Editor's note: Lisa Cooper's newest work can be found at douglascountyhistory.blogspot.com.
I woke up Saturday morning with history on my mind–Lithia Springs history to be exact. I realize there is more than enough history in Douglasville proper to keep me on topic for quite some time with this column, but a factoid I had uncovered during my research had pushed my interest button. The item I had come across advised during the summer of 1888 close to 30,000 people were pouring into Douglas County from Atlanta and from points unknown via the railroad.
Think about that for a moment because 30,000 people were a large group coming in and out of our county every day with a purpose other than aiming to take up permanent residence.
Wow! Was Douglas County hosting the Olympics?
Well, it was something similar for the time period. They were here for the Piedmont Chautauqua.
Now when I first began my general research a few weeks ago I kept running across the word “Chautauqua” and figured it had something to do with Native Americans because the texts would refer to the Chautauqua Grounds. I assumed the texts were referring to hunting grounds or fighting grounds between the Cherokees and Creeks. One resource I accessed had to do with Camp Hobson. I wrote about it here. The source stated: The Chautauqua grounds were about 1¼ miles west of the springs after which the town was named. This is approximately the intersection of Bankhead Highway and Baker Drive. The Chautauqua grounds were west of Marsh Avenue.
Have you ever heard the old adage about assuming? I was wrong.
The Chautauqua had nothing to do with Native Americans or fighting. The purpose was education on a grand scale.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries people were hungry for cultural and educational opportunities. The Chautauqua caught on because the events included a mixture of instruction with play. Take the atmosphere of the fair and mix in speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, and preachers for a period lasting three to seven days mix it with a few fireworks and you get the idea.
It’s so easy today for us to hop on the Internet and visit the website for the Smithsonian or the National Gallery of Art. We can hop in the car and travel to Atlanta to see Cirque de Soleil at Atlantic Station or see a Broadway show at the Fox Theater. Here in Douglasville we have the Cultural Arts Center and the Old Courthouse Museum. We can learn anything we want by accessing it on the Internet including college courses or by purchasing software.
For folks who lived in rural America there just wasn’t an opportunity for them until the Chautauqua movement took hold across our county. The main focus was education for adults. The first Chautauqua was organized by a Methodist minister in 1874 in upstate New York as a way to provide educational training for Sunday school teachers. Other enterprising people latched onto his idea because he mixed in an outdoor setting as his venue, and put a new twist on learning. He made it fun.
The idea was copied over and over as daughter Chautauquas sprang up all over the United States. Each Chautauqua lasted for three to seven days, and each day a different headliner would perform or speak. A whole industry sprung up around the Chautauquas in order to provide the entertainment and speakers for such events similar to today’s talent agencies or speaker’s bureaus. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “The most American thing in America was the Chautauqua.” Several years later during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson advised the Chautauqua was “an integral part of national defense.” The Chautauqua movement had its heyday in the 1920s and had tapered off by the late 1940s with the widespread use of radio and with television soon hitting the scene.
The Piedmont Chautauqua held in Lithia Springs, Georgia was the brainchild of Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and promoter of the New South following Reconstruction. Some Chautauquas across the county were on a circuit. They would breeze into small towns, set up tents, educate and entertain the people and then move on to the next town. Grady wanted the Piedmont Chautauqua to be different. He wanted it large and lavish. He wanted it permanent. He even wanted people to be able to buy or rent cottages on the grounds, so a few would have a permanent Chautauqua lodging spot though there were several large hotels in the area. I have been told that the streets behind today’s Wyatt Pharmacy in downtown Lithia Springs–Marsh Avenue, Miller Way and Kiser Avenue –are all streets that led to the area where lots were sold for cottages. The pictures with this article are from that area.
Grady chose the location of Salt Springs, Georgia because it had railroad access, it wasn’t too far from Atlanta, and the area was already established as a resort town with the magnificent Sweetwater Park Hotel. You can view the magnificent structure here or here.
It’s amazing to think such a place was right here in Douglas County–in little Lithia Springs–being visited by the likes of Presidents McKinley, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Members of the Astor, Vanderbilt, and Whitney families visited the hotel for the curative waters and spa treatments. They would travel in their own rail cars and then use the hotel's dummy line to reach the springs.
The Sweetwater Park Hotel property was the perfect spot for Henry W. Grady’s Chautauqua plans because if his “New South” ideals. Douglasville was a fine example of a postbellum “New South” town leaving old ways behind and attempting to embrace industry and commercial business. Douglasville’s businessmen, professionals and politicians all adhered to Grady’s “New South” ideals.
Henry W. Grady was already friends with several of the movers and shakers in Douglasville and worked with them directly to get the project off the ground including Thomas R. Whitley, John B. Duncan, and Charles O. Peavey (see article here), editor of the Weekly Star, Douglasville’s newspaper at the time. Joseph S. James, Douglasville’s first mayor among many other positions he held over his lifetime, was an investor along with Grady’s partner, Marion C. Kiser, a Fulton County Commissioner. Grady hired an architect and landscaper–L.B. Wheeler and Joseph Forsyth Johnston respectively–to get busy designing and building the Chautauqua grounds.
Take a look at what they came up with here. What a wonderful structure for education and entertainment and right here in Douglas County! The Lithia water site advises:
The Chautauqua buildings were built after the Moorish style, with plain wings and towers and minarets clustering to the center. The Tabernacle seated seven thousand people and was located in an immense grove with exquisite gardens and lawns, rose mounds, and a reflecting lake.
In the days leading up the Piedmont Chautauqua the papers heightened anticipation regarding the Chautauqua by giving a daily progress update. Fannie Mae Davis recounted in her book, Douglas County, Georgia: from Indian Trail to I-20, a June 15 headline read, “ONLY 25,032 MINUTES REMAINING INCLUDING NIGHTS.” To celebrate some of the progress made by the end of June Chautauqua organizers decided to sell tickets to a barbeque meal where the proceeds would benefit the Confederate Veterans Home. The event was advertised far and wide and even made the Atlanta paper. The food was prepared including 30 kids, 10 young calves, 12 sheep, 300 pounds of butter, 50 dozen lemons, 200 ears of corn and 20 bushels of tomatoes. What the promoters didn’t anticipate was the timing it took to have that amount of food cooked when people showed up. They also forgot the fence surrounding the grounds had not been finished. It was estimated approximately 3,000 non-ticket holders managed to get on the grounds. Chaos ensued when there wasn’t enough food to serve everyone. The newspapers advised the Piedmont Chautauqua had its first and its last barbeque!
The barbeque fiasco was just a little set back. The Piedmont Chautauqua opened in fine style. The Lithia Springs Mineral Water site advises:
[Henry W. Grady] went to great lengths to secure twenty-one eminent professors from such schools as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, John Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and the University of Virginia. The Summer College offered courses in English Language and Literature, German Language and Literature, French Language and Literature, …Latin and Greek, Physics, Botany, Chemistry, History and Pedagogies, New Testament, Arabic, Assyrian, and Hebrew Language and Literature. The Assembly Schools included Physical Culture, Decorative Arts, Fine Arts, Elocution and Music. In keeping with the Chautauqua program, a two-day program offered “Sunday school days” for workers and children.
Grady had intended to hire several well known writers of the time including Atlanta’s own Joel Chandler Harris aka Uncle Remus to perform readings of their works at the Chautauqua, but from a list of six famous authors he was only able to secure one–Thomas Nelson Page. The Atlanta Constitution for August 2, 1888 stated:
Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, the famous southern author, arrived in Atlanta yesterday morning. He spent the day in visiting points of interest about the city with Mr. Clarence Knowles [an Atlanta politician], and last evening went to Chautauqua. Tonight he will give readings from his works.
Page ended up reading from his "Unc' Edinburg's Drowndin" to the delight of those in attendance.
The Piedmont Chautauqua formally opened on Sunday, July 8, 1888, with sermons by three famous preachers and an illumination by ten thousand colored lights. The Eighth Calvary Regiment Band of the Republic of Mexico, proved to be such a sensation, the trains from Atlanta to the Chautauqua were packed at every scheduled run. After a rendition of “Dixie and the Star Spangled Banner” at each performance, the Band received “vociferous applause.”
Indeed, Grady’s Chautauqua had exceeded all expectations.
Sadly, Henry W. Grady would be dead with the year, but his grand Piedmont Chautauqua lives on in the history books even if the grand hotel and magnificent Chautauqua buildings are a distant Douglas County memory.