “headliners” of the 1901 event were two men of national reputation: controversial labor leader Eugene V. Debs and popular orator William Jennings Bryan, who had been defeated by William McKinley in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections. Bryan — who also would run unsuccessfully for president in 1904 — was a Kankakee Chautauqua speaker again in 1917.

People attending Chautauqua events fell into two groups: day-trippers who arrived and departed daily by riverboat or carriage from nearby towns and campers who stayed on the grounds for all or part of the 10-day run. Those arriving aboard Capt. William Gougar’s steamboat, Margaret, paid a 10-cent fare, unless they had purchased a $2 season pass to the event, which included the boat fare. Carriage or wagon parties enjoyed free parking included with their 25-cent daily admission to the grounds. In a program booklet for the 1903 event, management stated, “We trust that those who have conveyances will use them when convenient so as to reduce the crowds on the boats.”

People camping on the grounds had several options. They could pay $1 for a spot to pitch their own tent or rent a tent for the full Chautauqua season at rates ranging from $2.50 to $7, depending upon size. Chairs, cots and wooden tent floors were available for extra charges. There also were cottages and inn rooms available at both Gougar’s Grove and A. T. Harnit’s Wildwood Park, immediately to the south.

The 1901 and 1902, Chautauqua programs were presented in a large tent, but 1903 saw the opening of a large permanent auditorium building with seating for 1,000 spectators. Other amenities for attendees were a kindergarten baby-sitting service, a restaurant on the grounds and a fleet of rowboats for rent. Electric lighting illuminated the auditorium and the site’s walkways and unpaved roads — which were sprinkled with water daily to keep down the dust — and telephone service to Kankakee was available.

Gougar’s Grove remained the site of the annual Chautauqua Assembly until 1914, when it was relocated to Kankakee’s Electric (now Beckman) Park. Although the new location had a smaller auditorium and less room for campers, it had the advantage of being more accessible to city dwellers. It could be easily reached by a short trolley ride — the park actually was owned and operated by the trolley company — and included a number of attractions, including a roller coaster, skating pavilion and swimming beach.

A major draw for the 1915 Chautauqua was an appearance by Helen Keller, a noted lecturer, author and political activist who had been blind and deaf since childhood. Appearing with her was Mrs. Anna Sullivan Macy, the teacher who had helped her overcome her handicaps. Miss Keller appeared on the afternoon of Aug. 16 to deliver a talk titled “Happiness.”

Ten years later, the Chautauqua experience came to an end in Kankakee. The 1925 season was shortened to only five days (Aug. 23-27), and featured a smaller and less well-known lineup of speakers and entertainers (a featured performer was Alice Louise Shrode, “Entertainer, Whistler, Impersonator”).

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