Historic City Memories: A Dollar Show

Barbershops and Chautauguas: Part II

The Chautauqua and after-dinner speakers
By Geoff Dobson

St. Augustinians often refer to existing landmarks by names that are long gone: “Little Links,” for a recreation area on the south of town; the “Exchange Bank” in lieu of the Wachovia Bank; the “San Marco Lot” for “Activities Field;” and the “Albertson’s Plaza” for the Riverside Shopping Center on St. Road 312.

Little Links was taken over by the Army during World War I and following the war was returned to recreational use, but it hasn’t been used for golf for many a year.

The Exchange Bank in turn became the “Atlantic Bank,” “First Union,” and now Wachovia. It is likely soon to become Wells-Fargo. The grill work in the elevators of the bank used to be marked “FNB” for the earlier First National Bank. The elevators were not automatic and used operators. The operators were provided, however, only on week days. Thus, on a weekend if one used the elevator to go to the fifth floor, the car would stay there until the visitor left the fifth floor. When the second elevator was taken by someone else to the third floor, a third visitor to the bank would have to use the stairs.

The San Marco Lot was named for a hotel that burned down in 1898. Albertson’s beat a retreat back to Idaho from whence it originated only to be replaced by Rowe’s which itself failed.

On the other side of the coin are proper names for streets named for landmarks that no longer exist. In North City are Garnett and Grove Avenues which stand as reminders of orange groves that once filled the area near the Bozard Ford lot (now gone). The Garnett Grove was a popular tourist attraction in the early 20th Century operated by Dr. Reuben B. Garnett (1838-1922).

In the Lighthouse Park area of the city (technically “Carver’s Village of Anastasia, but who uses that name?), is Busam Street which reminds us of Shepharin and Mary Busam’s store and gas station on the corner of White and Magnolia.

In St. Augustine Beach one of the main parts of the town is a subdivision bearing the grandiose name of “Chautauqua Beach Subdivision of the Anastasia Methodist Assembly Grounds.” Chautauqua in St. Augustine in the early years of the 20th Century put in a brief and unmemorable appearance and departed the scene.

The Chautauqua Movement was founded in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua, New York by inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent as a camp for Sunday school teachers. The movement gradually spread across the country and was generally in small towns which did not have cultural or entertainment venues readily available. They were intended to bring the advantage of a condensed liberal arts education to rural America with two to four-week presentations at permanent Chautauqua locations.

The presentations were coupled with a course of readings spread over a four year period, including material provided by the “the Chautauqua and Scientific Circle” in the Chautauquan Magazine. The magazine material provided a wealth of material, lacking any depth, on geography, the sciences, the classics, and history. Several articles appeared over the years on St. Augustine. The magazine was, in essence, the PBS of the early 1900’s.

In Florida, a permanent Chautauqua was located in DeFuniak Springs where programs were presented in Brotherhood Hall. In addition to the permanent Chautauqua there was a “circuit”, “tent” or “Gypsy Chautauqua.” The latter was primarily a commercial enterprise.

In some instances, the Chautauquas were promoted by local hoteliers. For a while, St. Augustine had a “Chautauqua Hotel” located between Hospital Street and Charlotte. The Chautauqua in St. Augustine Beach was more of a traveling Chautauqua.

In addition to DeFuniak Springs, the primary Chautauquas in Florida were at Melbourne and St. Petersburg. In 1907, the Daytona Beach Board of Trade (predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce) campaigned to bring the Chautauqua there. Chautauqua would bring numerous visitors and business. A leading proponent in Daytona was C. E. Johnston, proprietor of the livery stable. The campaign was a failure. By 1920, the Chautauqua movement had lost most of its steam.

The Mother Chautauqua went into receivership and was rescued by a donation from Mrs. Thomas A. Edison. In 1920, the Chautauqua in DeFuniak failed, and the building was taken over by the City.

The failure of the movement was a combination of factors. Small towns began to have cinemas which brought the world to rural America. St. Augustine had two primary theatres.

One was the Jefferson Theatre on the corner of Cordova Street and Cathedral Place. The Jefferson presented live performances in addition to films. Live plays might be accompanied by the YMCA Orchestra. Later, a two-rank Morton theatre organ was installed.

Down the street was the Matanzas Theatre which would later host the world premier of “Distant Drums”.

Although the permanent Chautauquas attracted leading speakers including Mark Twain, Bill Nye, and presidents of the United States including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, the traveling Chautauquas descended into mediocrity, promising a condensed college education in one week.

The traveling shows’ most popular speakers were Russell Conwell delivering his “Acres of Diamonds” lecture in which he taught that it was one’s “Christian and Godly duty” to become rich, and William Jennings Bryan delivering his “Prince of Peace” speech. Conwell’s lecture was delivered over 6,000 times. He was, in essence, almost as popular as the Reverend Ike.

The arrival of the Chautauqua in a small town was almost like the arrival of an Episcopal bishop in a Wild West town for the annual pastoral visit. Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Protestant Clergy in the Great Planes and Mountain West, 1865-1915, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, gives us the impression that the arrival of an Episcopal Bishop gave in the isolated parts of the west:

Whenever an Episcopal bishop visited in full vestments, he was certain to draw a large crowd. On Daniel Tuttle’s arrival in Rocky Bar, Idaho, a small boy offered to get a bell and ring it through the town to alert the people, as he had done for a previous traveling road show the week before. When Episcopal Bishop John F. Spalding spoke in Rico, Colorado, a miner named Brownie Lee passed the plate, gun in hand. When one man dropped in only a quarter, Lee announced, “Take that back. This is a dollar show.”

The traveling Chautauqua was, in essence, “a dollar show.” Sinclair Lewis in “Main Street” described the tent Chautauqua:

“These were the several instructors in the condensed university’s seven-day course:

“Nine lecturers, four of them ex-ministers, and one an ex- congressman, all of them delivering “inspirational addresses.” The only facts or opinions which Carol derived from them were: Lincoln was a celebrated president of the United States, but in his youth extremely poor. James J. Hill was the best- known railroad-man of the West, and in his youth extremely poor. Honesty and courtesy in business are preferable to boorishness and exposed trickery, but this is not to be taken personally, since all persons in Gopher Prairie are known to be honest and courteous. London is a large city. A distinguished statesman once taught Sunday School.

“’Four ‘entertainers’ who told Jewish stories, Irish stories, German stories, Chinese stories, and Tennessee mountaineer stories, most of which Carol had heard.

“A ‘lady elocutionist’ who recited Kipling and imitated children.

“A lecturer with motion-pictures of an Andean exploration; excellent pictures and a halting narrative.

“Three brass-bands, a company of six opera-singers, a Hawaiian sextette [sic], and four youths who played saxophones and guitars disguised as wash-boards. The most applauded pieces were those, such as the ‘Lucia’ inevitability, which the audience had heard most often.

“The local superintendent, who remained through the week while the other enlighteners went to other Chautauquas for their daily performances. The superintendent was a bookish, underfed man who worked hard at rousing artificial enthusiasm, at trying to make the audience cheer by dividing them into competitive squads and telling them that they were intelligent and made splendid communal noises. He gave most of the morning lectures, droning with equal unhappy facility about poetry, the Holy Land, and the injustice to employers in any system of profit-sharing”

The traveling Chautauqua was, according to Sinclair Lewis, “nothing but wind and chaff and heavy laughter, the laughter of yokels at old jokes, a mirthless and primitive sound like the cries of beasts on a farm.” Indeed even the permanent Chautauquas came in for criticism. Educator and physician William James (1842-1910) in his essay “What Makes a Life Significant” referred to the Mother Chautauqua as “the quintessence of every mediocrity.”

The above is not to be taken that Chautauquas have disappeared. Permanent Chautauquas still exist. It is the circuit or traveling shows, like small traveling dog and pony shows that have disappeared from American life and St. Augustine.

Next week: The Bardin Booger.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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