When in 1999 Jacksonville’s Wolf Fuhrig, then a recently retired MacMurray College professor, began developing the notion of bringing a rendition of the early 20th century tradition of Chautauqua to our community, he had to start from scratch. The earliest such event dates back to 1874 and was staged at Chautauqua Lake in New York State. (The community there still hosts a popular yearly summer series bringing together lectures and music. I recall the late Jacksonville resident and Illinois College dean Wally Jamison reminiscing how many years ago he and wife, Ruth, would sing with the opera chorus convened each year at Chautauqua.) Well into the 1920s, itinerant Chautauqua events featuring educational programs and entertainment were held beneath large tents in towns across the country.
Dr. Fuhrig scoped out a location (Jacksonville’s Community Park), rented a large tent, acquired a state grant for seed money, found and booked the entertainment and, with the support of the Morgan County Historical Society and private community donors, put together the first Prairieland Chautauqua in 1999 as a free admission summertime event open to all. This unique brand of Americana has continued down through the years here in Jacksonville to this year’s 17th Prairieland Chautauqua. The tent was abandoned when the bad weather backup venue, the Sophie Leschin Building, was no longer available due to the closing of the Jacksonville Developmental Center. The good folks of First Christian Church on South Main have graciously offered their new worship home with its wonderful, acoustically superior auditorium and accommodating, air-conditioned facility as a venue.
Our area is the richer for the far-sighted vision and many years of faithful stewardship by Wolf Fuhrig to maintain this genuine community function. If you have previously attended, you know you’ll be entertained and enriched. And if you’ve never come before, join your Jacksonville neighbors for a truly All-American Showcase this Labor Day weekend, Saturday through Monday, each day between 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. See you there!