A National Movement Begins
In 1905, the Pontiac's annual summer assembly set an attendance record. According to one source, the 1905 Pontiac Chautauqua had the “Largest attendance of any western Chautauqua, its daily attendance during the entire 16 days averaging 6,702,” for a two week total of 107,232 attendees. However, interest in the Pontiac Chautauqua Assemblies began to wane in the late 1920s. The economic downturn that presaged the Great Depression had begun by then, and other options were now available for both entertainment and erudition. Radio, a truly national press, and motion pictures became the primary sources of timely knowledge and variety entertainment. The Assemblies had served their purpose admirably, but newer technologies quickly replaced them.
The Chautauqua Legacy
The Chautauqua movement was a truly American phenomenon, and the Pontiac Chautauqua Assembly was considered one of the most successful of these types of presentations west of Pennsylvania. Geared primarily to the tastes and aspirations of the developing middle class, the Chautauqua Assemblies traded in the intellectual staples that the middle class adopted as their cultural touchstones: Religion and ethics, life-long educational opportunities, and popular culture that did not seem to threaten the idealized norm, or reflect greatly the negative aspects of the American socioeconomic culture at that time in history.
It is important to note the Chautauqua Movement was not without its critics. Many, including American author Sinclair Lewis, thought the Chautauqua Movement failed to reflect the reality of American life at the time. There were few original thoughts presented to the audience, just platitudes that reinforced the standard, Christian view of a society that was beginning to become truly multicultural and that wished to retain the status quo.
President Theodore Roosevelt once called the Chautauqua Movement "One of the most American things in America." During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the Chautauqua Assemblies an "integral part of the national defense." Throughout its history, the Chautauqua Movement has played a critical role in the creation of the American Middle Class and all that it entails. In the 21st century, there remains the original Chautauqua Assembly in New York, as well as a few other survivor Chautauqua gatherings scattered around the nation who annually produce events modeled after the 19th century phenomenon.