• Pacific Grove’s Chautauqua Hall: A good place to do things since 1881

    By Jon Guthrie

    More than a century ago, the comment labeling Pacific Grove a “queer” community appeared in an Arroyo Grande newspaper called the Herald.
    “Pacific Grove,” opined that publication, “is a pretty, but queer place.  The methodistical rules are stringent and newcomers are left kicking.  Business places are not allowed in residence blocks.  Boarding and lodging houses are not considered businesses, but the butcher and baker are.  One can roller skate in Pacific Grove, but not dance; can croquet, but not billiard.  Nary a card can be turned there, nor a bower played.  Spirits are not tolerated, except by those enjoying a tipple while in hiding.  The best thing that can be said about Pacific Grove is that it’s a nice place to be away from.”
    In the Grove, free-thinkers gathered to lament their community’s classification as “queer”.  Said one, who admitted the charge was truthful: “I would gladly put my money (invest) in the Grove, but you can’t get the class of people here who spend money.  Under such conditions you can’t increase the local trade nor build new houses.  Merchants and mechanics and laborers can never thrive in what is now only a camp meeting ground.”
    A colleague combed fingers through a wiry beard.  Elder James Bentley had just made his annual report about the finances of the fledgling community.  The elder noted that the district was in a prosperous position, having just more than $5,000 on hand, and he suggested “doing something with the money to make Pacific Grove into the finest settlement in California … indeed, in all the western United States.”
    But what would that something be?  Silence thundered into the room.


              Chautauquans may have had at first only a tent, then a barn for their gatherings, but this group’s contribution to Pacific Grove proved mammoth.  Chautauqua provided the seeds for Pacific Grove’s library, the Museum of Natural History, the Boy Scouts, and became fillip for the community’s continuing interest in all things erudite.

    It was Charles Eardly who salvaged the meeting.  Eardly-real estate broker, insurance salesman, and editor of the fledgling Pacific Grove Review-broke the hush to say that he had some ideas on the subject, but first he thought the participants should break for a bite.  The conference had ordered cured meats brought in from the Del Monte in Monterey, baskets of bread loaves from the Carmelito German Bakery on Grand Avenue, and fruits from Lloyd’s Groceries on Light House.  Editor Eardly was hungry.  So were the others, if the haste they made with the banquet bore proper testimony.  A half-hour later, the delicacies had been consumed.  The meeting reconvened.
    Eardly cleared his throat.  “I was recently exchanging a pleasantry of words with our friends, Attorney John Gray and Wholesaler A. A. Manuel, when our conversation drifted to the topic of John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist bishop, and Lewis Miller, a wealthy industrialist.  These two men decided to band together in order to form a training program for Sunday School teachers of the Methodist-Episcopal persuasion.  Mssr. Vincent would provide curricula knowledge; Mssr. Miller would provide funds.”
    The editor glanced about the room.  “A lake was found in the most western climes of New York state.  It was a large lake, shaped like an hourglass, filled with crystalline water by bubbling springs and seasonal runoff.  The lake had provided a divider between the homelands of two bands of Indians-Seneca and Erie-who called the lake Chautauqua, which means a tied-off bag, indicating its shape.”

    Though the editor probably did not mention the lake’s earlier history, the place was first visited by non-Indians in 1749 when the French explorer Bienville de Celeron passed by.  The Indians told Celeron that the lake was named Tchadakoin.  In French, that word sounded like Chautauqua, which was the spelling given it by the Frenchman.
    “Now,” continued Eardly, “in 1873, Vincent and Miller were scouting the lake for a site suitable to establish a Sunday school training camp.  They found it.  Lewis Miller became president and Dr. Vincent the superintendent of instruction under the Sunday School Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”

    The Methodist Episcopal Church split into separate bodies during the schisms of the very late 1800s with the Episcopal rise of ritualism.

    Chautauqua never truly became a training center for religious teachers, however.  Both of its founders believed there were already enough camps for that purpose.  What was lacking was training for the entire person, for holistic education which would include the sciences, geography, history, art, music, and other subjects, even if considered esoteric.  Chautauqua should also house collections of books and exhibits of natural history.
    Following those rather flexible guidelines, Chautauqua quickly became a summer institute for secular, as well as religious, studies.  It’s fame spread so widely that U. S. President Ulysses Grant decided on a visit.  When told that smoking was not allowed at Chautauqua, Grant said: “Right,” and lit his cigar anyway.  The infraction was overlooked.
    Eardly smiled.  “I think that Pacific Grove should make itself the queen city of the Pacific by adopting the Chautauqua ethic and more.  We can become the Chautauqua of the west.”
    So it happened that, on June 30, 1879, Pacific Grove’s “Chautauqua of the West” opened beneath a yawning tent stationed at Seventeenth Street and Forest Avenue.  Included in the program was a talk on “Safety Bicycles and Other Improvements”, concerts on pianos provided by Steinway (crafted since 1823 by the French manufacturer Sébastien Erard), and instruction in the treatment of nervous prostration.  Dr. J. O. Peek of New York spoke on the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Missionary Society.  Dr. J. H. Wyth talked about the abundance of sea life.  Professor H. B. Norton addressed wildlife in the forest.  Miss L. Washburn explained how her collection of birds and animals was preserved by taxidermy.  Other notables spoke on a variety of varied topics.  A most impressive audience estimated at 600 turned out.  Many attendees had to be seated outside the huge tent.  The success was so great that the Chautauqua Society was prompted to abandon its tent altogether, and build a structure, as much barn as building, for permanent usage.

    At the time of the first event sponsored by the Pacific Coast Branch of Chautauqua Literature and Science Circle, aka Chautauqua Institute, Pacific Grove enjoyed a population less than 1,500.  Among the books that were required reading for Chautauqua’s first season of erudition were The Greek History, Basic Concepts in Chemistry, The Making of the Western World, and How the Dutch Took Holland.

    The second Chautauqua session turned out as successfully as the first, perhaps even more so.  Members of the committee, including Professor Josiah Keep and Mssr. J. G. Lemmon dashed off a request to Mssr. F. S. Douty, Secretary and General Manager of the Pacific Improvement Company, requesting the firm build a small structure to house specimens of preserved wildlife and other displays of natural history.  The company responded rapidly by putting up a small, center-of-town edifice, octagonal in shape.
    For nearly a half century, Chautauqua boomed and expansionist Pacific Grove got its wish.  During the Chautauqua years, more than one quarter of a million people turned out for events.  The Chautauqua committee busied itself collecting books, scientific specimens, and memorabilia.  The collection of books became the Chautauqua Library, predecessor to the Library of Pacific Grove.  Chautauqua’s collection of wildlife specimens became the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, giving that revered institution display holdings as varied as can be found.
    Social conditions, however, were changing.  Radio entered the scene and could be listened to at home, never mind static on the station.  Community events were giving ground to the flapper era.  Attendance at the Chautauqua events dwindled.  After the 1926 season, the doors closed.  The question had been: What to do with a structure that looked much like a board ‘n batten barn?
    Over the years, Chautauqua Hall had been used as a temporary church by Methodists rebuilding their own church, as a gym for students of Pacific Grove High School, and as a school proper.  Chautauqua was still in business, but as Chautauqua shrank, the Del Monte Properties (technically the building’s owners) offered the structure for sale.
    A discussion group comprising Charles Barker, F. L. Buck, Ed Simpson, W. J. Gould, and H. C. Steinmetz gathered.  With a plea for support to the community of Pacific Grove, these men raised the $2,500 needed to purchase Chautauqua Hall.  An extra $400 was raised for purpose of making some immediate renovations.  Included was the widening of Grove Street (the former name of Central Avenue).
    In 1921, the Boy Scouts of Pacific Grove were assured a home in perpetuity.  Chautauqua Hall’s title, however, was signed over to the City of Pacific Grove with instructions to make the building available for purposes other than scouting … like weddings and wakes, cake sales and cookery classes, and-perhaps to demonstrate new liberality-the revered dance held each Saturday evening.  Lots of well known Groveans attend those dances, including former council member Susan Nilmeier and Public Accountant Barry Dolowich.  It makes it sort of like the Chautauqua events of yesteryear: a good place to get together and do things.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 30, 2009

    Topics: Current Edition, Features

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