Lincoln Chautauqua offered respite, education, recreation and big-name entertainment

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[November 05, 2019]     Nancy Gehlbach took her audience at the October meeting of the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society on a magic carpet ride back to a time when Lincoln was a much different place.

There were multiple grocery stores early in the 20th Century in downtown Lincoln including Kroger, Alexander’s, and Basket Grocery. Merchants sold high end clothing and furniture. Multiple candy stores catered to those with a sweet tooth after dining at the many restaurants, and before attending a movie at one of the many theaters.

But there was one amazing event that took place in Lincoln every summer for many decades, something so astounding that it is hard to imagine today. Every summer, the Lincoln Chautauqua took place at what is now Memorial Park, and Nancy Gehlbach had a story to tell, a story of a city within a city that has never been duplicated. Nancy did extensive research on the Chautauqua and Lincoln’s social life in the early 20th century.

“The Lincoln Chautauqua started in 1902 with help from a Bloomington entrepreneur and a committee of Lincoln residents and the largess of the Brainerd family who let the Chautauqua be built on their land west of Lincoln,” said Nancy Gehlbach. It was inspired by the idea of a Chautauqua that was started in the New York state in the 19th century.

Lincoln Chautauqua was designed as a social gathering place in the summer where people could get out of the steamy cities and enjoy the company of like minded folks. People could build a simple residence on site. Entertainment and educational programs were scheduled, with entertainment sometimes provided by nationally known celebrities. To call it a city within a city is not a stretch. A landscape architect designed the entire grounds with streets, utilities, and lots.

What could the residents of the Lincoln Chautauqua expect during their August stay?

Mail was delivered to the cottages; some had indoor plumbing and electricity. Employees of Alexander’s Market downtown took food orders in the afternoon and delivered the food the next morning. Bill Gossett delivered ice to the residences as a kid. People who worked in downtown Lincoln during the day could ride the electric street car after work from their offices out to the Chautauqua.

A small lake was formed by damming the stream in the lower part of the park that allowed swimming, boating, and fishing. The whole Brainerd Park, as the Chautauqua was known in honor of the family that had donated the land, was especially kid friendly.

There was a huge auditorium at the site that sat over 4,000 people to enjoy the acclaimed celebrities who visited each day. The nationally known preacher Billy Sunday stopped by many times.

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John Phillip Souza brought his world famous band to the grounds to entertain. All names from the distant past, but superstars at the time. “There were classes for women during the day at a special facility built exclusively for them,” said Nancy Gehlbach.

In the early 1920’s, the Lincoln Chautauqua was the largest and most successful in Illinois. The concept went nationwide with over 1,200 Chautauqua’s in cities across the country in 1924.

Some of the people attending the LCGHS meeting Monday evening brought their own family lore to the meeting about the Chautauqua. Abbie Alexander remembered her family’s cottage.

Time and change worked their mischief on the Lincoln Chautauqua. After decades of immense success, it came to a close in 1938.The cottages were either torn down or moved into Lincoln as residences. Abbie Alexander found her family’s cottage on Grand Avenue, still standing after all these years. Several were moved to Lincoln Lakes when the subdivision was built there. One is still with us in the 400 block of North Kickapoo Street that has been incorporated into a rooming house. The Chautauqua grounds were eventually transferred to the Lincoln Park District. It is now Memorial Park.

The grand concept of the Chautauqua has faded into the past. Some cities are still offering summer day programs in parks that resemble a Chautauqua, without the community living there. Jacksonville has had a summer Chautauqua for several years with educational and entertainment programs. But the time of a summer city within a city are of another day. Nancy Gehlbach had a wonderful story to tell.

The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society meets the third Monday of every month at 6:30pm at their office on Chicago Street across the Lincoln Depot. The public is invited to attend, and they always have in interesting presentation.

[Curtis Fox]


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