Chautauqua message echoes from past

Chautauqua is literally in my blood. So news that a modern-day version of the turn-of-the-century tent shows was coming to Lawrence this week sent me digging for my Chautauqua roots.

The circa-1920s flyer I pulled from the aged metal box advertised a Chautauqua show lineup. On the front is a handsome photo of E. Jefferson Gardner, my grandfather. He mostly went by E.J., but that apparently wasn’t distinguished enough for a Chautauqua scholar. On the other hand, he must have decided using his full name, Edmiston Jefferson Gardner, would be a little too pretentious.

My grandfather died when I was 5 and I didn’t learn about his Chautauqua connections until a few years ago, but when I did, it made perfect sense. E.J. and his wife, Ida, had 10 children, and all of them had a lot to say. I always thought their verbal talents had something to do with my grandfather being a Methodist minister, but when you added to that his other role as traveling lecturer, it was clear the children had come by their gift of gab honestly.

The lecture E. Jefferson Gardner gave as he traveled across the country was called “The Joy of the Job.” The flier advertising the Chautauqua’s visit promoted the speech this way: “The joy man brings his joy message. Gardner is a philosopher. Since all must work as they travel thru life he insists that one might just as well be happy. He comes with a solution for the problem of unrest — Be happy in your work. His doctrine is practical, his solution, applicable — Hear him on the third day.”

Admission to the speech was 50 cents, the same as for a ventriloquism and magic act. “Olivar’s Philippine Troubadours,” were a hotter ticket at 75 cents a pop, and the fourth-night finale was “Smilin’ Thru,” billed as “The finest love story of the century,” for a princely admission of $1.

The flier is for a show in Silverton on April 3-6, but there’s no indication of the state or year. It was one of many towns my grandfather visited in several summers on the Chautauqua trail. There’s no exact record of how many years he worked as a lecturer, but the box is filled with dozens of picture postcards mailed between 1922 and 1931 from locations all over the country and into Canada.

It was his way of keeping in touch with his wife and children as he traveled by rail and car around the country. Although they are, by no means, a complete record of his travels, they offer some clues to life on the Chautauqua circuit. From mid-July to late August of 1922, the postcards came back to Eskridge, Kan., from Richmond, Ky.; Danville, Ky.; Owensboro, Ky.; Bridgeport, Ala.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Copperhill, Tenn.; Cumming, Ga.; Atlanta, Ga. and Augusta, Ga. The 1926 tour took him west to Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and British Columbia.

On a card from Paonia, Colo., on Aug. 7, 1926, he wrote, “Here I am, but where I came from and where I’m going, I don’t know.” It must have been a common feeling for a Chautauqua traveler.

But it also was high adventure for a curious man from Missouri and Kansas. On July 8, 1926, he wrote his wife, “I’m writing now right on the shore of the great Pacific … My but it is a sublime sight.”

He allowed himself to complain a bit about his travel schedule in the cards to his wife, but the cards that went to the children were always chipper. Sometimes he mailed them in bunches from one location and referred once to “starting another postcard shower for the four little kiddies.”

Also in the metal box was a newspaper-sized sheet produced by the Chautauqua organizers to promote their show in 1923. It included a report from the July 6, 1923, edition of the Record-Journal in Castle Rock, Colo., on “The Joy of the Job” speech: “It is difficult to understand how one could listen to this talk without taking a brighter outlook of life and profiting materially thereby. The strong appeal of Mr. Gardner was for a man to find ‘his’ job rather than worry along through life with ‘a’ job.”

It seems like pretty sound advice even today. From what I have learned of my grandfather, being a Chautauqua lecturer most likely was “his” job, although any material profits he took from it faded with the Depression and the needs of his large family. I often wondered how my grandmother managed when he was away. In 1923, she had seven children under the age of 15. I hope E.J. was sending back money, as well as picture postcards.

My grandfather was 79 when I was born and my only memories of him are in failing health, but as I look through the Chautauqua box, I see him as a much younger man who, although he was pushing 50 when he got onto the lecture circuit, was still embracing new experiences. I’m sorry I don’t know more. It’s one of those times you’d really like to bring someone back just for a day to answer all the questions you have about something.

The speakers who will appear in the Chautauqua tent pitched in South Park this weekend won’t have all the answers, but they’ll offer a taste of an interesting chapter in American history. Their re-enactments are a tribute to people like my grandfather who once traveled the country to bring entertainment, information and inspiration to rural America.

The “joy man” would have been proud.