Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.

Chautauqua tent at Vulcan, Alberta, ca. 1916-1919. (Glenbow Archives NA-2685-87)

Under The Big Brown Tent

by Judy Silzer

At first, they appeared as little black dots scattered along the horizon. What were these objects and where were they going? Standing on his hotel balcony, William Bohn was intrigued by their numbers and their movement. A half hour passed and he saw clearly that they were automobiles. All were moving inward toward the small prairie town. Two hours later, he counted ninety-seven cars parked around the big brown Chautauqua tent. The audience had arrived for the evening performance.[1]

John M. Erickson, 1919. (Glenbow Archives NA-1900-7)

In the mid-1980s, I was introduced to Chautauqua through a made-for-television film, “Chautauqua Girl” which brought to life a page of prairie history previously unknown to me.  Some thirty years later, the Stories from the Archives project gave me the opportunity to investigate this topic further. What I discovered within the archives was a treasure trove of material consisting of newspaper clippings, original programs, and a collection of 768 photographs, see here. Most of this material was compiled by a former Glenbow archivist, Sheilagh S. Jameson, in preparation for her book, Chautauqua in Canada, which was published in 1987.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chautauqua was a phenomenon that brought the world to the door of thousands of ordinary citizens, many in isolated regions. Over the course of a three, four or six day event, audiences were educated, inspired and entertained by a wide variety of accomplished speakers, musicians and actors.


Mrs. John M. (Nola B.) Erickson, nee Critz, wore this dress while giving her "Highway to Happiness" lectures, 1917. (Glenbow Archives NA-1900-3)

While Chautauquas originated in the Northeast United States, the concept came to Canada in October 1916 by way of an enthusiastic American Chautauqua manager who, on his own accord, travelled north to Alberta to gauge the possibility of setting up a Canadian Chautauqua.  John Erickson met with business leaders in Lethbridge and the climate was ripe for bringing culture to the new and developing land.  A contract was signed by a group of citizens agreeing to act as guarantors who would cover any deficit that might arise from poor ticket sales for the Chautauqua in their city.  Shortly thereafter, similar contracts were signed in Taber, Cayley, Nanton and Macleod.  Over the next several months, other towns signed on; a circuit of 40 towns was finalized; and the first Canadian Chautauqua circuit emerged in 1917. The big, brown tent went up, and like a giant magnet, attracted town and country folk alike to venture in.

Erickson, together with his wife, Nola, set up office in the Lougheed Building in Calgary, Alberta. Comprised of one desk and two chairs, the office came to be known as “Dominion Chautauquas”. One year later in 1918, a second office was established in Ontario.


Local Chautauqua Committee group, Avonlea, Saskatchewan, 1928. (Glenbow Archives NA-3778-37)

From the first summer circuit in 1917, Chautauqua was a resounding success and the decision was made to add on a fall circuit, as had been done in the U.S.  Chautauqua was promoted as a unique event. In a letter to participating lecturers and artists, Mr. Alber of the Toronto office stressed: “Chautauqua is not a “show”; it is not a circus; it is not a carnival.  It is Chautauqua, and there is nothing else just like it anywhere in the world. [2]

After the initial Canadian circuit, Chautauqua became an easier sell for advance bookers. As one season ended, contracts were eagerly signed for the following year, and as word spread, other communities joined in. While Chautauquas were successful overall, deficits did occur, particularly in small, struggling communities but citizens became hooked and the show went on. In Torquay, Sask., some villagers with no cash to pay for tickets arranged with the local committee to trade goods such as firewood, grain or a stock animal, for tickets. [3] Such was the importance of Chautauqua, and the willingness of the people to tackle obstacles head-on.


Chautauqua parade in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, ca. 1920s. (Glenbow Archives NA-3757-1)

Community was at the very heart of Chautauqua and there was considerable involvement of community residents. At the forefront was the local committee who provided funds upfront and arranged ticket sales and publicity, with the guidance of the advance Chautauqua agent, usually a woman. She arrived twenty days prior to the event opening and attended to a multitude of tasks to ensure that everything was on track. Her duties extended to working with the local children on a play or other enriching activities. Other residents were busy as well. Women and children were recruited to help sell tickets and able-bodied men attended to the construction of the big brown tent. Chautauqua truly was a co-operative venture. The entire community was abuzz with activity. Optimism was in the air, temporarily displacing everyday concerns with excitement and anticipation. [4]


Children in costume for Chautauqua parade, Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, 1934. (Glenbow Archives NA-3743-1)

The week of Chautauqua arrived. Routine duties were set aside and townsfolk could be seen talking up the big event, parading down the streets, chanting cheers, and singing songs. Some towns even added local sporting events or dances to the already busy Chautauqua week. [5] On opening day, automobiles and other forms of transport appeared and soon filled the streets. People from the country arrived with food for lunches and dinners. They were eager to get to the big brown tent well before the show began and the young ushers, who were townsfolk themselves, were just as eager to show everyone to their seats.

Chautauquas always endeavored to provide programs with broad appeal, taking into consideration a wide range of ages and interests. Children often opened the week, as in Merritt, BC with a Pet Parade, or in Morse, Sask. with a pantomime of “Hiawatha”. [6] Homegrown performances were always well-received.

Music was also a strong draw and audiences were exposed to many musical styles and instruments. Popular musicians included the Imperial Symphonic Orchestra, the Swiss Alpine Yodellers, and the tamaritza players from Yugoslavia. Another popular group was the male quartette, the Westminster Bell Ringers, who mesmerized their audiences with beautiful chimes in addition to their harmonious singing.


Chautauqua car stuck in mud, Battleford area, Saskatchewan, ca. late 1920s.
(Glenbow Archives NA-3790-3)

A cornerstone of Chautauqua was the lecture and showcased speakers of national and often international reputation.  Topics ranged from the non-political but patriotic to exotic cultural to motivational. [7] After hearing any one of these topics, a citizen could reflect on and relive the experience many times over the upcoming year. One talk that was especially well-received in 1922 was given by Samuel Grathwell, a self-made man who rose from his slum childhood to a university education. He spoke on “Getting Past Your Hoodoo”. Having worked through his own hoodoos, he encouraged others to get busy and help themselves, and to stop knocking their circumstances and promote themselves and their communities. From Alberta to BC and Alaska, reviewers remarked on how Grathwell’s sentiments resonated with his audiences and he received thunderous applause after his statements on the importance of self-respect, and being alive, rather than one of the walking dead. One of his memorable quotes focused on community pride,  “A town that you can’t boost is no place to roost”. [8]


Canadian Chautauquas - Centrefold from Canadian Chautauquas Imperial Conference Edition program, Calgary, Alberta, 1932. (Glenbow Archives M-8747)

Chautauqua wasn’t just one big brown tent in one town. The tent could have been one of twenty-four in service during a busy summer circuit. Sixteen would be in use in sixteen different towns on the same date but with different performers. With an estimated one thousand people taking in these programs on a given day, this translated to 16,000 people enjoying Chautauqua on one day. Meanwhile, the remaining eight tents would be enroute to towns further on in the schedule. After performers finished on their allotted day, they too would be off by train or by car to the next town down the line. [9] The logistics of managing such a schedule of people, baggage, and supplies was truly staggering. Heaven help them when weather and disruptions in train schedules interfered!

Indeed, weather was a major player in prairie life. Problems ranged from sweltering summer heat, sudden cloudbursts and high winds to flooding and early winter blizzards. Laura Hale (Farquharson) of Delia, Alberta recalled this incident:

It had been a very hot, dry summer - no one could remember when we last had rain. The wheat fields were turning brown. It was a very anxious time. The farmers were saying that if rain didn’t come within the week there would be no crop this year. The Chautauqua came to town that week. The big tent was set up and the entire countryside came. There wasn’t much outside entertainment in those days and it was good to forget the burning crops for a while. The last night the highlight was a play which we had all been looking forward to. The tent was filled. About half way through, suddenly there was a sharp flash of lightning, followed by a loud clap of thunder, then a moment of hushed silence as we listened. It came down! A real cloudburst and we felt it. That tent leaked everywhere. Who would have thought it mattered to check on a leaky tent in that part of the country! That lovely warm rain pelted through – we were so happy – we grasped our neighbours, laughing and cheering. It was impossible for the play to go on, the actors joined us as our rejoicing became louder. The play that night had a most happy if unexpected ending”.[10]

Adult's Season Ticket to Chautauqua issued to Tom Appleby, 1919. (Glenbow Archives M-4739-123)

Dominion Chautauquas operated like a well-oiled machine and continued to roll out its impressive programs from 1917 up to the mid-1930s. The active support of the local committees continued through the years and this was the lifeblood of Chautauqua. For without local involvement and promotion, Chautauqua would not have thrived as it did. As with all things in life though, change was inevitable. Local financial support began to wane; economic conditions worsened; and other forms of entertainment arrived, such as radio and moving pictures. Chautauquas began to fade and quietly left the Canadian landscape after the last three-day circuit in Ontario in 1935. Some supplies were sold to host communities; in Arrowwood, Alberta, the big, brown tent took on a new life as a meeting place for United Farmers of Alberta rallies and church group summer camps. [11]


Single admission ticket, Dominion Chautauquas, ca. 1920s. (Glenbow Archives M-4739-123)

Eager to continue the annual cultural interlude, some communities such as Morrin and Arrowwood in Alberta, organized their own Chautauquas, with local talent supplemented by guest artists from nearby cities. While initially well received, these too did not last beyond a few years.

Over a span of 18 years, Dominion Chautauquas connected people with each other, with their communities, and with cultural events previously unavailable to them. The connection was strong and vibrant. Sadly, such a connection is absent in today’s high-tech society, with citizens who are often too busy, too stressed, and too distracted to notice what is happening beyond their front doors. [12]


William E. Bohn, “Getting Together on the Prairies”, 1920, in Sheilagh S. Jameson and Nola B. Erickson Chautauqua Collection [hereafter Chautauqua Collection]. Glenbow Archives. Series 1, M-4739-49. Canadian Chautauquas, Articles and Newspaper Clippings 1917-1927.
Correspondence, 19 June 1922, Calgary. Chautauqua Collection. M-4739-117A, A.D. Longman, Papers for talent., 1922-1924.
Walton, Avis. When the Chautauqua Came to Town, Weekend Magazine, Feb. 24, 1972. Glenbow Library clipping file, “Chautauqua”.
Admission tickets. Chautauqua Collection.  M-4739-123. Longman, A.D., Tickets, 1924 and n.d.
Walton, Avis.
"Morse Chautauqua Opens Saturday, July 14", Morse Saskatchewan newspaper, 13 July 1923, in Scrapbook, 1920-1927, photocopy, Chautauqua Collection, M-4739-55
Chautauqua advertisement, Strathmore Standard, 25 July 1923, in Chautauqua Collection, M-4739-204
"Chautauqua Had Well Balanced Entertainments", Wrangell Sentinel, 14 Sept. 1922, in Chautauqua Collection, M-4739-55
"Chautauqua is Handicapped by Flood Conditions", Calgary Herald, 8 June 1922, in Chautauqua Collection, M-4739-55
Battle, Lester. Delia Craigmyle Saga, p. 195 Retrieved Feb. 12, 2014 from
Arrowwood Story (Mistsa-Katpiskoo): In the Shadow of the Buffalo Hills, page 95. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2014 from
Program, Calgary, 1932. In Chautauqua Collection. M-8747. Margaret Meyer fonds. Ca. 1928-1938.


Jameson, Sheilagh S. Chautauqua in Canada. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 1987.

Jameson, Sheilagh S. and Nola B. Erickson Chautauqua Collection. Glenbow Archives. Calgary Alberta.

Our Future Our Past; the Alberta Heritage Digitization Project:

About the author

I was born and raised in Calgary and continue to live close to my roots in the inner city. Most of my work life revolved around libraries, with my primary job being that of resource assistant with the Calgary Board of Education. I retired in 2011. I thrive on variety in my life, through volunteering and partaking in unique local events such as Historic Calgary Week, Jane's Walks, and Doors Open YYC. I support slow movements in general and am an avid walker and cyclist. I live car-free and carefree in a car-obsessed culture. I feel blessed to live in Calgary and Alberta and can't imagine living anywhere else. I came upon the Stories from the Archives project through an online browsing of volunteer opportunities on the Propellus website. The project seemed to call out to me, so naturally, I responded. It has been an illuminating experience.

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