The Mountain Laurel
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Chautauqua Festival To Be Held At Wytheville, Virginia

By Wytheville Chamber of Commerce

Issue: May, 1987

Echoes from summers long past now sound again in Wytheville, Virginia. The small (7,500 population) town, nestled in the Southwest Virginia Mountains has rediscovered the magic of "Chautauqua." Begun again in 1985, after a 60 year hiatus, this summer festival devoted to music, education, and the arts has galvanized the whole community and has provided summer visitors with a week of delights for all the senses.

This summer, June 20-28, Wytheville will again surrender its downtown area to the sights and sounds of a cultural celebration that has its roots in the 1874 founding of a center for the training of Methodist Sunday School teachers. Bishop John Vincent's Chautauqua Institution, located near Buffalo, in upstate New York, soon outstripped its original mission to become the leading center for adult education in America. Chautauqua's educational and cultural influence was widespread, touching even sleepy mountain villages such as Wytheville.

During the early part of this century, and until the 1920's, Wytheville was a regular stop on the "Chautauqua Circuit," a series of tours featuring lectures, plays, and concerts originating from Chautauqua Institution. These so called "tent Chautauqua's" carried cultural events to rural areas across the United States. An important forum for adult education, the tent Chautauqua's flourished until the development of the radio industry and rising transportation costs made them a thing of the past.

When town leaders began to discuss hosting an annual summer arts festival, the memories of the old Chautauqua rose again. Senior citizens came forward with tales of trains arriving in the night with calls for boys and able bodied men to help pitch tents. Area merchants were solicited to help with ticket sales and soon the word spread around town that Chautauqua was here again. A worn copy of a 1923 Chautauqua announcement promised "Quality Programs for Everybody." Twenty two events and a Junior Chautauqua were announced including concerts, lectures, Marchetti's Swiss Yodelers, a recital by "Carveth Wells, the Poet," and a performance of "The Taming of the Shrew." No doubt audiences thrilled to Carveth Wells' lecture, "My Six Years in the Jungles of Malay."

After a great deal of work by 20 committees involving nearly 400 people, the 1985 Chautauqua Festival was held in Wytheville on August 10-18. Once again, festival goers walked down shady streets lined by stately homes, Queen Anne Victorian, Eastlake Victorian, Federal Colonial and now, even Solar. Visitors queued up to tour the Pennsylvania Style Rock House Museum. For a week, Wytheville in the 1980's returned to the style of Wytheville of the 1920's, a summer resort and haven for visitors.

Among the events held during the 1985 and 1986 Chautauqua Festivals were hot air balloon races, an art show, a vaudeville show, a Bach Chorale, an oil painting workshop, a gourmet food demonstration, a story workshop, a nature walk, a creative writing luncheon, a performance by Roadside Theatre, and a soccer tournament. "I hope that we reached everyone," said Linda Butt, chairman of the Steering Committee. "There was folk singing, the classics, opera, chamber music, bluegrass, and country music. In the way of dance, we had everything from ballet to clogging to belly dancing." The 1920's theme, "Quality Programs for Everybody" was certainly echoed in the 1985 Chautauqua.

Visitors to Chautauqua in the Park '87, Wytheville, Virginia will find no shortage of accommodations. They may choose from over 1,000 motel beds located within city limits. Major motel chains and local establishments are part of Wytheville's burgeoning tourist industry. Three campgrounds are also located nearby for the convenience of those who enjoy traveling and camping. Local diners may choose from restaurants located in 18th century log buildings, renovated parsonages, tastefully redecorated store fronts, or fast food establishments. Food will be readily available from Chautauqua vendors and will represent a delightful change of pace from activities such as browsing and theatre going.

Activities will be held most days beginning around 9:00 am and continuing until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. Most decisions will need to be based on what events the visitors feels would be most exciting rather than on what happens to be scheduled, as there will be multiple things to do and see at any given time.

Some may opt for a play, others to hear a choir, while others will stroll in the direction of a quilt or arts and crafts sale located in the downtown area. Whimsey, mood, or nostalgia may determine the path taken. The atmosphere is relaxed, casual, and open, attitudes that are characteristic of Southwest Virginia.

The downtown area is readily accessible to "park and walk" browsing. A centrally located park offers a cool respite for resting or feasting on barbecue while listening to a concert. Conveniently located information booths will help festival patrons find their way and answer questions concerning the many activities available.

Wytheville is located at the junction of Interstate Highways I 81 and I 77, about 80 miles south of Roanoke, Virginia, 30 miles east of Bluefield, West Virginia, and 70 miles north of Bristol, Virginia. For more information, contact the Wythe County Chamber of Commerce, George Wythe Building, Wytheville, Va. 24382, or call (703) 228 3211.