By Les Smith, Park Board (October 12th, 1999)
Chautauqua Park steps into the park spotlight this week. Chautauquas are educational and recreational assemblies with programs that include lectures, concerts, speeches, etc. The first one in Red Oak was held June 29, 1905 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds (now known as Legion Park). A 3,000-person tent was erected among with smaller tents which rented for $2.50-$6, allowing people to stay and enjoy all the programs. Special railroad rates were offered for those within 150 miles of town.
Featured speakers on the first program included three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, giving his famous “Prince of Peace” speech; Social Settlement leader Jane Adams, as well as Edith Henry Wallace and Wisconsin Governor Robert LaFollette.
A committee was appointed in 1908 and bought the land that is now Chautauqua Park for about $750. Then a fund drive started to build a permanent structure. This was done because a year earlier, the last tent session ended when a spectator was injured as the tent collapsed during a storm.
A week before Chautauqua was to open, the roof has still not been put on the pavilion. So a massive effort by volunteers helped the carpenters put the roof on in time for the opening. It was said that this pavilion was one of only three such structures between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. What was unique about it was that it had a platform with dressing rooms underneath with seating for about 3,500 people.
In 1921, the park was purchased from the Chautauqua Association for assuming the indebtedness against it, between $800 and $1,000. This comprised an area of 15-20 acres.
Although not sure of the time frame, it is likely that the 1930s was when the ball field was constructed, playground equipment was installed, picnic tables added and the bathrooms built. The stone pillars at the Summit Street entrance were built by the National Youth Administration.
The Park Board was advised in 1968, to either repair or raze the pavilion due to the deterioration of the roof. In 1972, the pavilion was listed on the National Register of Historical Sites and restoration funds became available through the Historic Preservation Program. Restoration work was financed by local contributors and a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Interior. Soon, the pavilion was whipped back into shape and even though it doesn’t have the features the original pavilion had, it still serves the community for important functions such as picnics, family reunions and ethnic celebrations. And during Christmas, this historic landmark is even more eye-catching with the giant star on top and the string of lights along the roof which not only illuminates the surrounding area, but the Christmas spirit, as well.
Some changes to the park include the removal of the concrete bleachers behind the ball field. This area was filled in and reseeded. Metal bleachers will soon be in place. The backstop was replaced recently after a very freak auto accident as well as some additional fence work.
Heading north and down the tiered landscape, once can find the concrete slab, which once was a stage area. It will be used as a basketball court now that a new hoop and back board have been erected. Those who “want to be like Mike” can thank the Rotary Club for donating the basketball hoop.
One bit of trivia to end this writing: According to the New World Dictionary (1978), the translation of Chautauqua (a Seneca name) is “one has taken out fish there.” This could explain the reason why, every time I walk through Chautauqua, I keep hearing the theme song from the old Andy Griffith show… anyway.
The Park Board encourages one and all to take the opportunity to visit Chautauqua Park, as well as the other parks Red Oak had to offer. They are yours to enjoy.