Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua: 1889 to 2012

The first Chautauqua Assembly in Beatrice was held for two weeks in the summer of 1889.  It was the second Chautauqua campground established in Nebraska.  (The first was at Crete.)  Officially incorporated as the Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua, it was planned to attract visitors from Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and even Colorado!  Special railroad excursion rates encouraged out-of-state travelers to come to Beatrice.  The local streetcar line was extended south to take passengers directly from the railroad depots to the Chautauqua grounds. 

The Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua was founded by five investors who owned 90 acres south of the Big Blue River: J. S. Grable, J. L. Tait, S. S. Green, W. D. Nicholls, and A. J. Millikin.  In 1888 they approached the Beatrice Board of Trade (a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) with a proposal that if they invested $1500 to advertise the Chautauqua as a Beatrice enterprise, the investors would incorporate with capital stock of $50,000.  This proposal was accepted; the first Chautauqua in Beatrice was held a year later.                                                                                                                                     
The elaborate four-gated main entrance was located about 2 blocks east of 6th Street.  The Tabernacle, the only remaining building, was one of the first to be constructed.  It is 100 x 140 feet and was planned to seat 2,000.   The very first summer 2500 filled the Tabernacle to hear the President of Nebraska Wesleyan University speak.  The structure was open on all sides to allow maximum ventilation, with a complex system of support posts, beams and braces to provide virtually unobstructed viewing for the audience. The Tabernacle was designed with no permanent seating, allowing the most flexible use of the building.  The Chautauqua Tabernacle was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was recognized as “an engineering and architectural achievement of merit.”

 Other buildings constructed on the Chautauqua grounds were the Gatekeeper’s Lodge, the Stewart Boarding and Dining Hall (which could seat 300), a grocery and meat market, refreshment pavilion, photographer’s studio, post office, Tennyson Hall, Whittier Hall, Emma Willard Hall, a bandstand and the Presbyterian Church’s building.  In addition Cottage Row was constructed with several small, privately-owned Victorian houses. 

Tents were available for rent or purchase north of the Tabernacle in the area still used as a campground today.  Each of the tents was numbered for ease of mail delivery during the weeks of Chautauqua events. Large tree houses were built along the creek, but were removed because they were damaging the trees.  

By 1905 the attendance at the Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua had reached 8,000, with one session reaching 10,000.  Speakers that year included former President Hayes, William Jennings Bryan, Frances Willard, the temperance advocate, and Bishop John Heyl Vincent, founder of the original Chautauqua in New York. 

In 1906 7000 attended the Chautauqua in Beatrice due to the railroad’s special excursion rates from Missouri and Kansas.  The grounds now had electric lights, and iron gates to prevent reckless driving.  By that time, nineteen private cottages had been built. 

Boating and canoeing was always an important part of the Chautauqua experience.  In 1890 the Queen of the Blue was launched.  It was a 70 x 15 foot two-deck steamboat that could carry 150 passengers comfortably.  It traveled from the Chautauqua grounds downstream to the paper mill dam at Glen Falls and back for $1.00 fare. 

By 1910, automobiles and the movies made rail travel to Chautauquas seem old-fashioned.  Attempts were made to revive the Beatrice Chautauqua through traveling tent shows in 1912 and 1914, but the era of the great Chautauqua assemblies had passed.  Fortunately, the City of Beatrice was able to acquire the Interstate Chautauqua grounds and recreate it as a beautiful park for the community.  In 1919 Dr. Harry Hepperlin and Don McColery purchased the grounds west of the park to enable its expansion to Highway 77. 

The Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua lasted over twenty years.  It offered information and entertainment to people of all ages.  The most distinctive contribution of the Beatrice Interstate Chautauqua, as well as other Chautauquas, was the idea of using summer vacations as entertaining educational opportunities. 

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Chautauqua Calendar

  • May 20: Meet the Chautauquans 11:00 am Chautauqua Park Beatrice
  • May 20: 150th Anniversary Begins 6:00 pm Homestead