Read The Lake Report hereRead The Lake Report here
The Weather Network
Apr. 3, 2020 | Friday
Editorials and Opinions
Arch-i-text: Chautauqua on the lake
Chautauqua cottages in full regalia. (Supplied/Brian Marshall)

In 1874, on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York, the Methodist minister John Vincent (in partnership with entrepreneur Lewis Miller) opened an outdoor summer education program for adults.

The concept was wildly successful and rapidly grew in popularity over the next 50 years. The outdoor summer format naturally lent itself to family vacations “with a purpose” that appealed to the cultural mores of the day and what began as a camping experience quickly evolved into a resort.

The success of the original New York Chautauqua Assembly was duplicated in what came to be known as “daughter” Chautauquas that sprang up wherever Americans were prone to holiday.

While many of these resorts were under the aegis of the Methodist Church, the “education” was not limited to tenets of the faith. Science, politics and arts (including music and theatre) were part of the lecture/performance offerings, while organized sporting competitions were almost de rigueur. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chautauqua resorts struck a chord with the moral and ethical mores of many of our U.S. neighbours and drew their visitors from far and wide.    

Given Niagara’s previous history of being a favoured holiday destination, it was almost inevitable that Chautauquas would be established here. Certainly one of the most successful of these Niagara resorts was operated in Grimsby which, by 1884, saw in excess of 50,000 annual vacationers. Two hotels were built in the resort and an associated temperance “camp” of cottages sprung up.

These cottages ranged from one to two storeys and, while of relatively simple design, were very commonly treated to gay exterior decoration. With late Victorian exuberance, Eastlake-styled fretwork and turnings were applied to eave bargeboards, porches and trim. And, not stopping there, multi-coloured paint schemes lent an almost carnival air to the camps. While these resorts might have been “dry,” they were anything but sober! A vacation was meant to be enjoyed and these cottages reflected that intention with a vengeance.

Niagara-on-the-Lake had its own Chautauqua, formed in the last quarter of the 1800s. Laid out in the form of a wagon wheel, the streets were anchored on a hub that held a hotel and a 4,000-person amphitheatre while cottages lined the spokes. While today many of the cottages still remain, the decoration has been lost to time.