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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Franklin-Area Chautauqua Was Cultural, Civic Marvel

Dallas Bogan on 3 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

For years Miami Valley's Chautauqua was one of the nation's outstanding centers for religious, cultural and entertainment activities. It is located inside the Montgomery County line off Chautauqua Road, directly north of Carlisle.
The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake, N.Y., as the Fair Point Sunday School Assembly, a vacation school for Sunday school teachers. Founders were Ohio manufacturer Lewis Miller and the Reverend John H. Vincent, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania.
Miami Valley Chautauqua's first public affair was held at the Franklin fair grounds, just west of town, on a hot Wednesday night of July 15, 1896; it was Ohio's first such organization. The Rev. Thomas Harrison, of Rochester, Mass., led a revival which marked its beginning.
Each day the program began with a sunrise prayer meeting. All services consisted of religious observances except on Wednesday, July 22, which was selected as G.A.R. Day. Gen. John M. Thayer, ex-Senator from Nebraska, delivered an address at 11:00 A.M., and Gen. John B. Gordon gave a splendid lecture on "The Last Days of the Confederacy" at 2:00 P.M.
These two programs were prominent among the many addresses which caused the Camp Meeting name to be changed to Miami Valley Chautauqua the next summer.
The summer of 1897 found the speaking schedule booked to capacity. It was said that never in its history had this single assembly exhibited such notable artists, statesmen and great preachers.
Finances played a large part in the fine productions displayed at this time, the events being far too affluent for the Miami Valley citizens. Costs were too high, overhead was declared too much a burden, and Chautauqua went into the red.
A group of Franklinites organized a stock company, believing this to be the solution to its financial woes. It was assumed that Rev. E. A. Harper, a Methodist minister from Germantown, Ohio, organizer of Chautauqua, could not function as a one man enterprise.
F. Gillum Cromer was chosen as president of a group of 16 called the Miami Valley Chautauqua Company, their purpose being to somehow save the financially strapped institution.
Under this organization, the third annual assembly was held at the Franklin Fair Grounds from July 30, to August 7, 1898. Season tickets sold for $1.50 for adults, and for a single day, 25 cents.
Provisions for campers included stalls in the fairground stables which were used as sleeping quarters. A dining room was conducted in the Art Hall and a circus tent was used as an auditorium. As automobiles were not yet in use, people traveled to the site in horse-drawn vehicles.
Use of the Franklin Fair Grounds continued under the same management in 1899 and 1900. On Friday, July 28, 1899, William Jennings Bryant made his first appearance at Miami Valley Chautauqua. His wide spread popularity brought positive notices to the organization.
The fifth and last assembly to be held at the Franklin Fair Grounds was from August 4 to August 12, 1900. Before the programs were completed, and advertisements were sent out, all accommodations had been filled. Two-hundred tents had been prepared and all the horse stalls were taken. The list of speakers and entertainers was filled to capacity, as well as the crowds.
Soon the Franklin Fair Grounds outgrew its public capacity and the stockholders searched for another suitable location. Mr. Cromer was seeking the Van Derveer Grove, the present site of Chautauqua, while Dr. F.R. Evans was interested in the Evans Woodland on what is now old Route 73 between Franklin and Middletown.
Chautauqua now had its finances in order and seeking a new home held top priority. The stock, which at this time had an assessment of $12.00 per share, now doubled in value. New shares were issued and the total number of stockholders jumped to 39. A group from Dayton, headed by E.S Lorenz, entered the picture and led in the effort to purchase the Van Derveer land.
On the west side of the Great Miami River, immediately north of the defunct Franklin Hydraulic Company's dam, was located the new home of Chautauqua. On the 41 acres were constructed the Bellevue dining hall, with sleeping capacity for 54, and an open-air auditorium that would seat 5,000. A Tent-town of 200 white tents was laid out in rows along the river. All this was prepared for opening day on Friday, July 26, 1901.
With Chautauqua's move to it new location, one means of foot traffic was resolved by construction of a three-span iron foot bridge over the Great Miami from present Dixie Highway. Additionally, 1200 trees of forty varieties were dug up near Crane's Run and floated across the Great Miami to be planted in the park.
(Four different modes of transportation were within viewing distance of the new grounds. Many arrived by the Southern Ohio Traction Line, a few arrived by canal boat, others came on special cars of the Big Four R.R., and upon the dusty pike came a multitude of horse-drawn vehicles.)
In 1902, the purchase of 40 more acres was added to the grounds. Lots were bought and utilized in the building of cabins.
By August 1908, the number of cottages had reached 60. Restrictions were issued that prevented owners from using their cottages other than summer homes. The grounds were the only location in the State of Ohio bought, owned and operated solely for Chautauqua objectives.
In 1909, Chautauqua was recognized by the United States Post Office and granted a summer post office which placed the institution on the map.
Mr. Cromer ran Chautauqua in a dictator-like manner. You could not buy a cigar or anything else on the grounds on Sunday. Recreational undertakings such as boating, public bathing or any other outdoor activities, were prohibited.
A new set of rules were brought forth in 1912 which stated that management was to be in the hands of an executive committee and general manager, and that the Company property was to be held by a Board of Trustees. Three persons were selected from the cottage owners, three from each of various religious denominations, and a few selected at large.
The flood of March 1913 brought ruin to Chautauqua, causing the assembly program to be discontinued for the summer.
A schedule was carefully built for the 1914 program with different subjects, speakers and entertainers being presented. An expensive effort was made to lift the clouds of the flood, but to no avail, the season ending with a deficit.
Court litigation was taken in 1915 against the Company for debts due. After a time Cromer withdrew from active participation in the Company and E.S. Lorenz took over. A new organization was formed called The Miami Valley Chautauqua Association, bonds were issued, and the debt was erased.
Wade E. Miller, of Middletown, was assigned as new manager in 1928. He opened the park as a summer resort and extended it from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Many local families moved to Chautauqua for the summer because of the increased days.
The fiery preacher, Billy Sunday, was the featured speaker during the summer, bringing in the last large crowd of 6,000 people. His sermon was entitled: "Crooks, Corkscrews, Bootleggers, and Whiskey Politicians - They Shall Not Pass."
Bellevue Dining Hall burned in May of 1929. A new dining hall was built and open for business the next month. An additional 123 cottages were also constructed during this year.
Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared at Chautauqua in July 1940 to a crowd of 4,000 Miami Valley citizens. Her address revolved around the war in Europe. She stated that "We want peace, but we must be willing to fight for it." Her appearance was perhaps the highlight of the entire history of Chautauqua.
Radio entered the picture in the year 1941. An agreement was made with personnel from WLW to broadcast seven Sunday afternoon programs direct from Chautauqua. Proceeds from the venture were to be divided equally. A list of the radio personalities included: The Quiz Kids, Peter Grant, longtime WLW radio celebrity; H.V. Kaltenborn, the Cadle Tabernacle, Congressman Martin Dies, Theodor Broc, an eye witness to the invasion of Normandy; Etta Moten, the Negro Mezzo-Soprano; the Southland Jubilee Singers, and on Sunday, August 17, the radio program was closed with one of America's greatest singers of the time, John Charles Thomas.
During this event, the Chautauqua Association lost nearly $2,000 which outraged some cottage owners. However, widespread publicity, both through the air and the press, attracted thousands to Chautauqua, excepting the ones who stayed home and tuned in their radios.
The Crosley Corporation, owner of WLW, lost much more than did Chautauqua. Nevertheless, through its short radio career, 1941 through 1942, total gate receipts were $93,871.64, the largest of its history.
Chautauqua was consistently plagued with debts down through the years. Because of this constant financial torment the Association was sold to the Michigan Baptist Fellowship Foundation in 1968. The park area was sold but the village itself remained a private settlement.
After the sale of the park there were five different arson fires within five months. The hotel, coffee shop, auditorium, and dining hall were either burned down or damaged.
In September 1987, by a vote of 64 to 33, Chautauqua residents relinquished their private status. Badly in need of street repair, and non-collection of back assessments, the residents asked that Miami Township assume the villages' responsibilities. Property owners saw their annual assessments drop from $125 to $50 per year.
Miami Valley Chautauqua was the last private community in Ohio to govern itself.

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This page created 3 August 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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