When Irma Bowman attended her first chautauqua, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House and Henry Ford was just introducing the Model T.
That was 80 years ago, and Bowman was just 6 weeks old.She has gone every year since to the Fountain Park Chautauqua - summertime camp meetings that first offered a program of religion, politics, drama and music to turn-of-the-century rural America. Indeed, Bowman was program director at Fountain Park for 45 years until her retirement last January.
Fountain Park, in Jasper County, Ind., about 100 miles south of Chicago, has been the home of chautauquas since 1894. It is the last of its kind in Indiana, and only one of a handful left nationwide.
The granddaddy of them all has been offered at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., every summer since 1874 and continues to attract visitors from around the world.
Chautauquas played more than 6,000 times in 75 Indiana communities during their 25-year heyday. Although they are firmly rooted in religion and the early camp revivals, they grew to offer much more.
They were the modern-day equivalent of rock concert, circus and revival rolled into one.
Performers in the chautauqua tents and tabernacles included three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, singer Jenny Lind and Terre Haute labor organizer Eugene V. Debs.
Mary Louise Wilson, 89, of Rushville, Ind., also was on the circuit.
"I was a singer and played the piano," says Wilson, who quit after two seasons to be married in 1918.
Booking agencies hired college students to travel ahead of the shows and erect the tents, which would be filled with chairs borrowed from the local undertaker. The "talent" would follow, usually by train.
The pace was hectic, Wilson says.
"We would perform the first day and then go on to the next town. It was every day. There were no days off," she says.
For the price of a season ticket, the chautauqua offered several evenings of entertainment, including the Rev. Billy Sunday, a former big-league baseball player whose booming voice and ability to leap on top of the pulpit kept audiences spellbound.
Author James Whitcomb Riley also made the circuit, reading selections from his works.
Wilson's uncle, Rushville banker and humorist Jess Pugh, was a favorite with his character Elmer Warts, champion Indiana hog caller. Pugh went on to achieve fame in daytime radio as Scattergood Bains.
It was the invention of radio, in part, that signaled the end for chautauqua in Indiana and elsewhere.
"Chautauqua brought lecturers and fine singers and artists of all kinds to small towns, and there was no other way of having it," says Wilson. "When radio came in, all you had to do was turn a button and get the whole thing."
Frank Miles of Madison recently completed a study sponsored by the Indiana Committee for the Humanities called "Chautauqua in Indiana." Miles, whose father was on the chautauqua circuit in Iowa, says World War I also helped put an end to the circuits. Many soldiers who had been to the big cities of Europe and the United States were not content to return to their rural roots and traditions.