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!



Zora Neale Hurston

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston.

Today we are highlighting Zora Neale Hurston and her contributions to the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida. Make sure to check out Hurston’s audio recordings below and the new Zora Neale Hurston podcast.

Zora Neale Hurston was an African-American novelist and accomplished anthropologist whose rich literary work has inspired generations of readers. By 1938, she had already published Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Despite her reputation as a writer, there exists another side to Hurston’s career. In 1938 and 1939, during the Great Depression, Hurston worked as a folklorist and contributor to the Florida division of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through her work with the FWP, Hurston captured stories, songs, traditions and histories from African-Americans in small communities across Florida, whose stories often failed to make it into the histories of that time period.

The Works Progress Administration – after 1939, the Works Projects Administration – was a work-relief program created in 1935 by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. It had employed over 8.5 million people by its demise in 1943. One of its programs was the (FWP), which included a folklore section. The staff conducted fieldwork and recorded songs, traditions, and stories across the nation.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen - Eatonville, Florida.

Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen – Eatonville, Florida.

In 1939, Hurston went to a turpentine camp near Cross City in Dixie County, Florida, to find candidates for recording interviews, songs and life histories of interesting everyday people. Hurston’s essay, “Turpentine,” traced her travels through the pine forests with an African-American “woods rider” named John McFarlin. Her work on Florida’s turpentine camps is still considered authoritative. Back in Jacksonville, Hurston’s final major contribution to the Florida FWP was to arrange a recording session at the Clara White Mission. The African-American participants told stories and sang or chanted traditional music. Hurston also sang 18 songs herself, mostly work songs and folk songs.

“Dat Old Black Gal” is a railroad spiking song that Hurston learned near Miami from Max Ford, the singing liner on the construction crew. Workers would hammer the spikes securing the rails to their cross-ties in rhythm with the song.

Dat Old Black Gal[audio:|titles=Dat Old Black Gal|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

Next is a juke song that Hurston learned on the East coast of Florida. She sings “Halimuhfack,” then describes her process for learning songs.

Halimuhfack[audio:|titles=Halimuhfack|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

Hurston sings “Let the Deal Go Down,” a gambling song she collected at the Bostwick turpentine still near Palatka, Florida. The men sang the song while playing the card game called George Skin, “the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South.”

Let the Deal Go Down[audio:|titles=Let the Deal Go Down|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

“Let’s Shake It,” is a track-lining chant that Hurston learned at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida.

Let’s Shake It[audio:|titles=Let’s Shake It|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

The track-lining rhythm, “Mule on the Mountain,” was the most widely-distributed work song in the United States. Zora Neale Hurston originally learned the song from George Thomas in Eatonville, Florida.

Mule on the Mountain[audio:|titles=Mule on the Mountain|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

The railroad lining rhythm, “Shove It Over,” which was generally distributed throughout Florida. Hurston learned the song from Charlie Jones on a railroad construction camp near Lakeland, Florida, in 1933.

Shove It Over[audio:|titles=Shove It Over|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

“Wake Up Jacob,” was sung to wake up the workers in a big work camp. Hurston learned it at a sawmill in Polk County.

Wake Up Jacob[audio:|titles=Wake Up Jacob|artists=Zora Neale Hurston]Download: MP3

For more information about Zora Neale Hurston:

Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp (Educational Unit)

Zora Neale Hurston Podcast