A remarkable blending of religious inspiration, bits of secular education, wholesome entertainment and family vacation fun was in the Chautauquas which operated summertimes for three decades in Madison.
Known locally as the Assembly, it was the second-oldest Chautauqua in the United States and was conducted over a two-week period on a 30-acre wooded site on the south shore of Lake Monona, opposite the capital city.
The Madison Chautauqua was established in 1881 at a meeting of the Wisconsin Sunday School Assembly in Green Lake. Thereafter the Monona Lake Assembly, its more formal designation, was attended each year by thousands of men, women and children who came from throughout southern Wisconsin to live in a small city of tents pitched beneath the trees. It was conducted from 1882 until 1909 when the change of pace in American ways spelled its doom.
Fog-horn voiced evangelists sounded their moralistic lessons and thumped the podium with their fists as they spoke in a huge tabernacle--originally a tent designed to hold 3,000 people. It was later replaced by a large wooden structure.
Steamboats carried guests from the city's shore across the lake to the encampment. Railroads set up temporary shelters near the grounds to carry participants to the Chautauqua.
On a weekend as many as 15,000 people might jam the grounds, anxious to savor the best in entertainment, or to be inspired by religious discussions--emphasis on Protestantism--and to enjoy the wholesome out-of-doors relaxation in the beautiful park setting.
There were silver-tongued orators and politicians, such as Robert M. La Follette Sr. and William Jennings Bryan; famous preachers, humorists or editors like Amos Wilder of Madison.
Religion a-plenty and education, the latter with speakers discussing Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci, mixed with scientific discussion, prevailed. Discussions on management of Sunday schools and sermons on Biblical figures, as well as classes in harmony, were sought by more serious elders. "Chautauqua degrees" were awarded to a dozen or so people completing courses of study during the two weeks.
Swiss bell ringers, or noted Italian baritones who provided a taste of classical music, visiting choral groups, or a 200-voice choir of campers, would vie with the Ladies Ideal Band of Mauston for attention. Indeed, a woman bluegrass singer once entertained the Chautauqua guests.
The assemblage generally was conducted in the last week of July and the first week in August. Swings and hammocks were suspended from trees near tents, and ultimately croquet and tennis provided summer-day fun. Dining halls were there to feed the throngs; deep wells served by hand pumps provided fresh water. A barber shop and popcorn stand were available. Here and there were tents in which one found local leaders carrying the message of the women's suffrage movement and fighters in the cause of temperance.
Tents were rented to the visitors at prices from $5 to $9 for the two-week period. Each had a wooden floor. Cots were available at a mere 75 cents each rental.
By 1908 the Assembly, up till then financially successful, was losing money. A large deficit became the name of the game in later years. The city of Madison purchased the Assembly grounds in 1911 for $20,000 and converted it to a public park. All of the buildings save one have gone with time.
Leaders of the local Chautauqua sought out the cause of the loss of interest and blamed the University of Wisconsin's summer school free lectures, the desire of young people to attend vaudeville shows in town, and the advent of the automobile.
Frank Custer, a Madison native, is an authority on local history.