Getzendaner Park in Waxahachie,
a large wooden, octagonal-roofed pavilion stands as a symbol of entertainment
and enlightment in the days before movies and television.
was built in 1901 at the peak of the Chautauqua movement in America, which began
at Lake Chautauqua, New York, in 1874 as a summer retreat for the training of
Sunday School teachers.
The movement was soon broadened to include academic
subjects, music, art, humanities and physical education. By 1880, the Chautauqua
platform had established itself as a national forum for the open discussion of
public issues, international relations, literature and science.
“tent Chautauquas” sprang up across America and continued until the early 1930s.
Inspired by tented events at Waxahachie,
a group of community leaders built a 2,500-seat auditorium in the town’s park,
then known as West End Park.
It is not clear who was responsible for the
odd design. Some believe it was planned to resemble a tent; others believe it
was a copy of the original octagonal-roofed platform of the open-air auditorium
in New York State.
Similar tent Chautauquas appeared throughout East
Texas, most notably at Nacogdoches,
Texarkana and Huntsville,
as a part of the Redpath-Homer circuit which started traveling around the country
in 1912. Even Call, a small sawmill town on the Jasper-Newton County line, hosted
The circuit was organized by promoter Charles F. Homer,
who was best known for encouraging amateurs to enter Chautauqua. He even set up
his own school to train young talent.
A typical Chautauqua in, say, East
Texas, began with a train carrying the circuit’s tent, baggage and talent
to a community, usually arriving in the morning and followed by a grand parade
to the local assembly grounds.
The tent was set up and the programs were
usually held in the evening to permit everyone to attend. While the program consisted
of music, plays and storytelling, a lecture was the backbone of Chautauqua. Speakers
posed challenges to the community, provided an informational presentation, or
made an inspirational speech. In the l920s, there were twenty-one Chautauqua circuits
operating in the U.S. and Canada with an attendance of 35 million people. Some
thirty Texas towns benefited from the events.
Internationally famous cowboy
Will Rogers was one of the most popular speakers on the Chautauqua circuit. He
came to Waxahachie on Saturday,
February 27, 1927, and entertained a capacity crowd.
As television pushed
the Chautauqua movement aside, the Waxahachie
building declined until it was closed by the city in 1971.
But in 1975,
the grand old hall was restored and rededicated, followed by the revival of the
Chautauqua movement seven years ago.
On the last Saturday of each September, one of the few surviving Chautauquas in
America brings back memories of the days when people assembled in public to listen
and learn about the world around them.