A Letter from Chautauqua

Isabella’s novels about Chautauqua Institution inspired adults from across the country (and around the world) to attend the summer assembly in New York.

But children also dreamed of going. In 1883 Isabella received a letter from a twelve-year-old girl named Faith who made an unexpected trip to Chautauqua. Faith’s letter to Isabella was reprinted in an 1883 issue of The Pansy magazine. You can read Faith’s enthusiastic account of her summer below:

Chautauqua, Aug. 1, 1883.

DEAR READERS: A wonderful thing has happened to me! It will do to put in that long list of modern events that I had so much trouble remembering in my history lesson. I am quite sure I shall remember this one, though, as long as I live.

I wanted to go to Chautauqua, and here I am!

I talked about it, and dreamed about it, but all the time I thought it was of no use, for mamma said she didn’t know as we could ever afford to go. I put it among the things, though, that I meant to do some time, when I grew up. I thought it would be years and years first, but don’t you think, that very night, Uncle John and Auntie May came. They were on their way to Chautauqua. Almost the first thing Uncle John said to me was, “Come, Faithie, pack your trunk, we are going to carry you off with us.”

I thought it was only some of his jokes, but after tea, when we all sat on the piazza together, Uncle John began to coax mamma in real earnest to let me go. Mamma said that a little girl only twelve years old was too young to go away from her mother, but Auntie May said she would take the best possible care of me, and Uncle John said I would have a real good time, and it shouldn’t cost me a cent, and it was a pity if they couldn’t borrow a child once in a while, when they had none of their own.

Papa hadn’t spoken yet. He looked at me and he saw that my eyes were saying, “Please, please, do let me go!” Then he said to mamma, “Suppose we let her go. It will do the child good.”

Mamma said then that she would think about it, and decide by morning.

I almost knew before I went to bed that I was going, for mamma said two or three times, “If you go, you will do so and so.” Then she came into my room and looked my clothes over, and said, “If you go, you can take the smallest trunk. Let me see, there is your white dress, and your gingham, and your black and white check. The one you have on, with your brown hat and sack, will do nicely for travelling. You can put your best hat in the trunk.”

I had on my brown cashmere skirt, and white waist, and I thought myself I would look nice, with my brown sacque and hat, with a clean linen collar. I was glad I happened to have a brown hair ribbon, too.

I couldn’t get asleep very soon that night, and when I did I dreamed that Chautauqua was at the top of a high, steep hill, and I was trying to climb up, but every step I took I fell back two or three. It wasn’t true at all, though. Chautauqua is not on such a very high hill, and I did not have a hard time getting here.

Mamma said “yes” in the morning, without any ifs and ands, except that I had to promise to wear my rubbers when it was damp, and carry my umbrella when it looked like rain, and not go out on the lake, and do just as Auntie May told me.

The only bad thing about getting here was saying good-by. I didn’t think I would feel bad, going away for just a little while, but the minute I kissed mamma, I felt as if I were going to choke. I was determined not to cry, so I never said good-by at all. I was afraid after I got started mamma would think I did not care anything at all about leaving her.

Where shall I begin to tell you about this wonderful, beautiful place?

Chautauqua is just ten years old. Yes, ten years ago this was just like any other piece of woods on the shore of a lake. Now, it is a large, beautiful grove, the underbrush is all cleared away, and streets and avenues wind in and out among the tall old trees. There are pretty cottages—whole streets of them—and there are white tents sprinkled about, fixed out with red curtains, and lace curtains, and hanging-baskets, too pretty for anything.

A row of four tents set up in a clearing, with small houses in the background. A woman stands in the opening of the first tent; a wooden chair is beside her. Families pose at the openings of the other tents.
Chautauqua tents and cottages, 1910

A great, handsome hotel stands not far from the lake, and the lawn, sloping down to the water, looks as if it were covered with green velvet.

Hotel Athenaeum, 1908

The pretty blue lake is smuggled into green woodsey shores, and steamboats are coming and going all the time; then there are row boats and sail boats flitting about.

Row boats for rent on the shore of Lake Chautauqua, as a steamer docks at Chautauqua.

Whichever way you look you see people dodging here and there behind the trees. It looks as if all the grown folks were playing live. I like it. I wish they would do so always, and I don’t see why they can’t go on doing these pretty things when they get home. Life wouldn’t be half so dull if we could always get up, and go to bed, and go to dinner, at the sound of a chime of bells, and hear the grand organ every morning rolling through the air, and great burst of song coming through the trees. Why, it seems half the time as if I was one of the people in a lovely poem. Then, don’t you think the robins hop right about the door, great, lovely robins, and cunning little squirrels chase each other up and down the tree trunks.

A group of small children play in the grace near the lake shore. A couple sits on a wooden bench, looking about upon the lake, where there are sail boats, row boats and a steamer.

To think of my seeing robins and squirrels so near by! But I suppose you have met those delightful people scampering and flying about at your own house this summer, so I needn’t take up room telling you about them.

The people are not all playing, though it might look so. Almost everybody is studying something. There are classes in French, and German, and Latin, English literature, music, clay modeling, drawing, and ever so many other things.

A group of about thirty girls sit on the grass. Each girl weaves a holds a length of straw or small
A girl’s class in basket making at Chautauqua.

Uncle John says I may take drawing lessons.

Lectures and concerts are going on in the great amphitheatre nearly all the time. The amphitheatre is such a place as you never saw in your life. Let me see if I can make you understand just how it is. It is just as if the water was all dipped out of Simmon’s pond, a floor laid in the bottom, making a room as large is three or four churches, in one. Then imagine the sides of the pond, made hard and smooth, sloping down to this floor and filled with seats beginning low and going, one above another, up, up to the very top. There are aisles every little way from top to bottom (it’s the greatest fun to scud down them when all the people are away.)

Photo of the inside of the amphitheatre, a large wood structure with a stage at one end with about 12 rows of raised seating behind. The floor and 3 remaining sides of the theatre are filled with rows of wooden benches.

At one end of the great room is a high platform for speakers, and back of it and higher up still, is the orchestra with a beautiful organ.

Photo of the amphitheatre stage. In the middle is an elevated platform for the organist and three large banks of organ pipes.
The Massey Memorial Organ, 1908.

This alone is large enough to hold a thousand people. It is a great sight to sit up there evenings, when the electric light makes it all as light as day and lighter, too—and see the audience. Every seat filled; six or seven thousand people making a huge half circle about the platform; then the red and blue and pink and green and white and black dresses, and shawls and ribbons and feathers and fans is just wonderful; it all looks like a very big bouquet—at least, that is the way it looked to me; but I am beginning to think that people see everything with different eyes. I heard Auntie May ask Uncle John if it did not make him think of that verse in Revelations, xx. “So a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and kindreds and people, and tongues, stood before the throne and before the Lamb.” And Uncle John said he wondered if God saw the seal in the foreheads of all this company.

A view of the Amphitheatre from the stage in 1937.

It certainly seems as if we had got somewhere away from this world, at night, when the electric light streams far out and lights up the trees and cottages so beautifully.

I saw a lovely picture when I came home last night, only it was not painted and hung up, it was a live picture. It was a cunning little white tent with a light like sunshine on it. The red curtain was parted in front, the shadows of the leaves danced over it, and on the porch sat two pretty ladies, leaning back in their rocking-chairs resting.

It’s queer about things, isn’t it? If a great artist were to paint that and put it in a gallery how all the people would run to see it. Why don’t they gather round and wonder over pretty pictures before they are made up is what I would like to know.

Here I have written a long letter, and I have not told you yet how Chautauqua came to be. The man who thought it out and got it up, is Dr. Vincent. He and some of his friends came here one summer to study the Bible together in quiet. They thought it was a nice place, so they decided to hold a Sabbath-school assembly here the next year; from that it grew and grew to this great grand Chautauqua, where for six weeks in summer you can study anything, I think, from cooking up to all the ‘ologies and philosophies and dead languages and live languages that ever were heard of in the world, though the Bible is the chief book studied, by some of the people at least. Such grand lectures as I have been to!— not dry a bit. All the great orators speak in Chautauqua. Then the concerts, with all sorts of instruments and beautiful choruses and lovely solos. Oh, I tell you,  I’m having a good time!

The Chautauqua Regional Chorus performs at the Amphitheatre.

Uncle John says Dr. Vincent is a genius, and that the day will come when this will be a great university open the year round.

If you have any patience left after you read this, write to me, and if you want to hear more about Chautauqua I will write it, for there are whole books-full left.

Your loving friend,

Faith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.