The excitement this week about having Ohio Chautauqua in town makes me think of an 80-year-old aunt who was visiting us in about 1979. My wife was taking her to see our daughter in a school program and was afraid that she might not understand the modern dance they would be doing. She explained to Aunt Helen what she was about to see. My wife was stunned when Aunt Helen stated that she had taught modern dance in a traveling Chautauqua in about 1919.
The Chautauqua movement was an adult education movement founded in 1874 to bring entertainment and culture to rural America. It was named after the Chautauqua Institution in New York State, which many Trumbull County people visit in the summertime today. Aunt Helen explained that she was one of a troop of young people who traveled to many small towns all summer long, performing and teaching in "Tent" or
"Circuit" Chautauquas. These would be set up in "well-drained fields" near town. Popular speakers, such as William Jennings Bryan, highlighted the programs, drawing great crowds. After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on.
I have learned that by the mid-1920s when circuit or tent Chautauquas were at the peak of popularity, they appeared in more than 10,000 communities to audiences of more than 45 million people. By 1940, they had about disappeared. Radio, motion pictures and in the next decade, television, brought entertainment into homes, and Chautauquas were no longer broadly popular.
Then, in 1998, the Ohio Humanities Council decided to bring back the Chautauqua idea to modern day Ohio towns. Every other year since then Ohio Chautauqua has presented a new set of actor-scholars in a different theme to five Ohio towns. American humorists, the Civil War, the Roaring Twenties and World War II have been among the popular subjects for these living history portrayals. Local sponsorship here by the Tribune Chronicle, Trumbull 100, Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, the Warren Library Association and the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library helps to finance this stimulating summer production that brings alive personalities and issues from over the years.
Next week, our Ohio Chautauqua will be presented in the red and white tent next to the Kinsman House on Mahoning Avenue in downtown Warren. We will hear scholars portray Goldsborough Bruff, 1849er, Olive Anne Oatmman, Indian captive and Henry David Thoreau, writer and philosopher. Edith Russell, Titanic survivor, will speak, "giving a gripping, first hand account of the Titanic's last days," according to the Tribune Chronicle, and Martin Luther King Jr. will tell about his leadership of the Civil Rights movement and we will hear portions of his powerful speeches.
There will be two workshops in the library each day, one for adults at 2 p.m. and one for children age 8 and older, at 11 a.m. On Friday, Marvin Jefferson, who portrays Dr. King, will work with children to see how their writing can move people to action. Kevin Radaker, who portrays Thoreau, will lead adults to think about how Thoreau's writings anticipate today's environmental concerns. On Saturday, Hank Finkin, who portrays a '49er, will lead children in games and exploration of the Gold Rush era. Dianne Moran, who portrays an Indian captive, will share insights with adults on why there was so much brutality in the dealings between settlers and Native people.
I have found the workshops to be interesting and worthwhile. For example, several years ago I attended the workshop on the principles of the Nuremberg Trials. Principle four states: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him." The scholar who led that workshop, as the scholars of this year, was skilled in interpreting this concept. We readily understood that the principle really means that it is not an acceptable excuse to say, "I was just following my superior's orders." This timeless value was made clear to us all.
I think that Aunt Helen would be pleased to know that Chautauquas have returned to public popularity, that I have benefited from Chautauqua and that Chautauqua makes me think of her.
Thomas is a Tribune Chronicle columnist