Bryan among orators at Rome City's Western Chautauqua
By TERRY HOUSHOLDER
Billed as a forum for open discussion
of the latest thinking in politics, economics, literature, science, religion
and entertainment, the Western Chautauqua in Rome City at the
turn of the 20th century was one of the biggest annual public
events in the tri-state area.
Held on the Island Park Assembly on Sylvan Lake's Kerr Island,
the event each summer drew some famous speakers during its heyday
- 1876-1906. Among them was William Jennings Bryan, the ''great
commoner'' of the Democratic Party who ran unsuccessfully for
president in 1896, 1900 and 1908.
The Chautauqua Movement began on the shores of Lake Chautauqua
in western New York. It influenced the development of adult education
In Rome City, the Western Chautauqua began two years after the
New York tradition started. At first it was an annual Sunday
school gathering for area Methodists, where Christian men gathered
for religious training and study. Later it expanded into an inter-denominational
Sunday School Congress. Even later, it broadened its scope.
An association was established with stockholders and the event
continued to grow annually through the early years of the 20th
century, thanks to a liberal contract made with the Grand Rapids
and Indiana Railway Co. which had leased the island and adjacent
During the assemblies, which began in late July and lasted for
three weeks, a very low special rail transportation rate was
granted to participants. Trains brought thousands of visitors
from as far away as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis,
as well as from cities in other parts of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.
Many events took place at the assembly. It was a big gathering
for Grand Army of the Republic, Northern veterans of the Civil
War, who in 1887 had former U.S. Sen. Wall K. Bruce of Mississippi,
a black ex-slave who replaced Jefferson Davis in the Senate,
as its speaker. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a noted black musical
troupe, sang for the occasion.
In 1888, one of the best-loved poets in America, James Whitcomb
Riley, a lifelong Hoosier, was a featured entertainer.
Huge crowds also came on Prohibition Day each year with well-known
preacher Sam Jones mesmerizing the crowd about the evils of liquor.
Bryan, the famed orator who later became secretary of state under
President Woodrow Wilson, spoke at the Rome City event in 1899
and in 1901. His first speech was held on Democratic Day at the
assembly and drew nearly 5,000 people. (Some historic accounts
claim the crowd was 20,000, but the weekly Kendallville Standard
reported the throng was estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000.)
Interesting stories about Bryan's speeches at Sylvan Lake are
told in the book ''History of Orange Township,'' by M.F. Owen,
a longtime Sylvan Lake resort manager and Rome City hotel owner
in the early decades of the 20th century.
Bryan, who was planning to seek the Democratic nomination for
president in 1900, agreed to come to the Island Park Assembly,
but never stipulated the fee he would charge for his address.
He finally agreed to come for half the cash gate receipts for
the day. His take was a staggering $500 - the largest fee ever
paid at the assembly for a single afternoon appearance. Later
that evening, Bryan briefly spoke without a fee to a big crowd
in front of the Kelly House on South Main Street, Kendallville.
Bryan, still a popular figure despite his defeat by William McKinley
in the election of 1900, returned to Rome City in 1901 for Democratic
Day. Another immense audience gathered early to hear his speech,
which focused on his opposition to control of government by the
wealthy business classes.
Bryan had agreed to be paid one-half of the receipts of the day,
but was disappointed when he was given the sum of $110.55. He
hadn't realized that a great share of the crowd had come the
day before and had purchased a two-day pass. Several large train
loads of people had passed the assembly gates on railway tickets
- fees which Bryan's contract did not include.
Bryan, reportedly angry about the payment, picked up what he
thought was his small suitcase, which was similar in size and
shape as the assembly's money bag, and left in a huff.
Later, the secretary of the assembly realized the bag containing
the money for the day's receipts was gone. Someone had noticed
that Bryan had left with a hand satchel that matched the one
Thinking that Bryan had taken the money by mistake, the secretary
of the assembly, H.G. Cobbs, rushed to the telegraph office and
wired Bryan at the next rail stop. Bryan was notified that he
had doubtlessly picked up the money bag by mistake and was asked
to return it by the next train express.
Bryan wired back: ''I've not got the assembly hand grip, and
never wish to visit Island Park Assembly again!''
During the last few years of the assembly, the organization ended
up financially in the red. At the close of the 1906 session,
it was realized that without a great deal of outside financial
help it could not continue.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when the state of Indiana
introduced a law that went into effect on April 20, 1907, which
reduced local fares on the railroad to 2-cents per mile. That
ended the special excursion fares to Rome City. The railroad
also had to discontinue the sale of season tickets to Rome City
with admittance coupons to the assembly.
Thus the Island Park Assembly folded, marking the end of a glorious
Western Chautauqua era in Rome City.