Chautauqua Assemblies were held in Forest Park in the late 1800s and early 1900s. People traveled hundreds of miles to listen to politicians, musicians, religious speakers and other entertainers. Some of the famous orators that came to Ottawa included presidents William McKinley, Warren Harding, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Susan B. Anthony, William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington and Billy Sunday.
Chautauquas began as an interdenominational Sunday school assembly, a 10-14 day training institute for Sunday school teachers in an outdoor setting on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, New York. The founders were a Methodist minister, Rev. John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller, a successful Akron, Ohio businessman who was a Sunday school superintendent with innovative ideas for its improvement. These men organized the Fair Point Sunday School Assembly at Methodist camp meeting site on Lake Chautauqua in 1874. The first assembly so far exceeded expectations that it became an annual event and the prototype for others across the country. Although independent in finance and control, most of these independent assemblies established programs with goals and features similar to those of the parent institution, as they received much support and encouragement from the New York office. In addition to religious education, the assembly brought culture to isolated communities, education to many people who had had little formal schooling, entertainment and recreation–a rare vacation for hardworking rural Americans.
Dr. Vincent came to Kansas in 1878 to lecture before the Kansas State Sunday School Association meeting in Emporia, and his enthusiasm for the annual assembly was infectious. Bismarck Grove, northeast of Lawrence, was the site of the first assembly in Kansas in 1879. After three seasons there and one in Topeka, the assembly moved to Ottawa in 1883. A Presbyterian minister from Ottawa, Duncan C. Milner, was president of the Kansas association at the time, and undoubtedly strongly influenced the decision. Ottawa offered free use of its then fifty-acre Forest Park as the assembly site and agreed to erect buildings and render other services. A stock company to carry out the project was quickly formed, and it was every prominent Ottawan’s civic duty to participate. The park was an ideal setting, as it was situated in a scenic area above a dam on the Marais des Cygnes River and was easily accessible to the Santa Fe train station (now the Old Depot Museum) just one block east. The first assembly was held in 1883 and each year thereafter through 1914, with the exception of 1904, when floodwaters forced a last-minute cancellation.
To view an “exhibit” of photos from the Ottawa Chautauqua Assemblies, click “Archives,” then “View Exhibits,” then select Chautauqua.