Strolling into the village of Chautauqua for the Fourth of July weekend, we came upon a path of flags, bows, and red petunias leading toward someone’s front porch. They paraded to a lit-up Santa dressed like a jolly Uncle Sam. “This is the most Americana place I’ve ever been,” explained our friend Sarah, whose folks were hosting us at their Chautauqua summer home.
I laughed. “I’m not joking,” she said.
Later I found out Teddy Roosevelt had expressed the same thought about the historic town, set on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York—and the movement it spawned. “The most American thing in America,” Roosevelt called it.
That “American thing” has touched more of us than we might realize. When I was growing up in Central Illinois, we had a riverside Chautauqua Park near us in the town of Pontiac. My grandmother went to lectures there with her parents in the 1920s, my dad told me. Decades later, my friends acted in summer plays in the theater. When I saw the main amphitheater at “Mother Chautauqua” (now called the Chautauqua Institution), it was obvious—Pontiac’s had been modeled to look just like it.
Chautauqua’s founders were Methodists who started the town in 1874 as a summer learning retreat for Sunday school teachers, guide Carolyn Benton explained on our Fourth of July tour. Then they launched the country’s first book club (complete with a four-year educational reading list) and sent related lecturers to Chautauqua assemblies around the country. “They were concerned about education for the farmers in Ohio and Indiana and Illinois,” Benton said, “far from the learning centers of the Northeast.”
As a national movement, Chautauqua’s 10,000 assemblies ebbed away by the 1930s. Once cars took over, farmers like my grandparents could drive to cities for new ideas. But 141 years later, the Chautauqua Institution still hosts a nine-week summer program of lectures on both spiritual and secular topics. On the Fourth of July, the Women’s Club sponsored a talk on the history of the birth control pill and its liberating effects—a topic that spoke to the broadmindedness of a still-religious institution. “Make some fireworks of your own tonight,” the speaker suggested.
Somewhere between the Uncle Sam decorations and the provocative lecture, Chautauqua’s spirit got to me. Was it the history? Thomas Edison had summered in Chautauqua. FDR and his wife Eleanor visited often. George Gershwin wrote his “Concerto in F Major” in one of the music practice shacks. More recently, every prominent American writer and thinker has come through. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has said, “At Chautauqua, we subtly change the country’s DNA.”
Maybe it was the conviviality. People of all religions get along—and enjoy life at a leisurely pace—in Chautauqua. Everyone walks everywhere. They swim, sail, and even lawn-bowl along the lake. They host parties on Victorian front porches. Recently, the village has become a model for the New Urbanism movement.
Whatever it was, I felt more over-the-top patriotic than I had in years. I set my morning-run music to a John Philip Sousa station and kept it going for the next 40 minutes straight. The marches sounded perfect as I dashed past endless bunting and even a 30-foot American flag hung from a century-old elm.
Later, I’d sing out every word of “God Bless the USA” and every similar song the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra would play at its evening concert in the amphitheater. I’d even wish that I had a tall Uncle Sam hat like many around me. Chautauqua is a place for being a true American—friendly, earnest, learning, seeking, proud.