WAXAHACHIE — During the 85th Texas Legislature, House Bill 1254 gave statewide recognition to Waxahachie Chautauqua’s historical heritage by declaring July 26 as “Waxahachie Chautauqua Day” throughout Texas.
The Chautauqua Preservation Society (CPS) of Waxahachie celebrated the proclamation early for its following effect set for September 1.
“We felt that we had something that should be recognized by the state,” explained Maureen Moore, programming chair of the Chautauqua Preservation Society. “Because we had done some research behind it and had come to the conclusion that this was one of the last remaining Chautauqua buildings in Texas.”
“So we worked with John Wray, our representative, on the best way to do this and settled on designating a date for ‘Waxahachie Chautauqua Day’ on July 26, 1900, since it was the beginning of the first Waxahachie Chautauqua."
Filed on January 24, HB 1254 was unopposed in votes, approved by the Texas House and Senate, and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott on June 15.
Though the bill does not go into effect until September, Waxahachie has added another title of recognition to its cache that includes the county seat of Ellis County, the “Crape Myrtle Capital of Texas,” and "The Gingerbread City.”
“I think, for Waxahachie, (the bill) represents how well this town preserves its history and the history of this town is a big part of its culture,” expressed John Smith, director of the Waxahachie Parks and Recreation department. “And that’s what the Chautauqua does, it celebrates and maintains the rich culture of Waxahachie, Texas, and the United States. While we’re growing and progressive, I’m proud to know that we recognize and appreciate that and what it stands for."
“It was a movement of connecting leisure activities with purpose,” articulated Kirk Hunter, President of Chautauqua Preservation Society, about the facility’s mission. “So coming to a place of respite, to come and learn new things, and interact with people on a different level that was the big thing.”
What began in New York in 1874 as a retreat center training Sunday school teachers soon flourished into a movement that encouraged all things academic, artistic and physical throughout the U.S.
“It laid the foundation for the town being interested in education and the arts and having that reputation. There were accounts of more than 5,000 people gathered around that auditorium, and it was active and prominent in the city’s activities,” Hunter affirmed.
According to the Chautauqua Preservation Society, the Waxahachie Chautauqua was established in 1900 with the construction of the South Grand Avenue theater, preserving it for nearly 117 years.
“This Chautauqua used to be in Glen Rose," Hunter began. “And at that time, because there wasn’t any transportation, it didn’t do well. So it collapsed and moved it here because of the three rail lines that cross through here, and this 23-acre park was here.”
“And three things happened at the same time,” Hunter expounded. “We had the Chautauqua come to town, Trinity University moved here, and the cotton mill came all at the same time, interconnected with each other."
"Trinity came here because the Chautauqua was here and the cotton mill was providing jobs for the people who were coming here” he defined.
“Another thing it did was connect Waxahachie to places all over the county that have Chautauqua’s that are thriving now,” Moore added.
To further commemorate the special occasion, the Chautauqua Preservation Society, in partnership with the Waxahachie Parks and Recreation Department, planted two red oak trees and supplied two park benches in honor of future generations to come.
“We’re always looking to add more facilities, whether it’s playgrounds trash cans or park benches,” Smith listed. “And the Chautauqua Preservation Society was willing to fund the benches if we would go through the process of installing them, so I thought that was a fair trade.”
“And we’re always looking to plant trees in our parks, and when they said they would donate trees, we would plant them, so that was another win-win,” he included.
“The two red oak trees are to honor our last key note speakers at the Chautauqua meeting last September,” Hunter recognized. “The first tree is to honor the Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, and ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau.”
With water collected from other Chautauqua destinations like Texas, Niagara Falls, New York, and much more, Smith watered the trees in symbolic historical reference during the ceremony.
“It’s one more thing that we have to be proud of and that we hope other people in Texas will be proud of too," Moore added.
In lieu of the accomplishment, the Chautauqua Preservation Society also received a proclamation from the City of Waxahachie that affirmed the legal designation of Waxahachie’s Chautauqua‘s birthday.
“To me, the Chautauqua means ‘community gathering,’” Smith noted. “To share ideas, opinions, and educate the community, and this was a great way to recognize that.”
As for what is expected for the next 100 years from this local icon, both Hunter and Moore are confident in the Chautauqua’s future.
“We’re looking forward to our grandchildren and great grandchildren enjoying this Chautauqua Grove, and we hope they continue it on," Moore said.
“And we hope this will be celebrated every year, especially next year when it’ll be legal,” Hunter concluded.
To connect with Waxahachie’s Chautauqua Preservation Society, visit waxahachiechautauqua.org or email info@WaxahachieChautauqua.org
Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer