Chautauqua era survives in a Midwestern community

The gatehouse has a stop sign, but there is no one to stop for. The streets are isolated and bumpy. Speed-limit signs say 15 miles an hour, but there are no drivers on the road.

A community of cottages curves around the road bearing such names as We Lik It, Our Shangri-La, Par A Dise, and Home Sweet Home.

The public buildings are padlocked and, even with furniture still on the porches of the houses, the town appears empty.

This is Chautauqua, established in 1885 on the banks of the Mississippi to spread secular education, the arts, and cultural ideas throughout the rural Midwest. Today, in 1980, it survives as a community of Christian followers in a quiet, simple, and indeed Shangri-La world.

While it continues primarily as a summer resort, there are 10 families that remain here throughout the year. (Under Illinois law, however, a minimum of 15 families must live here year round to be officially considered a "community.")

The "unofficial" community is formally called the New Piasa Chautauqua Association and is governed by a board of directors. Each summer the board is elected by the shareholders, who are required to own cottages in the community.

There are some 125 cottages in Chautauqua. The 10 percent vacancy rate indicates that finances are tight. The money to run the "town" is essentially provided by those who use Chautauqua.

Indeed, not just anyone is free to use the village. Once an applicant is investigated by the board, approval or disapproval is based on three criteria:

A potential resident must first be a member of the association.

He is required to be a Christian -- the Chautauqua movement grew out of the Methodist camp -- and indicate a willingness to participate in the religious, even though nondenominational, life of the community.

He must also be financially responsible. The cost of buying a cottage, plus paying utility bills, guest fees, Jersey County property taxes, and membership fees, makes this third point inevitable.

Sam Schmidt, president of the board, explains the social changes that have wiped out other Chautauquas. The two main causes, he says, were World War I and Henry Ford.

In the 1880s and '90s, people would come great distances by horse and buggy to see a movie, a novelty at the time. "People came to Chautauqua because here was the only source of contact people had with this world of religion and entertainment," he declares.

"World War I had a serious effect on the movement. And Henry Ford made Chautauqua an anachronism. With the Model T automobile, people could drive anywhere they wanted to go, especially to movie houses."

In 1908, the Piasa Bluffs Assembly -- as Chautauqua was then called -- failed to meet its financial contribution and it was bought by the New Piasa Chautauqua Association, a group of shareholders who were able to raise the money needed to pay the bills and salvage the community.

With conviction and pensiveness, Mr. Schmidt says, "The idea of this place and this experience is so much a part of our lives. We are completely devoted to the survival of Chautauqua as an institution."

Then he tells the story of the just-completed reorganization project. "It's the biggest crisis we've ever faced," he asserts.

By US common law, a lease cannot be longer than 99 years. Chautauqua's land is leased from the corporation and, until recently, had an expiration date of 1984. The possibility of leaseholders owning their own land outright would destroy Chautauqua, Mr. Schmidt says. Landowners then could sell their land to whomever they wanted, thus causing the collapse of the criteria for membership.

Mr. Schmidt and the board decided to ask every leaseholder to turn in his lease and then voluntarily extend it for an additional 99 years. After two years of effort, 75 percent of the population went along. To succeed, the community required a two-thirds vote.

Thus, the willingness to sacrifice land in the interest of Chautauqua prevailed.

Chautauqua would survive for another 99 years.

"We're really quite ordinary people," Mr. Schmidt reports. "We're very happy when we're together. We like each other very much and we're sorry to leave in the fall."

In fact, he explains: "Chautauqua is a different time and a different place."

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