Although Chautauqua lives on today at Lake Chautauqua, New York, and across Nebraska, it’s hard to fathom the extreme popularity of an organization founded in 1874 to bring nondenominational religious discussion, performances, lecturers, education, oratory and entertainment to all corners of the U.S.
In Nebraska the early form of Chautauqua flourished from the 1880s to the 1920s, before the Great Depression and the automobile ended its popularity. In Nebraska’s venues, primarily in parks, great buildings often popped up, a number of which survive and still offer summertime Chautauquas.
In 1888 a group of five men, who owned land along the Blue River at Beatrice, convinced the city’s Board of Trade to donate $1,500 to a Chautauqua proposition to which the five would sell $50,000 of stock in additional support. The resultant corporation was named the Interstate Chautauqua which planned to serve Nebraska and three adjacent states.
The corporation began construction of an open-air, roofed, post and beam, 92- by 132-foot tabernacle which seated 2,000 and cost nearly $3,000. Other buildings, added the first year, included a refreshment pavilion and a 1½-story gatekeeper’s lodge. The entrance, a half mile east of the south end of the Sixth Street bridge, was lined with five varieties of trees and opened onto the tabernacle itself, which was called “the largest and most extensive of its kind in the west.”
To support the park, they also commissioned construction of a 70-foot oak, double-decked steamboat with a double-action engine which could easily hold 300 passengers. The “Belle of the Blue” plied the Blue River from the Sixth Street bridge, three miles to Glen Falls at the paper mill.
The first 10-day session opened June 11, 1889, with 1,500 people in attendance. The largest crowd that year saw 2,500 people hear an address by Dr. John Creighton, president of Nebraska Wesleyan. By the end of the 1889 session, it was said that the Beatrice Chautauqua was “the largest assembly ever convened in Nebraska” and that the park’s 90 acres of “shady forest, breezy heights and secluded dells” delighted the attendees.
After the session ended, construction of privately owned cabins began, tent bases were built, the Beatrice Street Railway laid tracks to the park, the railroad announced excursion rates for the next summer, electric service was installed, and the post office offered daily mail service to those camping during the 10-day sessions.
In 1902 other “city parks” were initiated. Crowds in 1905 were estimated to be averaging 8,000 a day with the largest of the year estimated at 10,000. After only one year, the railroad stopped offering special excursion rates and in 1907 the street railway to the park closed, resulting in falling attendance.
As Chautauqua crowds dwindled, W.E. Garrett acquired rights on the Blue River above Black Brothers Mill in August 1907 and began operating a fleet of boats for picnicking and sightseeing. One of the attendance-building schemes he initiated was Venetian Nights with boats converted to floats. The Nee-hawn (or haun)-Che (or Chee) Canoe Club, named for the Otoe Indian name for the Blue River, also built floats, some of which were illuminated, and joined the annual contests. By 1913 there were 65 floats/boats participating.
As the Chautauqua continued its slow demise, the Belle of the Blue was sold, put on a railroad flatcar and moved to Lincoln’s Capital Beach while the cottages were, one by one, moved into Beatrice as small houses. The park closed in 1910 after the mortgage was foreclosed and an action against it was filed in Gage County Court. The park’s board agreed to sell the remaining property to the City of Beatrice for $1,000, but the sheriff’s sale bidding reached $3,000. A trick was played on the man who had bid $3,000, and somehow the mayor intervened and was able to acquire Chautauqua Park for the original $1,000 offer, perhaps with the city assuming some of the indebtedness.
In 1915-16 the gabled end of the pavilion was extended and walled, while the gatekeeper’s cottage was moved 600 feet and redesigned as a home for the city’s park superintendent. In 1979 the pavilion and gatehouse were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
At its height Beatrice’s Chautauqua Park had 19 cottages on the creek, electric service, daily mail delivery, a boarding house, grocery store, several organization’s halls and hosted speakers including Thomas DeWitt Talmage, President Rutherford B. Hayes, William Jennings Bryan, Frances Willard, Edward Rosewater, Robert LaFollette and Susan B. Anthony. Today the 66-acre city park has a disc golf course, camping sites, ball diamonds, fishing and tennis courts.