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Chautauqua was a highlight of Tamaqua Labor Day in 1912

Published September 01. 2012 09:02AM

By jim zbick

A century ago, a large tent was erected in Tamaqua's YMCA Park for Chautauqua, part of a nationwide adult education movement which became popular and spread throughout rural America in the late 1800s and early 20th century. The festivals featured speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.

Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America." The assemblies lasted until the mid-1920s.

Tamaqua's event began with a show of community patriotism. Merchants and residents were asked to decorate their store fronts and houses with flags and bunting "to give Tamaqua a festive appearance," the Tamaqua Courier reported on Aug. 28.

Single admission tickets were 35 cents with the proceeds going to Tamaqua's Chautauqua Association. A standing room only crowd was on hand for opening day, which featured concerts by Circillo's Italian Band and a lecture on "The People, The Power, Public Opinion Sovereign" by Rev. K.R. Perry. He also lectured the following day on "Wealth and Civilization."

On the second evening, George Kiefer gave a lecture on "Gettysburg" which was followed by "a two-reel moving picture show." Tamaqua's evening lineup usually ended by featuring a moving picture, the technical marvel of the day.

On Labor Day, a large, enthusiastic crowd assembled in the tent to hear a "stirring" discussion about socialism between William H. Berry and George H. Kirkpatrick.

Berry, a well-known political debater, was the mayor of Chester before becoming Pennsylvania's state treasurer. Kirkpatrick, staunchly anti-military, is best remembered as the 1916 Vice Presidential nominee of the Socialist Party.

Event organizers featured another prime time lineup for the Chautauqua finale on Sept. 4. The International Opera Company provided the audience with music selections which one writer declared to be "the best ever heard in town."

Featured speaker that evening was Sallie Ann Corbell Pickett, widow of famed Civil War Gen. George Pickett, who led the ill-fated Confederate assault against Union lines during the climactic final day's battle at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

Mrs. Pickett was escorted to the tent by members of the GAR Doubleday Post. At the end of her address, "the gallant old soldiers" presented her with a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers.

Mrs. Pickett was a gifted speaker and writer and both of these talents earned money for the young widow after the death of the general in 1875. Among her most popular topics were the Battle of Gettysburg, the naval dual between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the famous people she had met, and stories of her youth in Virginia.

Sixteen months before she lectured in Tamaqua, Mrs. Pickett suffered the devastating loss of her only son, who died on a military transport on his way home from Manila. Major George Edward Pickett, Jr. was Paymaster in the United States Army in the Philippines.

Mrs. Pickett later said her son became fatigued and after riding his horse and caught a bad cold. His condition worsened to the point where he was ordered home for treatment and it was on ship ride home that he passed away, leaving a widow and two sons.

"I am broken in spirit and soul," his mother mourned. "I have lost my only boy. I will take his widow and my two grandsons back to the old home in Virginia. They wanted to bury my boy in Arlington near Washington, but I want him to sleep beside his father at Hollywood Cemetery (California)."

Mrs. George Pickett lived another 20 years, passing away on March 22, 1931 at the age of 83. Some 500 people gathered to pay their last respects to the widow of the famous Confederate general, whose dying wish was to be laid to rest beside her husband.

Following Tamaqua's weeklong Chautauqua, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier gave it rave reviews.

"This great event is a realization," he said. "Its detail it's something wonderful. This event has brought together on one plane the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered, the business man and the student.

"All are sharing equally in the cost of the undertaking. The hope is that this is only the beginning of the school for the education of our people to a higher, cleaner and better character of recreation and pleasure."

The only reported negative report surrounding the Tamaqua Chautauqua was some vandalism. Someone cut a slit in the tent, prompting an angry response from the Courier, which helped sponsor Chautauqua.

"This sort of work is disgraceful and steps have been taken to stop it by the police department," a writer said. "An officer will be there tonight and anyone caught committing similar acts of vandalism will be dealt with harshly."

After the event, the tent was taken to Phoenixville for a similar Chautauqua gathering. Mrs. Pickett, meanwhile, went to Mauch Chunk where she was a featured speaker for another Chautauqua event at Flagstaff Park.

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