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Chautauqua - A Unique American Vacation

Updated on January 18, 2013

The Athenaeum Hotel


The Chautauqua Institution-"the most American thing in America"

A learning vacation can be a great vacation, one that includes not only reading and having fun, but sharpening your mind. The Chautauqua Institution is located in the Southwest corner of New York State in the Town of Chautauqua, on the banks of the beautiful Chautauqua Lake. According to the Institute, it is a "festival for the mind, body and spirit." Chautauqua draws over 170,000 people every summer.

When you enter the grounds of the 750 acre Institution you are transported to the past, a place of quiet beauty. Brick lined paths meander along some of the most beautiful ginger bread houses you will ever see.

In the busy summer season, travel by car is restricted. The Institute provides free shuttle service around the grounds, so park your car and enjoy the ambiance of a place of beauty from the past.

Chautauqua is a place for walking. Every turn you make gives you another glimpse of small town America at its best. There are numerous shops and restaurants, so your walk may begin with a brisk saunter along the lake, and end up at one of the fine restaurants.

Along Chautauqua Lake


The Architecture of Chautauqua


The 5,000 Seat Ampitheater


A Brief History of the Chautauqua Movement

Chautauqua was founded in 174 as a training camp for Sunday school teachers. The founders were a businessman, Lewis Miller, and a Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent. The religious background continues to this day with religious services offered regularly. Chautauqua's offerings are based on four pillars: arts, education, religion and recreation.

A key to understanding Chautauqua, and why it came about, is the character of rural and small town America in the mid to late Nineteenth Century. It was a time without radio or TV. If you lived in rural America you did not have the cultural opportunities afforded by large cities. Your cultural and entertainment options were few. Chautauqua started as a place, but soon became a movement. What became known as circuit Chautauquas or tent Chautauquas blossomed across the country. At their peak in the 1920s there were over 10,000 circuit Chautauquas in operation. They were also known as Chautauqua assemblies. The familiar brown tents would present huge crowds with cultural offerings from the arts, education and religion. Besides lectures from some of the greatest minds in the country, audiences were treated to Broadway shows, opera, and later, movies. The Chautauqua movement has its root in the lyceum movement of the earlier Nineteenth Century. An organization known as the Redpath Lyceum Bureau soon became the main source of booking talent. Because the Chautauquas had sprouted into multiple locations across the country, booking speakers and performers became a challenge. The solution to the problem was to assign each lecturer or performer to a certain day of the week. So if you were a Monday performer you would appear at a Chautauqua in one town on Monday and travel to the next for your appearance the following week.

The speakers at Chautauqua included nine US presidents, and recently former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s the Chautauqua movement had come to an end except for a few scattered assemblies that continued until World War II. Radio, motion pictures and local cultural institutions began to fill the need for culture and entertainment in small town America. The idea of the Chautauqua didn't die, it just was replaced by technology and modern times.

Chautauqua Lives On - The Chautauqua Institution Today

Famed historian and Chautauqua lecturer David McCullough has said: "There is no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere in the world - it is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat and a village square - and there's no place - no place - with anything like its history." Quoted from Chautauqua Institution, Visitor's Guide.

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The Smith Memorial Library



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A Summer at Chautauqua Includes:

The daily morning lecture series with topics such as: How to Identify, Value and Sell Antiques; Digital Photography; History of Jazz - The Modern Era; Basics of Investing in Stocks, Bonds and Mutual Funds.

Golf on two 18 hole golf courses. There is a golf training center for new and experienced golfers.

Tennis, with eight fast dry courts and four hard courts.

Sailing and boating on beautiful Chautauqua Lake. Sailing lessons and private instructions are offered.

Relax at the beach. There are four life guard attended beaches.

Exercise at the Health and Fitness Center.

Read and research at the Smith Memorial Library, a full service library with computers or the Chautauqua Institution Archives.

Chautauqua, which Teddy Roosevelt described as "the most American thing in America" is a place apart, a different experience, an American treasure. I strongly recommend it as a place to visit and perhaps spend a week or two.

Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran


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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Leah. I shall revisit your note before we return to Chautauqua.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      If you are ever up for a short hike, Chautauqua Gorge is near the Institution and is absolutely gorgeous. You park at the end of Hannum Road and hike down a short hill - waterfalls, fossils in the cliff sides, etc. It is really stunning. We visit that area frequently, and the kids love swimming there.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      leahlefler you are blessed to live near such beauty. My wife and I plan to vacation there next summer. It is one of our country's best kept secrets.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      I live right down the road from the Chautauqua Institute, rfmoran. We often visit in late May and June, before they start charging admission fees (we go to the beach if the weather is warm enough). It is also a fantastic place in the fall, as it is free to enter and the foliage is gorgeous with the Victorian houses (it's also a great place to ride bikes with the kids at that time of year)!

    • lainelongfellow profile image

      lainelongfellow 5 years ago from Oklahoma

      That sounds like an interesting place. Thank you for sharing.