Chautauqua in Florida

What do you do if it’s 1902 and you’re dying to know something about this Panama Canal everyone keeps talking about? Or maybe you want to hear some good music, something better than that small-town band you’ve heard a hundred times this year already. Maybe you’ve been wondering what it’s like on the other side of the Earth, or how electricity works, or the latest theories about those atom thingies.

Your options in 1902 would be limited. Most of our present-day methods for satisfying the desire for information and entertainment simply didn’t exist at that time. There was, however, an institution that aimed to bring the world to the public in the form of a traveling show. They called it “Chautauqua.”

Program sheet for the first annual session of the Florida Chautauqua at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Program sheet for the first annual session of the Florida Chautauqua at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Chautauqua was a nationwide adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was named for the small town in western New York where the concept originated. Orators, musicians, actors, and other performers traveled around the country in circuits, putting on shows in large cities and small towns alike. They stayed from a few days to a few weeks depending on the gate receipts and the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The shows usually featured a combination of singing, orchestral music, lectures and “elocution,” comedy, and inspirational speeches. Sometimes the speakers would illustrate their talks with lantern slides, creating the closest experience to world travel many Chautauqua attendees would ever have. Local arrangement committees usually contracted with a Chautauqua management company to schedule the show, which would then be heavily advertised through newspapers and handbills.

A handbill describing the program for a chautauqua event at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

A handbill describing the program for a Chautauqua event at DeFuniak Springs (1885).

Traveling Chautauquas were generally held in large tents set up on the outskirts of town, but the institution became so popular in some Florida communities that local citizens raised funds to build permanent auditoriums for holding the events. Lakeland, Arcadia, Mt. Dora, and DeFuniak Springs are a few examples. As Chautauqua grew and the annual timing of the shows became more regular, families would come from miles around to camp and attend. Often a member of the traveling company would be in charge of devising activities for the children. Sometimes the children produced a show of their own to present to the adult audience toward the end of the Chautauqua series.

A chautauqua hall at Mount Dora, surrounded by the tents of families attending the show (circa 1886).

A Chautauqua hall at Mount Dora, surrounded by the tents of families attending the show (circa 1886).

Lakeland citizens gather around their new chautauqua auditorium. The building opened on November 6, 1912 with a capacity of about 1,700 (photo circa 1912).

Lakeland citizens gather around their new Chautauqua auditorium. The building opened on November 6, 1912 with a capacity of about 1,700 (photo circa 1912).

In a world without the Internet, television, or even radio, this sort of cultural experience was nothing short of thrilling for many participants. Particularly good orators sometimes gained the same sort of fame enjoyed by today’s movie and television stars. Even speeches themselves could gain immense popularity. Temple University founder Russell Conwell was well-known for an inspirational speech entitled “Acres of Diamonds.” He reputedly gave the speech over 6,100 times, mostly on the Chautauqua circuit.

A chautauqua chorus - Mt. Dora (1889).

A Chautauqua chorus – Mt. Dora (1889).

We still have lectures and live performances, of course, but we certainly don’t depend on them as our forebears once did. Most folks aren’t even familiar with the word “Chautauqua,” let alone its history as a way of connecting people with the world. One slight exception is the Florida Chautauqua in DeFuniak Springs, which still hosts periodic cultural events throughout the year.

Speaking of connections, Florida Memory is proud to be your gateway to the history and culture of the Sunshine State. What’s something you’ve learned on Florida Memory that you never knew before? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below or on Facebook!

 

 

Not Our First Rodeo

Lots of people associate the idea of a rodeo with the American West – Texas, Oklahoma, someplace dusty, hot, and dotted with cacti. And while rodeo is most certainly a big hit out west, it has deep roots here in the Sunshine State as well. Florida, after all, has been home to a thriving cattle industry for centuries. Native Americans and the Spanish were raising cows as early as the 1500s, long before organized ranching arrived in what would become known as the American West. As new settlers arrived and the era of Spanish ownership came to an end, the herds remained, changed hands many times, and continued to serve as a valuable source of food and trade.

Drawing of the

Drawing of the “cow ford” that eventually became the site of Jacksonville. This particular section of the St. Johns River was used for the purpose of fording cattle as far back as the late 18th century (drawing circa 1800s).

Rodeo developed partly out of the practical needs of a farm or cattle ranch, and partly because the tasks involved naturally lend themselves to competition and spectacle. Roping, herding, and branding cattle, breaking wild horses, and overall dexterity in the saddle were all basic needs of even the earliest cattle ranch hands. The events of modern rodeos are closely related to these traditional skills.

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

Aside from serving as a demonstration of skill, rodeos have a strong social element that brings together communities like few other traditions can do. In cities and towns where the surrounding region is highly involved in the cattle industry, rodeos are held frequently, and are designed for the entire family to enjoy. Floridians as far south as Homestead and as far north as Bonifay have special annual rodeos with a lengthy past. The Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, for example, originated in 1928 when the local American Legion post was looking for a fundraiser for a new building. Post officials invited all the local families, including the Seminoles located nearby, to attend a rodeo and parade to raise money for their cause. A band from Wauchula provided music, and even Governor Doyle Carlton rode in the procession. The first rodeo was a smashing success, and even with the arrival of the Great Depression, the people of Arcadia kept up the tradition of holding rodeo events each year. It still continues today.

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

One of rodeo’s most admirable aspects is its inclusiveness. While the crowd may roar at the spectacle of an adult rider using every ounce of strength to stay atop a bucking bull, there’s just as much enthusiasm for the large number of events held especially for the kids. From rodeo’s earliest days, children have been earnest competitors, demonstrating their horsemanship, roping skills, and overall athleticism in a variety of ways. Older kids with a little more size and experience may compete in junior versions of the same events as adults, while a few events are just for the small fry. At Arcadia, for example, youngsters can participate in the “calf scramble” and “mutton bustin’” challenges. In the calf scramble, an entire army of kids are unleashed on the arena where calves adorned with bandannas have been placed. Those participants who successfully chase down a calf and remove its bandanna are declared the winners. In the mutton scramble, young riders hold onto the backs of sheep as they scurry about the arena. Whoever stays on the longest wins.

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

A young man participates in a

A young man participates in a “calf scramble” at a rodeo in Lakeland. This version of the calf scramble had an interesting twist. If a participant could catch the calf and get him over the finish line, he got to keep it (1947).

These are just a few of the hundreds of images in the Florida Photographic Collection pertaining to the rodeo. Is there a rodeo event near your community? Tell us about your favorite rodeo experiences by leaving a comment below. And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook!

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).