Pride of the parksWORTHINGTON — For more than a century, it has been Worthington’s gathering place — the setting for picnics, family reunions, birthday parties, concerts, children’s games and aquatic antics.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — For more than a century, it has been Worthington’s gathering place — the setting for picnics, family reunions, birthday parties, concerts, children’s games and aquatic antics.
Worthington boasts many parks, especially along the shores of Lake Okabena where about half of the shoreline is dedicated to public use, but Chautauqua Park is the jewel of the bunch, perhaps due to its strategic placement and rich history.
Like many place names in this region, its name was derived from a Native American language and is not easy to spell — the triple combinations of vowels seems to befuddle some spellers — but it does not originate from any of this region’s native tribes. Chautauqua is an Iroquois word that means either “two moccasins tied together” or “jumping fish.” It was the name given to a lake in western New York, where in 1874 the first Chautauqua gathering took place. Initially a summer school for Sunday school teachers, the program broadened to encompass adult education of all kinds.
“By the last decade of the 19th century, the Chautauqua Institution was nationally known as a center for rather earnest, but high-minded, activities that aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement,” explains a brief history on the Colorado Chautauqua Landmark Association website, www.chautauqua.com. “Theodore Roosevelt said that Chautauqua was ‘typically American, in that it is typical of America at its best.’”
The Chautauqua Movement, as it came to be known, grew out of those gatherings upon the shores of a New York lake and spread across the country. It especially took hold in rural areas, where the opportunities for educational pursuits were limited. Such was likely the case in Worthington, where the first chautauqua was offered in 1906. Historian Arthur P. Rose included a couple of paragraphs on its beginning in his “Illustrated History of Nobles County, Minnesota,” published in 1908.
The Worthington Chautauqua Association is a comparatively new organization, but it has done more to advance the interests of the city in which it is located than many an older organization. The association came into existence in March 1906. Many Worthington people had realized for a long time that the city had everything necessary to make a Chautauqua a success. Among the culture-loving people the matter had often been discussed, but no action was taken to crystallize the movement until one day in March 1906, when Prof. H. Warne, chautauqua organizer of Waterloo, Iowa, arrived in the city, prepared to launch the movement.
The stock was readily subscribed, and on March 29 the stockholders met and organized the Worthington Chautauqua Association with the following officers and board of directors: A.T. Latta, president; J.S. Ramage, vice president; A.R. Albertus, secretary; H.B. Lear, treasurer; Thos. Dovery, William Chancy, A.J. Goff, S.S. Smith and Gust Swanberg.
The beautiful city park on the north shore of Okabena lake was secured for the chautauqua grounds, and a more beautiful place would be hard to find. Located on the higher banks of the lake, it is a beauty spot. It is convenient to the business center of the town, and affords unequalled opportunity for camping, boating, bathing and fishing. The grounds are lighted by electricity, are connected with the city by long-distance telephone lines and are supplied with city water. There the first annual assembly was held August 6 to 14, 1906, and the list of attractions was such that the chautauqua was a success from the start. A permanent assembly hall was erected in 1907 at a cost of $2,500. The second assembly was held July 4 to 14, 1907, and the association was then put on a paying basis. The third assembly was held in July 1908.
The Chautauqua programs were a summer fixture in Worthington for 25 years, from 1906 to 1931. The first year, a large three-pole tent was erected in “The Park.” That trial undertaking was so successful that local investors found the money to build a permanent pavilion, which outlived the assembly by several years, according to newspaper accounts.
Former Daily Globe editor Lew Hudson, in his small Worthington history book, “From New Cloth,” said that the pavilion’s stage “overlooked the lake and the building was fitted with panels, which could be opened as necessary, to control inside temperatures. In a day when there was no radio or television, and when movies were still in the early stages of perfection, the stage was still the dominant entertainment medium. Towns like Worthington were a long way, however, from Broadway and State Street. Chautauqua was the only way the citizens would obtain theatrical entertainment.”
A July 22, 1972, historical article by Faith Palmer of the Daily Globe gave this description of the Chautauqua scene:
Entire families moved to the park and lived in tents rented for the 10-day Chautauqua run.
Advance season tickets were sold for $3 (transferable). $2 (non-transferable) and $1 (for children).
Dad enjoyed the lectures: William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington, humorist J. Adam Bede, William Howard Taft, Dr. Preston Bradley, Sidney Landon, Sen. Kenyon, Professor James L. Hughes, to name a few. Oh, yes, and the minstrel singers.
Mom preferred the music — Chicago Operatic Co., Hinshaw Light Opera, Cathedral Choir, Hawaiian Quintet, Schumann Quintet, Apollo Concert Co., Ionian Serenaders — as well as the plays.
The kids like the plays, too — the lighter variety — and they were fascinated by the occasional magician and impersonator booked into the circuit — Pamahasika and His Pets, Chief Caupolican.
For mom it was an entirely new way of life, a vacation from the round of daily household chores and the preparation of meals.
There was a dining hall on the grounds, operated by the Fords. Here, campers could get their home-cooked meals with the least effort.
There was daily recreation for the boys and the girls: In the morning, “hikes and instruction for scouts,” by W.H. Blakely, and the girls club, under the direction of Marina Martin. In the afternoon there were swimming lessons and contests, with Mr. Blakely in charge.
The files of the Nobles County Historical Museum contain a copy of the program from the third season of the Worthington Chautauqua, July 4-12, 1908, sent out to subscribers to entice them to be part of the enterprise. It touts, “What the Forum was to Greece and Rome, the Chautauqua is to intelligent America. Here you will meet the most cultured minds, eloquent orators and brilliant artists of the American platform. Here you will meet unlimited enjoyment and fun, as well as more sober thought that will make you think better of yourself, your home, your neighbors, your government and your God.”
Among the points of information in the program were these tidbits:
l Tents will be provided by the Association at a rate covering only cost and expense of handling. Floors may be had if ordered with tent.
l The names of those having rooms for rent will be furnished upon application. To reserve rooms write Reverend G.A. Cahoon.
l Gates will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. at which last named hour lights will be out and quiet restored.
l Profane language and intoxicating beverages will not be tolerated on the grounds. Objectionable amusements prohibited. No games of chance allowed.
l Mail will be brought to the Chautauqua Headquarters twice each day. Campers should have mail sent in care of Chautauqua Association. Mail will be sent out from the grounds twice each day.
End of an era
The Chautauqua movement came to an end in Worthington in the early 1930s. A 1958 article in the Daily Globe suggested that the original concept was run into the ground by “later commercial circuits” and the popularity of the motor car.
The final staging of the Chautauqua program featured a renowned evangelist of the era, the Rev. Billy Sunday, who first addressed the gathering in 1907, a few months after having conducted a “historic revival series” in the city.
An article in the June 19, 1930, newspaper announced, “Chautauqua will open with Billy Sunday speaking: Famed Evangelist Headlines Opening of Annual Event Sunday.”
No finer drawing card than Billy Sunday has ever been placed on the Chautauqua program, and when he speaks here Sunday evening at 8:30 it is expected that the auditorium will be packed to capacity. Reservations have been received from large numbers in other towns.
The Rev. Mr. Sunday’s topic will be “The Mask Torn Off.”Just how this topic will be handled must of course remain unknown until he speaks, but those who have heard him — and even those who have only heard of him — know that it will be dynamic and delivered in the inimitable Billy Sunday style.
Recreation and play
While the Chautauqua programs were no more, what was known as “The Tourist Park” continued to draw visitors, and tourist cabins occupied the land across from the park. The pavilion continued to be used as a meeting place for various clubs and groups, and every June, the eighth-grade graduation exercises for the rural schools of Nobles County were conducted there.
Another historical article penned by Helen Miller in the Daily Globe article asserts that the last production at the Chautauqua pavilion was “The First Commandment,” sponsored by the Presbyterian Ladies Aid, on Sept. 23-24, 1936.
It was directed by Margaret Showalter of the American Educational Co. Eighty people were in the cast including a choir singing sacred music. Authentic costumes from 4,000 years ago were used. Admission was 40 cents.”
But eventually the pavilion also became a memory. A 1958 newspaper account said that some of the material from the demolished pavilion — including massive timbers —was used to build the shelter house on the site of the original oval building.
The large shelter house building has become a Worthington meeting place. It continues to be the setting for the annual Worthington High School senior breakfast as well as the Boy Scouts pancake supper and is reserved just about every weekend of the summer months for some sort of private gathering or reunion.
The band shell — which remains the dominant structure in Chautauqua Park — was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project during the Depression era of the 1930s. It has been the setting for weekly summer concerts by the “Amazing” Worthington City Band for many decades.
A large sign in the center of the park, erected as part of a Boy Scout Eagle project, details the intertwined histories of the band and the park:
The Worthington City Band traces its origins to 1893, when a group of amateur musicians from the area formed a brass band to entertain the downtown shoppers from the courthouse lawn on Saturday nights. The success of the brass band motivated the city of Worthington to hire a band director in 1909. Women were first allowed to join the band in 1928.
The present band shell was built in 1941 and serves as the setting for a great community tradition. The summertime band concerts are a special time for music, laughter and relaxation.
The sign also notes that so far in its long history, only eight directors have led the band: Wilson Abbott 1909-1926; Vic Moeller 1927-1946; Jerry Niemeyer 1947-1961; Richard Larson 1962; Glenn Evensen 1963-1987; Galen Benton 1988-2001; Donna Larson 2002-2007; Jon Loy 2008-present.
The band shell has also provided a stage for a number of other events, including weddings and summer church services.
Another structure in the southwest corner of the park is the headquarters for local Boy Scouting activities. According to a copy of city council minutes kept in the local Boy Scout archives, permission was granted in April 1939 for the Kiwanis Club to construct the building for use by the Boy Scouts in a location determined by the park board.
A smaller timber cabin, sometimes referred to as “the park store,” which at one time was also a residence/office for the park manager, was demolished sometime in the 1990s.
Location, location, location
Today, the city of Worthington’s website attributes the following amenities to Chautauqua Park: playground, basketball hoop, horseshoe court, volleyball net, fishing dock, shelter house, picnic area, picnic tables, restroom, band shell. Because of those amenities and its prime location on the north edge of the lake, Chautauqua is a center of activity all year round.
Anglers cast their lines from its shore during the warm months and take a stroll from its banks to their ice houses during the cold months. The horseshoe court is the setting for an intense tournament in September and more casual contests on many spring and summer nights and weekends. The Boy Scouts launch their canoes from the park and stay inside their clubhouse when the weather is less favorable. If there’s just a hint of spring in the air, children can be found on the playground with their parents watching closely from a nearby park bench.
But Chautauqua Park’s value isn’t just in the amenities it offers. It also has value as green space for the neighborhood surrounding it. The park-adjacent location was a prime consideration for Dave and Kelly Reeves when they bought their Lake Avenue home.
“We definitely considered the park and location when buying our home in 2000,” said Kelly, who was expecting their second child at the time. “We had a 3-year-old (Hope), and Kate was on the way. … We have loved living across from Chautauqua. We have had many birthday parties, play dates, picnics, etc., over there. Because our house isn’t huge, it’s nice having the park for overflow.”
In addition to indulging in their own activities in the park, the Reeves have also enjoyed watching others take advantage of the park’s many attributes.
“We love the band concerts in the summer,” Kelly detailed. “We have witnessed many birthday parties and celebrations, including a handful of weddings, in the last 11 years. Every year we get up early to watch the kids arrive for the senior breakfast, and a couple of times I have gone over very early in the morning to plug in the coffee for the breakfast because I just live across the street. Also, it is very easy to tell someone where I live. I always say ‘we are right across from the band shell at Chautauqua.”
It’s been more than 80 years since the Worthington Chautauqua Association conducted its last summer programming, but the park is still the place to see and be seen on a balmy summer night in Worthington.
“I can’t imagine not living where the action is,” said Kelly. “I can set my clock by the usuals that cruise through the park in the summer for their evening ride. It’s comforting and familiar. I love that park. It’s like my front yard, can’t wait for the action to pick up and the familiar faces return to enjoy the spring and summer months. It’s built-in entertainment.”