Chautauquas in Skaneateles

One hundred and fifty years ago, the lyceum – an association that arranged lectures and/or a hall that hosted lectures – was one of the main avenues of learning and culture. The village of Skaneateles had its own lyceum association as early as 1847 and a lyceum hall by 1853.

A bit to the west, in 1874, the New York Chautauqua Assembly was organized on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, and gave its name to a nationwide movement. Instead of bringing lectures to the people, “Chautauquas” brought the people to the lectures, at sites where scores of motivational speakers, educators and musicians could edify and improve thousands of visitors.

Chautauqua assemblies sprang up across North America and agencies handled management and bookings for the lecturers and performers. Some agencies put together packaged touring companies that enabled smaller communities to host a Chautauqua.

The village of Skaneateles held five “Community Chautauquas,” between 1915 and 1919, behind the City of Syracuse pump-house on Genesee Street, under a tent known as “the big brown top.” It could hold 800 persons.

In 1915, the Skaneateles Community Chautauqua ran from June 30th through the 4th of July. The visiting artists included The Metropolitan Glee Club; Charles Seasholes lecturing on “Is Life Worth Living?”; Miss Mae Sheppard, a dramatic soprano singing arias and old-fashioned favorites; Hans P. Preece, an apostate Mormon, exposing the sect’s methods and secrets; the Venetian Players; and Vitale’s Italian Marine Band, led by a teenage prodigy.

Herbert and Floy Sprague, “and their company of phantom players,” portrayed every character, in costume, in the play “Rip Van Winkle.” The Swiss Alpine Singers and Yodelers, “three dashing mountaineers and three mountain lasses,” sang alpine melodies and accompanied themselves on the then-exotic zither.

emma b smith

Among the star attractions was Elma B. Smith, “the highest-priced child impersonator on the Chautauqua circuit,” giving comic readings, mimicry and bird warbling selections. The Lyceum Magazine noted, “Probably no entertainer who has ever come before the American public deserves stardom more than Elma B. Smith.”

In 1916, the Chautauqua ran from June 26th to the 30th. Leonora M. Lake spoke on “The Divine Rights of the Child”; the Imperial Russian Quartet introduced the balalaika to Skaneateles; The Regniers presented a program of “character makeup with a sketch of original songs and trombone solos;” Lee S. Estelle, Juvenile Court Judge of Omaha, “elevated the whole tone of the public mind” with his “counsels, kindly admonitions, and sagacious warnings.” Josef Mach’s Bohemian Band and the Edna White Trumpeters provided musical entertainment.

Newton Prince 2

Ray Newton, “Prince of Magic, Mirth and Mystery,” was the most highly touted of that year’s performers. A typical review read, “For over eight years Newton has been mystifying Lyceum patrons by his original feats of legerdemain, enrapturing them with captivating selections on the Swiss Hand Bells, and fascinating them with his own refined humor and easy flow of language.”

In April of 1917, the United States entered the Great War (eventually known as World War I) and so that year’s Chautauqua took on a different tone. Held from August 25th to 29th, it opened with the former governor of Nebraska, Ashton C. Shallenberger, lecturing on “The True Patriotism.” The Mendelssohn Sextette modified their program of light classics to include patriotic songs. The six young ladies did, however, treat the audience to their famous wardrobe changes, appearing in evening gowns, Chinese costumes, and yellow sport coats, hats and parasols.

John Kendrick Bangs, “America’s foremost man of letters,” spoke on “Salubrities I Have Met,” anecdotes of statesmen, poets, novelists and philanthropists, laughing with everybody and laughing at nobody. Dr. Elmer Lynn Williams, Chicago’s Fighting Parson, “kept up a rapid fire talk bristling with fun and fact… largely in a portrayal of the vice conditions in Chicago.”

More music was provided by the Tschaikowsky Quartet, and the Royal Blue Hussars, resplendent in bright blue uniforms with shoulder capes, plumed hats and polished leather boots.


But the biggest musical attraction came from the Heart of the Dark Continent – J.H. Balmer and his Kaffir Singing Boys – performing both native songs and songs in English, plus dances and tribal ceremonies. Wearing “the skins of native African animals,” they brought to Skaneateles “the terror of Africa’s picturesque savage life.” Balmer found his choir boys in South Africa, and the press noted, “He began by teaching them good manners; how to dress, how to talk, how to eat… and lastly, how to SING. He made accomplished singers and entertainers out of potential savages.”

In 1918, from August 20th to 24th, the Community Chautauqua promised “the greatest war program ever assembled.” The emphasis on culture and self-improvement was especially important; frivolous entertainments on the home front were inappropriate as the war in Europe continued.

Dr. Joseph Clare spoke on “The Riddle of the Russian Revolution.” The Reverend Clare was the pastor of the British-American Congregational Church in St. Petersburg/Petrograd when the Bolsheviks abruptly changed the climate for organized religion. Author Albert Edward Wiggam, just back from the Western Front, spoke on his time “over there” with American troops.

Bird Calls

To lighten the program, Mr. & Mrs. Emerson Winters offered monologues and bird mimicry, and Ralph Parlette, philosopher and humorist, spoke of the University of Hard Knocks.

Martial music was provided by the Kilties Band, a troupe of Scottish musicians (from Toronto), who had performed in 20 countries, and the Panama-San Diego Exposition in 1915. More international culture came to Skaneateles in the person of “the most talked of attraction in America,” the Royal Hawaiian Singers and Players. Wearing native costumes, singing native songs, and playing the ukulele and steel guitar, the Hawaiians were both novel and pleasing to the ear.

Royal Hawaiians (2)

(Ralph Parlette, who toured with the Hawaiians, later wrote that their summer was not without misadventure. When they tried to cross the border into Canada for a Chautauqua there, they were stopped and informed that they would all need letters from their local draft board, in Hawaii, giving them permission to leave the country. After a flurry of telegrams, they were allowed to perform in Canada but only after leaving all their luggage in the U.S. to guarantee their return.)

Tallow Dips

In 1919, the Skaneateles Community Chautauqua took place from August 3rd to 7th. Newspaper editor Robert Parker Miles presented his famous lecture, “Tallow Dips,” vivid, glowing sketches of the famous people he had known, including “the Dip of Hate,” his impressions of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Otto von Bismarck.


From the Canadian north woods came an illustrated lecture by naturalist Chauncey J. Hawkins, author of Ned Brewster’s Bear Hunt, “with moving pictures that almost cost Mr. Hawkins his life to obtain.” Mr. Hawkins touched upon how a bear gets honey from a bees’ nest and how a moose escapes hunters.

The Kaffir Singing Boys returned to Skaneateles with a special feature: a reenactment of the ‘call to war’ by a Kaffir chieftain. Brass fanfares were provided by the Royal Grenadiers, “native sons of Italy, each of whom has seen service with the Glorious Italian Army.”

Back from Europe, the Overseas Male Quartet, four U.S. soldier boys, sang “trench songs.” (It’s a wonder they found enough for the program, given the vulgar nature of most of those ditties. A mild example is “When this lousy war is over” sung to the tune of “What a friend we have in Jesus.”)

This was the last of the Skaneateles Chautauquas. In every host community, local organizers had to guarantee the booking agency a set sum, and only made money if the ticket receipts exceeded that. The financial pressure, combined with the organizational challenges, eventually wore sponsors down. At the same time, the introduction of commercial radio broadcasting in 1920 brought a world of information, culture and entertainment right into the home, making local Chautauquas less and less of a draw.

* * *

I would have been lost without the University of Iowa Libraries’ Iowa Digital Library, home to an extraordinary collection of lyceum and Chautauqua literature.

A bit to our west, the original Chautauqua Institution, the mother of them all, still thrives.

A Novice at Roosevelt Hall

In 1974, Dennis Owen deeded Roosevelt Hall to the Christian Brothers, who chose to use the property as a novitiate. One of the novices, Brother Hal DeLuca, recently donated a quilt he made while at Roosevelt Hall to the Skaneateles Historical Society, and included a letter describing his time there. With his permission, I share part of his letter here:

“I was a novice at Roosevelt Hall for the required canonical year (1 year plus 1 day) from August 1991 to August 1992. During that time, there were five novices from the Baltimore, St. Louis and Santa Fe-New Orleans Districts. In addition, there was one novice from the Congregation of Christian Brothers (also known as the Irish Christian Brothers). Br. Timothy Wentworth, FSC, was the director and Br. Timothy Dean, FSC, was the Sub Director.

“Daily life started with morning prayer for the group. Some of us went to an aerobics class at the Auburn YMCA before this. We also may have jogged along West Lake Road. The chapel was the glassed-in back porch, and I remember in the summer how the dinner boat would be touring the lake while we were at night prayer. We could hear them talk about Roosevelt Hall and the Brothers as the boat passed.

“After morning prayer, we had conferences on various topics including religious life, the vows, prayer and spirituality, the history of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and liturgy. Presenters included Brothers, nuns, lay men and women. Individual work assignments (that usually meant cleaning one of the rooms) followed conferences. Dinner followed evening prayer. Then there was quiet time for personal prayer and spiritual reading, and then night prayer with the group.

“The cooking was done entirely by the Brothers. Each of us had a turn every eight days. On the cooking day, the cook went to the P&C in town and bought groceries for that meal. I found a copy of Betty Crocker’s book the most useful. I couldn’t go wrong. My best dishes were Yankee pot roast, lemon chicken and chicken divan. I also made a pretty good pumpkin pie from scratch. Occasionally, we were treated to a restaurant, like the Sherwood Inn or Doug’s.

“Every Friday, after conferences, we all had art class with Mrs. Anne Uva of Syracuse. Class was held in Anne’s house on Ross Street. Anne had been the art teacher at CBA [Christian Brothers Academy] and also taught in the CCD program at St. Daniel’s [Church]. All of us loved Anne and enjoyed art. She started us off with pencil and charcoal drawing. Then we moved to watercolors and pottery; we actually built by hand and the wheel. I used to joke that the pottery we made would be the Christian Brothers version of Newcomb Pottery!

Hal Quilt 1

A detail of Brother DeLuca’s Roosevelt Hall quilt

“Anne was a quilter–she had them all over her house. Because we were interested, we each made one. Anne supplied most of the material and helped with some of the sewing. Most of us were afraid, initially, of the sewing machine. Regarding my quilt, I cut the pieces, tied the pieces, and embroidered and hand-stitched at Roosevelt Hall. Sewing the squares together was done at Anne’s. She helped me sew the case for the quilt.

Hal Quilt 2

“On the case, you will see embroidered the seal of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. (The star in the center of the case is actually the form for a flower.)

CB Seal

“Anne had a stencil for the branches. I used her fleur-des-lis cookie cutter for the top design. The pea pod — for lack of a better descriptor — I drew myself. The back of the quilt is an old bed sheet from a closet at Roosevelt Hall. I had the quilt in the case on my bed at Roosevelt Hall, Hudson Catholic High School for Boys (Jersey City, NJ), St. John’s College High School (Washington, DC) and Central Catholic High School (Pittsburgh, PA).

“Each Sunday, we all attended Mass at St. Mary’s in the village. Some of the Brothers did give an occasional homily. Fr. Wood and his staff were very generous and kind to all of us. One day each week, each of us had a community project. I was a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, working in the pastoral care division.

“Once a month, Sr. Rose Clarisse Gadoury, SSA, a Sister of St. Anne in Boston, came to give each of us spiritual direction. We looked forward to her visit each month and envied those who got to meet with her first.

“People in town seemed to know who we were, and would speak easily with us. We enjoyed the summer concerts and the change of seasons on the lake. Some of us walked across water in the winter. We bought things in the shops, especially Roland’s. I remember one of the clerks saying to me, ‘Everybody can always find something at Roland’s.’

“We made occasional trips to Albany, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Niagara Falls, and Ellis Island, which had just opened to the public. The Creamery [Museum] opened while we were in residence. In fact, I went on opening day and they were finishing some of the exhibits. I went back after that a couple of times.


“My enclosed picture was taken on the back porch just days before we left Roosevelt Hall. Br. Chris Ford, FSC, from the St. Louis District, photographed each of us.

“Roosevelt Hall was a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be able to spend a year praying, studying and learning from so many talented and accomplished people who came to us each week. Although it was a house of prayer and formation, it was not absolute solitude and quiet. It was a lively place with presenters and visitors (many Christian Brothers from all over the world) coming and going. The experience was also profoundly challenging and live-giving.”

In a later note commenting about Stella Maris, DeLuca adds:

“The sisters were very hospitable. We frequently attended Mass in the chapel in the lower level of the house. They extended an ‘open door’ to us. We could just walk in and use the chapel and sun room any time we wanted. Occasionally, some of their retreat guests would come to Roosevelt Hall and asked to see the inside. As long as it was not close to dinner time, we would escort them through the rooms on the main floor.”

* * *

Br. Hal DeLuca is today Director of College Counseling at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, Washington, D.C. I am grateful to him and to the Skaneateles Historical Society for sharing this glimpse of life at Roosevelt Hall during this time.

A few notes:

The Brothers of the Christian Schools (also known as the Christian Brothers, in Latin, Fratres Scholarum Christianarum) is a Roman Catholic religious teaching congregation, founded in France by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651–1719). The Brothers use the post-nominal abbreviation of “FSC” to denote their membership in the order, and the title of Brother, abbreviated Br.

A novitiate is a place for the training and preparation that a novice (or prospective) monastic, apostolic, or member of a religious institute undergoes prior to taking vows in order to discern whether she or he is called to vowed religious life. This training includes times of study, prayer, living in community, studying the vowed life, deepening one’s relationship with God and one’s self-awareness. It is a time of creating a new way of being in the world.

In 2001, the Christian Brothers passed Roosevelt Hall to the Franciscan Friars. In 2007, at the Friars’ request, the house reverted to Dennis Owen who sold it to the current residents; it is once again a private home.

Susan B. Anthony at Legg Hall


Of all the lecturers who have spoken at Legg Hall, Susan B. Anthony is probably the least in need of an introduction. In January of 1880, she spoke on the notion that “Women Want Bread, Not the Ballot.” It was a speech she delivered many times over the course of her crusade, and it was never written down. But contemporary scholars have reconstructed the talk from scores of news accounts, and I include a few excerpts here. Reading these words, one can clearly imagine the power of their delivery in person:

“My purpose tonight is to demonstrate the great historical fact that disfranchisement is not only political degradation, but also moral, social, educational and industrial degradation; and that it does not matter whether the disfranchised class live under a monarchial or a republican form of government, or whether it be white working men of England, negroes on our southern plantations, serfs of Russia, Chinamen on our Pacific coast, or native born, tax-paying women of this republic. Wherever, on the face of the globe or on the page of history, you show me a disfranchised class, I will show you a degraded class of labor.

“Disfranchisement means inability to make, shape or control one’s own circumstances. The disfranchised must always do the work, accept the wages, occupy the position the enfranchised assign to them… If they could, do you for a moment believe they would take the subordinate places and the inferior pay?

“And yet, notwithstanding the declaration of our Revolutionary fathers, ‘all men created equal,’ ‘governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,’ ‘ taxation and representation inseparable’—notwithstanding all these grand enunciations, our government was founded upon the blood and bones of half a million beings, bought and sold as chattels in the market. Nearly all the original thirteen States had property qualifications, which disfranchised poor white men as well as women and negroes.

“Thomas Jefferson took the lead in advocating the removal of all property qualifications… Martin Van Buren declared, ‘The poor man has as good a right to a voice in the government as the rich man, and a vastly greater need to possess it as a means of protection to himself and his family.’

“It is said women do not need the ballot for their protection because they are supported by men. Statistics show that there are three million women in this nation supporting themselves. In the crowded cities of the East they are compelled to work in shops, stores and factories for the merest pittance.

“The question with you, as men, is not whether you want your wives and daughters to vote, nor with you, as women, whether you yourselves want to vote; but whether you will help to put this power of the ballot into the hands of the three million wage-earning women, so that they may be able to compel politicians to legislate in their favor and employers to grant them justice.

“The law of capital is to extort the greatest amount of work for the least amount of money; the rule of labor is to do the smallest amount of work for the largest amount of money. Hence there is antagonism between the two classes; therefore, neither should be left wholly at the mercy of the other.

“It was cruel, under the old regime, to give rich men the right to rule poor men. It was wicked to allow white men absolute power over black men. But there never was, there never can be, a monopoly so fraught with injustice, tyranny and degradation as this monopoly of sex, of all men over all women.

“Denied the ballot, the legitimate means with which to exert their influence, and as a rule, being lovers of peace, they have recourse to prayers and tears, those potent weapons of women and children, and, when they fail, must tamely submit to wrong or rise in rebellion against the powers that be. Women’s crusades against saloons, brothels and gambling dens – emptying kegs and bottles into the streets, breaking doors and windows and burning houses – all go to prove that disfranchisement, the denial of lawful means to gain desired ends, may drive even women to violations of law and order. Hence to secure both national and domestic tranquility, to establish justice, to carry out the spirit of our Constitution, put into the hands of all women, as you have into those of all men, the ballot, that symbol of perfect equality, that right protective of all other rights.”

Susan B Anthony

A typical broadside announcing Anthony’s appearance

Wallace Bruce at Legg Hall

Wallace Bruce, big photo

On January 25, 1879, Wallace Bruce spoke on Sir Walter Scott at Legg Hall, receiving mixed reviews. On one hand, it was said that he treated the subject manner “in a masterly manner” but another critic wrote, “Mr. Bruce is an orator of high order, but his lecture on Friday evening was delivered in too rapid a manner and in too loud a tone. Still, the lecture will take rank with the best we have had in the course so far.”

Bruce was back for the next lecture season, in December of 1879, speaking on Robert Burns. Fascinated by Scottish history and poetry from an early age, Bruce graduated from Yale in 1867 and then earned a degree in law. But after a walking tour of Scotland, he returned to America set on a new career, not in law but in lecturing.

He wrote, “On my first trip to Scotland I made loving pilgrimages to the shrines of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Returning to America, I voiced my love for these great Scottish writers in almost every town and city from New York to San Francisco.”

Bruce also wrote his own poetry, as well as books on history and literature, and penned a series of travel guides as “Thursty McQuill.” But his dream job came in 1889: President Benjamin Harrison appointed Bruce to serve as U.S. Consul to Edinburgh.

Bruce was able to immerse himself in Scotland once more, and to create a memorial that would outlast his poetry. At the American Consulate, he heard of a Scots woman who was applying for a widow’s pension; her husband had served in the Union Army before returning to his homeland. When he died, his body was interred in a pauper’s grave. Bruce asked the Edinburgh Town Council to provide a plot for Scots who had served in the U.S. Civil War and then began to campaign among American friends for funds to build a memorial. His efforts were successful, thanks in part to Andrew Carnegie, one of several Scottish-Americans who supported the project. The memorial features bronze figures of Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave, and the names of the Scottish soldiers who fought in the war.

Bruce returned to America with his family in 1893 and continued writing and lecturing. He spoke again in Skaneateles in December of 1899, and continued to be active until dying of a stroke in 1914.