A project by a Methodist minister and businessman to train Sunday School teachers at a summer camp at Lake Chautauqua, New York in 1874 captured the imagination of rural and urban America. Quickly it grew into a multitude of local “summer fairs” featuring music, drama, comedy, and lectures with the expressed purpose of enhancing democracy, co-operation, community, and political discussion. By World War I some 8,000 communities in the United States hosted chautauqua summer programs put on by private “chautauqua” companies. In 1916 chautauquas came to Canada, organised by J.M. Erickson, backed by a chautauqua businessman from Chicago, and encouraged by the United Farmers of Alberta. With its head office in Calgary, the company put on chautauqua events in communities in British Columbia, the three prairie provinces, Ontario, Quebec, and Alaska from 1917 to 1935. Companies in New England took chautauquas to the Maritime provinces.

Typically the company would sign a contract with local sponsors to host the next year's summer event - week-long in larger centres and three days in smaller communities. The company would recruit the theatre troupes, musicians and vocalists, comedians and lecturers, sending them on the circuit to appear in each contracted community in sequence. The task of staging each local event fell to the “superintendents,” most often young women who were university students or recent graduates. The “Chautauqua lady” arrived in town a week before the event; she handled the financing, did advertising, sold tickets, got the sponsors on-side, supervised putting up the tent, coordinated the artists and lecturers, was the master of ceremonies for the actual event, and then collected any shortfall in the contracted amount from the sponsors, who often had to make it up out of their own pockets. In smaller centres it was not uncommon to find her delivering a Sunday sermon or umpiring a ball game. By 1935 a combination of the radio, better transportation, and especially widespread poverty in rural communities during the Depression, finally brought an end to the chautauquas, although imitations lingered on and the tradition was revived in Battleford in 1974.

At their height during the 1920s, chautauquas served an important need, especially in isolated rural communities. Residents were delighted - indeed brought to tears in some accounts - by the musicians and singers, enthralled by the stage plays, and thoroughly engaged by the lecturers. The chautauqua message, one of progress and democracy coupled with an aura of the Social Gospel emanating from its Methodist roots, fitted well with the populist era in prairie politics and arguably helped to develop community solidarity and social consciousness, and to raise morale in prairie communities.

Bob Stirling