Chautauqua Event Once a City Staple

Few Johnson Citians can likely recall Redpath Chautauqua, a cultural traveling circuit that once frequented our city in the early part of this century.

Chautauqua, an Iroquois word meaning, “two moccasins tied together,” began in Chautauqua, New York as a Sunday school summer camp for teachers. It expanded into an annual recreational and learning university.

In 1904, the event became a series of traveling circuits, performing from three to seven days under a large brown tent. It eventually completed 10,000 meetings in 45 states before 45 million people. Redpath (the southern circuit) Chautauqua began on New Street at the former site of the old Leon Ferenbach plant, later relocating to a field between Main and Market streets west of First Christian Church.

Chautauqua served as a platform for issues of the day; over the years, nine U.S. presidents spoke at it. The Chalk Line, a newspaper of the student body of East Tennessee State Teachers College, had this bold headline in its May 19, 1931 edition: “Redpath Chautauqua, Johnson City, Tennessee, May 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, June 1.”

Professor Carson and Dr. Wheeler divided Johnson City into ten districts and directed a massive ticket sales campaign. Teams of students were recruited to sell tickets within the clearly defined districts; the campus was referred to as “a happy hunting ground.” Admission prices were 35 cents, evenings; children, all programs, 25 cents; and season tickets, $2.00.

The six-day event began at 10:00 am or 2:30 pm each day and ran well into the evening hours, presenting some impressive programs: The Children’s Hour; Mystery and Illusion: Reno, the Magician; Play: A New York Comedy Success, “Broken Dishes”; Entertainment: Ball-Brown Company; Prelude: Ball-Brown Company; Lecture: “Government in Gangland,” C. Ray Hansen; Lecture: “Are Kings and Queens Human?” Adrian Wright McCauley; Play: Uproarious Comedy, “Her Husband’s Wife;” Popular Entertainment: Lura Forbes; Musical Comedy: Drama, “The Violin Maker of Cremona;” Main Street Smile Program: Lura Forbes; Grand Concert: Metropolitan Singers; Lecture: “The Old Town In a New World,” Charles H. Plallenburg; Play: Great International Drama, “Grumpy”; Junior Chautauqua Program; and Popular Concert: The Philharmonic Ensemble.

The students concluded their Chalk Line article by offering seven enlightening reasons why students should attend the event. In their own words …

1. “I like music, and at the Redpath Chautauqua, I can hear understandable music of every kind.

2. “I can see some of the most successful comedy-dramas of recent years enacted by splendid casts.

3. “I can hear speakers of recognized ability and experience discussion problems that are worthy of attention.

4. “I enjoy the clean, wholesome entertainment, which is to be found in every program.

5. “I like the neighborliness and community spirit of the assembly and can renew and strengthen old friendships and cultivate new ones.

6. “In reality, it is a summer vacation brought to my door and which I cannot afford to miss.

7. “I may have all this with a season ticket for what I would have to pay in many places for a single attraction.”

In spite of these positive comments, Chautauqua’s demise came within two years, a causality of a lingering poor economy and the increasing popularity of radio into homes. After a 58-year cultural run, the show organizers brought their big brown tent down for the final time; the show was over.