Chautauqua Institute History


In 1874, in northwest New York state, Lewis Miller and John Vincent started a summer camp for Sunday school teachers in Chautauqua. Chautauqua turned into a movement that still affects our educational system today in the United States.

Lewis Miller was an Akron, Ohio, industrialist and inventor. He was an active layman in his church, contributing his time and money freely. John Vincent was a Methodist minister responsible for coordinating Methodist Sunday schools throughout the U.S. It is said that Miller had the money and organization skills, and Vincent had the talent as a speaker and educator. When they founded Chautauqua in 1874, they wanted a relaxing and fun training ground for Sunday school teachers. They both thought learning was a life long-process. They saw Chautauqua as a university for people of all ages and educational levels.

Exactly what was Chautauqua about? Vincent and Miller wanted it to be a recreational and learning experience for a wide variety of people. They had simulated trips for the campers. One was "The Ideal Summer trip Beyond The Sea". This 150 day trip was compressed into 15 days of conversations, readings, walks, and photographs. Guide books and tickets were printed to make the trip seem more authentic. There was also a "Palestine Park", where a scale model of Palestine was carved out of the land, so that classes could be taught on the geography and history of Palestine.

Chautauqua served as a platform for issues of the day. Nine different presidents of the U.S. have spoken at Chautauqua. William Rainy Harper, founder of the University of Chicago, used the Chautauqua concept as a model for his new college.  Chautauqua had a lot to offer the camper: operas, plays, art classes, famous speakers, classes on religion, and classes in music, just to name a few.

Chautauqua became so popular that other people started imitating the concept. People in the small towns of a relatively new developing country wanted culture, knowledge, and new ideals, plus a means of escape with music and entertainment from their isolation. Some of the imitation was done well and pleased the founders, others, such as the Ku Klux Klan's "Klan Tauqua" were not very flattering to the founders.

By 1886, there were Chautauqua's from Maine to Florida and across to California, and up to Oregon. Circuit Chautauqua sent out packaged programs to towns. At the height of its popularity, circuit Chautauqua was journeying to nearly 10,000 communities each season.  In 1924, over a million Americans attended circuit programs. The depression of the 1930's took its toll on the circuit programs. Radios becoming common in many American homes also stopped people from attending. By 1932, circuit Chautauqua had pretty much ended.

Chautauqua is still in operation today in upper New York state. Over 150,000 people participated in the camp programs in 1996. President Clinton used Chautauqua to practice for the debates against Dole in 1996. The 1997 summer season lecture platform has such topics as "Leadership in America", "The Mystery of Good and Evil", and "The Politics of the Environment". Chautauqua's own symphony orchestra, formed in 1929, will be performing along with the Chautauqua Ballet company. There will be theatre and opera. More than 300 courses in subjects ranging from symphony to sailing are being offered. Chautauqua is a summer camp for all ages, especially for those who believe learning is a life long experience.


Morrison, Theodore, "CHAUTAUQUA" Chicago, University of Chicago, 1974


Mundt, John "CHAUTAUQUA-A TRADITION FOR THE FUTURE", Change, v10 n11 p24-25

Erbland, Walter. "CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION", Conservationist, 32,5  14-8



Prepared by Debbie Porter