Established in 1898 on what was then a barren mesa south of Boulder, Colorado Chautauqua has been providing education and entertainment programs for well over a century. Originally founded by Texas educators, the Chautauqua in Boulder was part of a nationwide movement emphasizing intellectual and moral improvement. Now a National Historic Landmark and a beloved local institution, it is one of only three Chautauquas in the country—and the only one west of the Mississippi River—still being used for its original purpose.
The first Chautauqua was held in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in western New York. It featured Bible study classes, as well as lectures on art, history, science, geography, and ancient languages. The concept soon proved popular, especially among rural Americans hungry for knowledge, entertainment, and some connection to the wider world. By 1898, more than 150 independent Chautauquas were in operation across the country—including Colorado’s first Chautauqua, Glen Park Chautauqua Assembly near Palmer Lake, which started in 1887. New Chautauquas usually sought to imitate the rural setting and rustic housing of the original, with an open tabernacle or auditorium to host speakers and performances.
In 1897 the University of Texas hatched an idea to establish a summer school and Chautauqua for the state’s teachers in a cooler location somewhere in Colorado. Officials visited Boulder, were impressed by their University of Colorado hosts, and returned to Austin to incorporate the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua Association. They had not definitely decided on Boulder, however, and a competition for the Chautauqua soon emerged between Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Denver. Colorado & Southern Railway officials on the association board preferred Boulder, which required a longer train trip from Texas. In April 1898, the city won over the rest of the board after residents overwhelmingly approved a bond to buy land for the Chautauqua. The city also agreed to build an auditorium and dining hall at the site, as well as a transit system to get people there from the railroad depot.
Chautauqua planned to open its first season on July 4, 1898, leaving Boulder less than three months to prepare. The city failed to provide a transit system, but it followed through on its other promises. The city quickly bought seventy-five acres of Bachelder Ranch, just south of Baseline Road at the mouth of Bluebell Canyon. The triangular plot, then known as Texado Park, was the first parkland the city ever bought. On May 12, 1898, construction of the auditorium and dining hall began. The dining hall was finished first, in early June. The auditorium took longer and was ready just in time for opening day. Built in the Chautauqua style, it was open on three sides. More than 350 tent sites were platted for housing to accommodate Chautauquans coming from Texas and other distant locations, with some larger tents erected for use as classrooms and meeting halls.
On July 4, 1898, 4,000 people gathered in the Chautauqua auditorium for the opening ceremony, which featured hours of speeches by the Boulder mayor, the Texas governor, the University of Colorado president, and Colorado governor Alva Adams. The Kansas City Symphony performed that day and remained in residence for the rest of the season.
During Chautauqua’s first season, daily attendance averaged about 1,000. A daily fee of fifty cents covered all programs, which included dozens of speeches and musical programs, as well as art talks, speaking programs, and gymnastics. In addition, Chautauqua offered the first real summer school in Colorado, with fifty-one courses in sixteen different subjects, including literature, math, chemistry, botany, physics, psychology, education, and languages. Tuition cost $5 for one course or $10 for three. In their free time, Chautauquans took advantage of their proximity to the mountains by going on hikes to Royal Arch or riding the train along the Switzerland Trail.
Chautauqua saw several improvements in its first few years. Before the 1899 season, Boulder built an electric railway, the city’s first mass-transit system, to ferry people between the railroad depot and Chautauqua along Ninth Street. At the Chautauqua site itself, a new Art Hall as well as an office and bathhouse opened in time for the second season. In 1900 Chautauqua added an Academic Hall with six rooms; the summer school soon had an enrollment of 600. Trees were planted around the tents and buildings, providing much-needed shade on the previously bare mesa.
In addition, encouraged by the Chautauqua association and the Boulder City Council, local residents began to build cottages to replace the original tent housing. Locals built a few dozen cottages before the 1899 season, which they could occupy themselves or rent to visitors. Soon the association began to advertise in out-of-state towns to encourage school districts or groups of teachers to build their own cottages. The association itself also started to own and build cottages at the site; income from cottage rentals eventually became the association’s main source of income. By 1916, all the tent dwellings had been replaced by cottages.
In the meantime, the Chautauqua association had undergone important administrative changes. From the start, the association had trouble breaking even, a problem that continued when Chautauqua grew more slowly than expected in the face of increased competition from new Chautauquas elsewhere. By the end of the third season, in 1900, the association’s total debt had grown to about $32,000. To deal with the ongoing deficit, the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua Association reorganized with greater local representation and was renamed the Colorado Chautauqua Association. The Colorado & Southern forgave the association’s debt, and local businesses that benefited from the visiting Chautauquans were enlisted to make contributions to offset any future deficits.
On this more secure foundation, Chautauqua continued to develop through the opening decades of the twentieth century. Opening day, always held on July 4 in those years, was an annual citywide celebration. Performers such as John Philip Sousa, who came to Chautauqua in 1904, drew huge crowds. Joseph Bevier “Rocky Mountain Joe” Sturtevant became Chautauqua’s official photographer, documenting the site’s development and activities during its early years from the small studio he built on the grounds.
The Chautauqua movement grew into a nationwide phenomenon during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Thousands of Chautauquas opened in those years. In a time before easy transportation or mass communication, Chautauquas played a crucial role in connecting rural Americans to the national culture. By 1924, Chautauquas around the country attracted 40 million people.
Colorado Chautauqua was also at its height in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1918 the Chautauqua association added the site’s last major building—the Community House—which served as a meeting place and club room, regularly offering free community activities. In the 1920s, the site had ninety-seven cottages and four lodges that could house 600 people. Chautauqua was so successful that it tried to expand, but the city of Boulder blocked it from increasing its footprint and eventually made the adjacent land part of the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks system.
Decline of the Movement
The end of the 1920s saw the rapid collapse of the Chautauqua movement nationwide. Radio and television were beginning to provide new forms of entertainment, while the rise of automobile tourism gave people more options for traveling. In addition, the rural farmers who formed the heart of the Chautauqua movement were facing hard times, a problem that grew worse during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Eventually the only Chautauquas left standing were the original Chautauqua in New York, Lakeside Chautauqua in Ohio, and Colorado Chautauqua.
Colorado Chautauqua shared in the misery of the Depression, but it limped along until economic recovery began in the late 1930s and quickly regained its footing after World War II. In 1946 the number of Chautauqua-owned cottages passed the number of privately owned cottages, and Chautauqua expanded slightly by filling in an old reservoir on its southern edge and adding a handful of new cottages.
After surviving the movement’s decline, the Great Depression, and decades of changes in education, entertainment, and recreation, Colorado Chautauqua became nearly extinct in the early 1970s. Attendance and revenues were down. The city of Boulder developed a plan to tear down the auditorium and other original Chautauqua buildings and replace them with a city-owned resort and convention center. The president of the Boulder Historical Society and the editor of the Daily Camera quickly mobilized to get Chautauqua listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which successfully shifted the city’s focus from destruction to preservation.
As a result of its new status as a historic site, Colorado Chautauqua experienced a revitalization in the late 1970s. In 1977 the Chautauqua association reorganized its board of directors, bringing new energy to the organization. The dining hall was renovated and the auditorium received a complete structural rehabilitation. In 1978 the Colorado Music Festival began to hold its annual summer concerts in the auditorium.
In 2006 Colorado Chautauqua was declared a National Historic Landmark. That year the Chautauqua association began to put together the first master plan for the site, as it faced parking problems, mounting tax bills, and a variety of maintenance issues. Released in 2011, the Chautauqua 2020 Plan proposed several changes and additions, including the relocation of the picnic shelter and construction of a new 7,000-square-foot two-story building near the auditorium for use as offices and meeting space. The proposed building sparked strong opposition. Local residents organized a group called Boulder Friends of Chautauqua to fight the proposal and work for greater oversight of Chautauqua association activities and the US Department of the Interior submitted a letter urging the association not to move the picnic shelter or construct the new building. The association ultimately abandoned its plans.
In 2015 the Boulder City Council began negotiations with the Chautauqua association for a new twenty-year lease at the site. The city annexed the forty-acre Chautauqua grounds in 1953 and leases twenty-six acres to the association, which operates public buildings such as the auditorium, dining hall, and community house as well as sixty of the site’s cottages. (The other thirty-nine cottages are privately owned.) The primary items at issue in the new lease included city representation on the Chautauqua board, cottage rents and taxes, and city oversight of Chautauqua construction and renovations.
Chautauqua continues to offer a regular program of musical performances, films, discussions, and lectures.