Nebraska was a leader in the Chautauqua movement which brought culture and entertainment to rural America. Thousands of Nebraskans spent as many as ten days each summer attending Chautauqua sessions at Crete, among other locations. The Crete Chautauqua for a time was the largest such assembly in the country. During the 1884-85 season, a pavilion capable of accommodating 800 to 1,000 people, a regular hall, an open-air auditorium, an eight-room dormitory, and a dining hall were erected at the assembly site of 109 acres along the Big Blue River. Within a decade twenty buildings had been erected.
The Omaha Daily Bee of June 15, 1886, included information on that year’s Crete Chautauqua assembly, scheduled for July 1-10. The program was publicized as a “series of brilliant lectures by speakers of national renown, of delightful concerts, chorus rehearsals, stereopticon exhibitions and elocutionary recitals, interspersed with brilliant fireworks and the delightful camp-fire.” Speakers included the Rev. Lyman Abbott of New York, who lectured on “The Industrial Revolution”; Senator John A. Logan of Illinois, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR); Charles E. Bolton, whose travel lectures were illustrated by stereopticon slides; and author Mrs. G. R. Alden, who used the literary pseudonym “Pansy.” Training classes for Sunday School workers were also a part of the Chautauqua program, with concerts and fireworks added for variety.
One of the intangible benefits of attending the Crete Chautauqua was the camaraderie engendered by joining hundreds of others in an outdoor setting in which many chose to camp in tents on the assembly grounds during the sessions. The Bee on June 29 advised those who wished to stay overnight: “Apply to the superintendent of the grounds for tents. . . . Tents will be rented as follows: For entire season tents 10×12 feet, $4; for entire season tents 12×14 feet, $5; floor in tent extra, $1; cots for entire season, $1; cots per day, 25 cents.” Campers could bring their own bedding, towels, and camp furniture or rent them at the grounds.
Those who wished to eat on the Chautauqua grounds had several options. Women from the Crete Congregational Church had charge of the dining hall-and a lunch counter, “where edibles will be sold in large or small quantities at reasonable rates for the accommodation of those who desire to board in their tents. Milk, butter, bread, etc., will be furnished here. Meals at the dining hall per day, $1; meals at the dining hall per week, $5; meals at the dining hall for entire season, $7; single meal, 35 cents.”
Financial losses caused backers to dissolve the Crete Assembly after the 1897 season due to the emergence of competing assemblies in Lincoln, Beatrice, and Long Pine. After 1900, traveling Chautauqua-circuit troupes played under large canvas tents in hundreds of Midwestern towns. World War I caused a slackening of interest, and vaudeville, movies, and radio gradually replaced Nebraska Chautauquas, which had once entertained, educated, and inspired thousands.
Chautauqua grounds at Crete. NSHS RG2491.PH2-90
Chautauqua grounds near Big Blue River at Crete, ca. 1885. NSHS RG2491.PH2-91