WAXAHACHIE, TX — What brought Chautauqua to Ellis County? The Texas Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian (C.P.) Church made the decision to move their Chautauqua Summer Assembly from Glen Rose, Texas, for the 1900 Assembly. “Glen Rose failed after two years. People couldn’t get there,” Kirk explained. “In 1899, the bid for a new host went out all over the South. Waxahachie won the bid.” Since Chautauquas were typically located along a body of water, Waxahachie had the prime location along the creek in what was known as West End Park in the newly developed West End addition, with its pavilion reportedly capable of holding 1,200 people. The first Waxahachie Chautauqua Assembly was held from July 26 to August 6, 1900. “The first Assembly also included 75 tents,” Maureen stated. “The larger tents that resembled cottages allowed people who travelled a long way to bring the comforts of home with them.”
In fact, Waxahachie residents would erect tents so they too could experience the camaraderie of being part of the social event of the year. Fine furniture, area rugs and cooking equipment were commonplace in their tents. During the two-week long assemblies, the park was transformed into a little city surrounded by a fence that also served as a hitching rail for livestock. It was commonplace to find at least one restaurant, a barber shop with two chairs, a post office, a newsstand and a night watchman. “It really was a community event,” Maureen added. Waxahachie Creek was an important component to the summer Chautauqua experience.
It was used to cool the water, drinks and food, while offering a place for the children to wile the hours away as adults enjoyed lectures and concerts. At times, the creek was damned to allow for boating, swimming and diving. Old, faded photographs show boats floating on the creek with women dressed in their Sunday best, matching parasols shading them from the afternoon sun. The size of the 1901 Assembly increased to include 135 tents. Due to the high rise in attendance, a decision was made to construct a new, much larger auditorium with a seating capacity of nearly 2,000. The auditorium was constructed just in time for the 1902 Assembly, and the original pavilion was used as a dining hall. Once again, the Assembly grew in number to include 235 tents. “The building’s octagonal shape had merit,” Kirk said. “It lent itself to good acoustics in a period of no amplification, and was also a popular architectural design of the mid-1800s.
To some, the roof line resembles a tent.” In 1914, E.P. Hawkins conveyed the former WCPA property to R.W. Getzendaner, who in turn conveyed it as a gift to the city of Waxahachie for use as a park. As Kirk and Maureen, the official Chautauqua historians, continued to delve into the history of Waxahachie Chautauqua, they learned it flourished up until 1906 when the Waxahachie Chautauqua Park Association (WCPA) began having difficulty paying the note for the materials used in the construction of the new building. The park property was sold to a group of citizens, led by E.P. Hawkins. Debts were paid and the Assemblies continued. In 1907, it was more popular than ever. By 1913, indebtedness plagued them once again. In 1914, E.P. Hawkins conveyed the former WCPA property to R.W. Getzendaner, who in turn conveyed it as a gift to the city of Waxahachie for use as a park. The story of the Waxahachie Chautauqua and its auditorium really began for the three historians in 1971. “It was closed due to dilapidation,” Kirk shared. “The city was contemplating tearing it down.” At this same time, a lady named Josephine Ruskin stepped in and rallied the city to save it. She journeyed to New York with her husband, Robert, where they visited the Mother Chautauqua, and the “cross-pollination” began. The Chautauqua Auditorium became her passion. That same year a state historical marker was obtained. By 1974, the Waxahachie Chautauqua Auditorium had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thanks to the tireless efforts and resources of so many people like Josephine, a young lawyer named Steve Chapman and a community-minded businessman named Marvin Singleton, the building was completely refurbished by 1975. “Josephine, Steve and Marvin, along with so many other likeminded individuals, were instrumental in keeping the Chautauqua alive,” Maureen admitted. The political process of saving and placing the Chautauqua building back in service was not an easy one. “But, it did show if you believe in something and you are willing to stand up for it,” Steve said, “through work, logic, and also courtesy to those who have a different opinion, you can make a difference in the community.”
Retirement didn’t last long for George Cole. “I retired in January of 2008,” he remembered. “Several people started calling. They wanted to help me get involved in the community.” The list of areas where George could make a mark as a volunteer was lengthy, but the place that he found most interesting was the Chautauqua Auditorium. George quickly realized that retired individuals have more spare time for volunteer activities, and time is what’s needed to keep the memories of the Chautauqua Auditorium alive and well for future generations. George became a board member during the summer of 2009, right before the Chautauqua Assembly in September. George will be stepping down as a board member and the program co-chairman as this year comes to an end. “I have been fortunate and blessed to have had people with passion and knowledge to help me with the Assembly programs and associated events these past three plus years,” George admitted. “I feel board members and volunteers need to have a passion for the cause, but they also need to possess a good work ethic. Volunteers are extremely important as many hands make light work.” George was able to get his feet wet by helping with the 2009 Assembly, a one-day afternoon and evening event. “The theme that year was Cotton: The Fabric of a Community,” George shared. “The interest I showed during this event resulted in me serving as a program chairman (2010) and program co-chairman (2012) during the next several years.”
The 2010 Assembly, All Aboard! Rail Transportation — Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow in Waxahachie & Ellis County, was the first one-day event in which George served as the program chairman. “I didn’t know a lot about being a program chairman, the history of the railroad or the interurban, when the theme was decided upon,” he confessed. “I quickly began researching the subject. I soon met many people knowledgeable of rail transportation in Waxahachie and Ellis County – past, present and future.” For the 2011 Assembly, the board selected the theme of Oil & Gas in Waxahachie & Ellis County. The program chairman for that Assembly was Matt Perkins. The Assembly attendees learned the great impact oil and gas have had on Ellis County. Even though the 2012 Assembly has come and gone, George’s excitement as the program co-chairman is still evident as he talks about the two-day event with fond memories. This year’s theme was The War Between the States. It was the perfect event to memorialize the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, while celebrating the 110-year anniversary of the Chautauqua Auditorium and the “effort of people” that helped to secure its place in Waxahachie’s history. “Friday, September 21, offered a Living History educational program and Civil War Encampment where people in period dress represented soldiers, nurses, physicians, merchants, politicians and private citizens, who had been a big part of the history of the local and area Civil War effort,” George explained.
“Several educational stations were set up on the ground around the Chautauqua Auditorium.” Favorite stations included Civil War battle flags; Confederate money and bonds; sewing, knitting, spinning and quilt making; black pot cooking; blacksmithing; soap making; and medicine, music and mourning of soldiers who lost their lives. The Civil War Battlefield Engagement held on Saturday, September 22, provided highlights that will long be remembered. The engagement included soldiers from the North and South who skirmished and re-enacted a fight along Waxahachie Creek. “It represented a battle similar to the ones fought by soldiers in the Confederate Army under Colonel W.H. Parsons Brigade, 12th Calvary Regiment,” George stated. “This brigade included three companies from Ellis County.”
The board has been faithful to follow the philosophies of Chautauqua when choosing a theme for the Chautauqua Assemblies. The theme aspects must include each of the four pillars on which the Chautauqua movement was founded — religion, education, arts and recreation. And local flavor themes play a big part in attracting people in the community, as there is much interest in area history and the local ties it has to the theme. “One of the most memorable Assembly themes for me was centered on food,” George recalled. One of “I feel board members and volunteers need to have a passion for the cause, but they also need to possess a good work ethic. Volunteers are extremely important as many hands make light work.”
“The goal of the board is to replace members who are going off with someone who shares the same passion and commitment,” George emphasized. “I want to share my experiences on the board with the new incoming board members and encourage support of those who desire to be part of the Chautauqua movement.” George also realizes his success comes with the help and expertise of so many other concerned, caring individuals. New board member, George Susat Jr., served as program co-chairman for this year’s theme. His knowledge and contacts with Civil War organizations, historians, museums and re-enactors was instrumental in the success of the 2012 Assembly. The director of city parks, John Smith, is also on the board. He oversees the maintenance and upkeep of the Chautauqua Auditorium for the city, while also serving as a stepping stone to more awareness. The Singleton and Chapman families, along with a myriad of other individuals and organizations, were available when the Chautauqua Auditorium was in need of restoration. “They, as well as other supporters, had vision and commitment. They understood the historic significance of the Chautauqua Auditorium and how it adds major historic value to our community.” The Chautauqua board is currently in the process of creating a history that can be found in one central location — the Ellis County Museum in downtown Waxahachie — instead of in area attics and garages. “We’ve reached an agreement with the museum to use space on the second floor for an office and to store Chautauqua historical information,” George shared. “For us, it’s a mini-museum/repository of sorts, but it’s a place to start.” One hundred and ten years of the Chautauqua movement encompasses the historical significance of a community.
That same community needs to be part of keeping the memory alive. Keeping the vision means continued life for the Chautauqua movement, as well as the historic auditorium. When summing it up, George said it best. “It’s not just a pile of wood. It’s a story of the people who moved through the building. It’s the jewel of the Waxahachie community. We need to polish it up and present it to the next generation, and they must do the same because ‘This place really does matter.’”
Written by Sandra Strong.