The Chautauqua Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided millions of Americans with cultural, educational, and entertainment experiences that included concerts, classes, lectures, and exhibitions. It was, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, “The most American thing in America.” Ask most Americans today what a Chautauqua is, and odds are, you’ll get a blank stare.
Until recently, I too would have had that deer-in-the-headlights expression. I’m ashamed to say that although I lived in Boulder for nearly two years, I had no idea that Chautauqua Park was anything more than just an exceptional place to hike, with some cool historic buildings thrown in. Thankfully, while in Boulder on business last month, I displayed the instinctive intellectual curiosity I possess when I’m in travel mode. Thus, I discovered that the city’s–and my–favorite recreational spot is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The first “Mother” Chautauqua was organized by a Methodist minister, at a campsite on New York’s Chautauqua Lake in 1874. By the end of the first World War, 12,000 Chautauquas were in the U.S.. Many had religious leanings, but Chautauquas were primarily educational adult or family summer camps, fostering a sense of community and culture.
The 40-acre Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder opened on July 4, 1898 as a summer retreat. Today, according to the website, it’s one of three remaining Chautauquas in the U.S., and the only site west of the Mississippi River in continuous operation, with its original structures intact. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
%Gallery-129131%The Colorado Chautauqua (locals just call it “Chautauqua”) includes 60 guest cottages and two lodges for nightly or long term rental; a dining hall and auditorium; 48 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails; climbing routes and bouldering spots, and 8000 acres of open space. The “Green” located at the entrance was Boulder’s first city park.
In 2008, the Colorado Chautauqua Association vowed to make the grounds the country’s “greenest” National Historic Landmark. Changes in operation include water and energy conservation, and expanding methods of diverting waste from landfills. Even the (adorable) cottages have recycling bins, water-saving shower heads, faucets, and toilets, eco-friendly soaps and hair products, and alternative cooling systems.
Chautauqua hosts public events at reasonable fees year-round, including music, theater, dance, film, forums on everything from global warming to sustainable farming, outdoor “active” plays for children and family, and the Colorado Music Festival. It’s also immensely popular for weddings and other outdoor gatherings (which must be booked through the Chautauqua).
Even if you skip the events, I recommend a pre-hike, al fresco breakfast or brunch, or a post-hike (local, craft-brewed) beer at the Dining Hall, which has been in existence since 1898. It’s not where you’ll find the best meal in town, but the wrap-around porch offers stellar views, and it’s an ideal place to absorb the essence of Boulder life. The Dining Hall offers classic American cuisine, and is also open for lunch and dinner; reservations strongly recommended.
Sadly, the Chautauqua Movement lost its mojo as we became a more urbanized and technologically advanced society. Why go to the Chautauqua when you can play “Angry Birds” or see what those crazy Kardashians are up to? And that’s exactly why I was so affected by what I learned in Boulder last month. I used to live less than two miles from this remarkable monument to American history. Yet I was too self-absorbed and distracted at the time to be curious about its roots, despite hiking there on a weekly basis. Sometimes, we need to put down the toys, be in the moment, and really take note of our surroundings. And that’s what the Chautauqua Movement was all about. May it one day thrive again.
If you’d like to support the revival of the Chautauqua Movement, go to this new site launched by the Chautauqua Network: Chautauqua Trail.