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What was Chautauqua Theodore Roosevelt called it the most American thing in America Woodrow Wilson described it during World War I as an integral part of the national defense and William Jennings Bryan deemed it a potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation Conversely Sinclair Lewis derided it as nothing but wind and chaff andthe laughter of yokels William James found it depressing from its mediocrity and critic Gregory Mason dismissed it as infinitely easier than trying to think However Chautauqua was characterized it elicited strong reactions and emotions There are few Americans left who remember the Circuit Chautauqua but there was a time when those words conjured up a host of images To its supporters it meant a chance for the community to gather for three to seven days to enjoy a course of lectures on a variety of subjects Audiences also saw classic plays and Broadway hits and heard a variety of music from Metropolitan Opera stars to glee clubs to bell ringers Many saw their first movies in the Circuit tents Most important the Circuit Chautauqua experience was critical in stimulating thought and discussion on important political social and cultural issues of the day Founded in 1874 by businessman Lewis Miller and Methodist minister later Bishop John Heyl Vincent Chautauquas initial incarnation was in western New York state on Lake Chautauqua The programming first focused on training Sunday school teachers but quickly expanded its range and was the first to offer correspondence degrees in the United States This summer camp for families that promised education and uplift was too popular not to be copied and in less than a decade independent Chautauquas often called assemblies sprang up across the country beside lakes and in groves of trees As with the early lyceum movements and Chautauqua assemblies the goal of the Circuit Chautauquas was to offer challenging informational and inspirational stimulation to rural and small-town America
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