This educational encampment was the first of its kind in the Southwest
By Dixie Boyle
In a time when radios, telephones, and televisions were anywhere from several decades to a half-century into the future, those wanting to learn about history and culture outside of a school setting didn’t have many options. The Chautauqua was established to fill that gap, especially for those living in rural communities.
The Chautauqua Movement, often referred to as the Adult Education movement, began in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake in New York, where a Methodist minister named John Vincent started a summer training program for Sunday school teachers. The idea caught on, and these summertime gatherings became extremely popular throughout the United States until the start of World War I. Communities sponsoring Chautauqua Assemblies provided camping facilities for those attending. Each Chautauqua, lasting approximately ten days, could attract hundreds of visitors, including families, and the agendas included everything from lectures on history, science, and religion to brass band concerts and operatic performances. Mark Twain and Thomas Edison were two of the most famous Americans to lecture at a Chautauqua.
But the Chautauqua wasn’t just an East Coast phenomenon. John W. Corbett, a Kansas newspaper editor and founding member of Mountainair, wanted the new railroad town to become a cultural center, so he persuaded the Chautauqua Assembly to come to the New Mexico Territory in 1908—the first Chautauqua established in the Southwest. Every August until 1917, Mountainair’s Chautauqua hosted exceptional programs, presentations, and workshops by well-known speakers, artists, teachers, and state dignitaries.
Although the community was only home to about 100 people, Mountainair became known throughout the country for its well organized and well attended assembly. The Mountainair Chautauqua was such a success, attracting hundreds of people each summer, that by 1910 the town had appropriated 40 acres on its west side and named it Chautauqua Park. The construction plans for the park described a permanent headquarters at the site: “Commodious in size, convenient in arrangement, on the bungalow order and rustic in appearance as well as a large auditorium, kitchen and dining room and dormitory rooms above with an old-fashioned fireplace in the auditorium.”
As a result, for ten days each August, long lines of buggies, Model T Fords, motorcycles, and those on horseback descended upon Mountainair. There was always a flurry of activity while campsites were set up and old friends greeted one another.
The Chautauqua in Mountainair was publicized throughout the state and the Southwest. A brochure for its Sixth Annual Assembly in 1913 explains the experience: “Mountainair is a new town in a new country. Although we have several good hotels, Chautauqua is here, as elsewhere . . . largely a camping proposition and there is probably no place where the attractions of camp life are more appealing.”
A few of the topics listed for the Mountainair assembly in 1913 demonstrate the diversity of the programs. There were lectures on New Mexico history, house economics, and the domestic arts; information on women’s organizations and boys’ and girls’ clubs; education days for teachers; as well as bible study times and evening motion picture shows. The latter included films carefully selected for their scenic, historic, educational, and humorous content.
An entire day was devoted to the history of Torrance County, as explained in the brochure: “[The] program both day and evening, will be under the auspices of the Torrance County Development Association, the organization perfected at last year’s meeting by the Honorable H.B. Henning, Secretary of the New Mexico Bureau of Immigration.”
The ladies of Mountainair maintained a rest tent for those women visiting for the day and not camping at Chautauqua Park. Cots and refreshments were provided for their needs, and it was much appreciated by those traveling in buggies and open-air vehicles in the arid landscape.
For those who were camping, the Mountainair Chautauqua Assembly provided everything from tent and camp furniture rentals to meals and refreshments provided by a Mrs. T.P. Butler, a well-known local caterer. According to the brochure, “Mrs. Butler has had long experience in this line of work and we feel sure that under her management this important department will be satisfactorily conducted to all Chautauqua visitors.” Single meals were available for .35¢ each, a ticket for 21 meals cost $7.00, and a la carte items were available as well.
Several miscellaneous services included pick up at the train station for those traveling by rail, free water for drinking and domestic purposes, and camp security provided by a special police force both day and night. Horses were supplied for those wanting to explore the abandoned Tompiro ruins at Abo and other historic sites in the area. Bells were sounded to indicate hours for exercise, and they rang as well at 10:00 p.m. each evening, when all unnecessary noise was to cease.
Mountainair’s Chautauqua became so popular that gifted musicians, lecturers, artists, and educators traveled great distances to lecture or present at the assembly. New Mexico’s Governor George Curry, in office from 1907 to 1910, gave a lecture at the Chautauqua Assembly in 1909, as did many others who held leadership roles throughout the Southwest.
A 1913 article in the Mountainair Independent raved about the Chautauqua’s success: “The Association owns a commodious and comfortably seated tabernacle, seating 600 people, in a natural park, situated about one half mile from the business part of town. The Chautauqua has attracted a splendid class of citizens, who are making this an ideal location in which to build homes and rear families. The moral and intellectual environment is unexcelled.”
The Chautauqua Movement began to lose momentum in 1917, due in large part to America’s involvement in World War I. Trains were needed to transport troops and war supplies, plus Americans were encouraged to buy war bonds instead of Chautauqua tickets. Mountainair also closed its assembly in that year, due not only to the war but also to the death of John W. Corbett, who had always been the driving force behind the movement in Mountainair.
Competition from radio and movies, and the new mobility that came with the automobile, likewise played a role in the decline of the Chautauqua. Even so, the movement instigated the development of the beginnings of the Adult Education Movement in the United States, and many of our country’s arts and humanities programs, libraries, and even museums owe their establishment in part to the desire for self-enrichment that is the legacy of the Chautauqua Movement.
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