Chautauqua from the 1880s into the 1920s was synonymous with culture and religion, and summer and outdoors. The Miami Valley Chautauqua was in Warren and Montgomeruy counties on the west side of a curve in the Great Miami River between Franklin and Miamisburg, about an 18-mile trip from Hamilton on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad (now CSX), or on electric-powered interurban cars that operated from Hamilton through Trenton and Middletown.
Descriptions of the Chautauqua program ranged from simply "adult education" to "the oldest summer arts festival," a "cultural encampment," a "religious and philosophical retreat" and "the place where religion, education and recreation meet."
The first Chautauqua was supposed to be summer training for Methodist Sunday school teachers. The Chautauqua Institution evolved into a popular retreat featuring a range of cultural interests -- philosophy, art, drama, music and education as well as religion.
The movement began in August 1874 in Chautauqua, N. Y. The 50-acre complex on Lake Chautauqua included a few cottages, a covered platform for speakers and some tents for that two-week opening session. It soon expanded, not only on that site, but across the nation. By 1900 there were more than 400 local Chautauqua assemblies, patterned on the New York program. By that year, the original Chautauqua also operated a school of theology, a correspondence school and a publishing house. The Rev. E. A. Harper, minister of a Germantown church, is credited with founding a Chautauqua in Southwestern Ohio -- the Miami Valley Chautauqua. The 11-day program had a modest start in July 1896, but not at that location.
For a few summers, the institute met at an old fairgrounds west of Franklin.
Part of the 1898 schedule emphasized the plight of black citizens. The featured speaker was Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
In later years, speakers would include Evangelist Billy Sunday and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. As the regional Chautauqua gained acceptance, Franklin businessmen combined to buy a riverside location in 1901 and 1902. By the end of the 1903 season, the 80-acre Miami Valley layout featured an auditorium, two dining rooms, hotel, grocery, icehouse and 16 privately-owned cottages. Other facilities added later included an administration building, drug store, swimming pool, miniature golf course, tennis courts, bowling alley, stables and a variety of playground and recreation equipment. It became more than a Franklin-Germantown operation, adding representatives from Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton and Cincinnati to the board of directors. The Miami Valley site, west of Cincinnati-Dayton Road (old U. S. 25), claimed to be the second largest Chautauqua, topped only by the New York institute.
The Miami Valley Chautauqua continued until 1968, when the grounds were sold to the Michigan Baptist Fellowship. A Hamilton man -- Lou J. Beachamp -- was an influential international leader and speaker in the Chautauqua movement. Under his leadership, a Hamilton Chautauqua was established at the Butler County Fairgrounds in the summer of 1913, a few months after the disastrous March flood. A newspaper described it as an event that "brought the people of Hamilton together for the first time after the great catastrophe of the flood had swept over their homes." It was proclaimed "a great homecoming, a great reunion of the people of Hamilton." Beauchamp's home and possessions were severely damaged by the flood. "The Apostle of Sunshine," as he was known on the lecture circuit, interrupted his speaking tour to return to Hamilton to participate in the spiritual relief for victims.
Highlight of the 1930 Hamilton event, one of the last, was a speech by Billy Sunday. Middletown also had a Chautauqua from 1914 until 1925, joining about 12,000 communities that hosted traveling groups that provided tents, chairs and other necessities. The national Chautauqua movement peaked in the mid 1920s. Factors in its decline included improvements in auto travel, the increasing popularity of radio and movies and the Depression of the 1930s.