WAXAHACHIE

Candace Ahlfinger was 13 years old when the Chautauqua Auditorium began to fall into disrepair. 45 years later, she watched its legacy reaffirmed with new renovations and a new holiday.

Ahlfinger was a junior at Waxahachie Junior High School in 1972 when her father, Benton Cain, helped establish the Waxahachie Junior Historians, a group dedicated to the preservation of Texas history. Ahlfinger wanted to go to the State Junior Historian Conference in Austin, but before she could go, she had to write a paper on a topic of her choice.

She chose the historic Chautauqua Auditorium in Waxahachie.

“They took us around, showed us different items around town that needed a little extra help with historical significance,” Ahlfinger said. “That was one of them.”

According to Waxahachie Chautauqua website, the Chautauqua was an educational movement that spread throughout the nation in the late 1800s, emphasizing the importance of academia and liberal arts. Multiple chapters have sprung up since its foundation in New York, including the Chautauqua Auditorium in Waxahachie, which was built July 26, 1900.

“It was really run down and deteriorating at that time,” Ahlfinger recalled. “As part of that, I interviewed a lot of people who had actually attended or performed at the Chautauqua. They really brought the stories to life. They lived it.”

The people she interviewed included speakers, artists, and performers who frequently visited the Chautauqua Auditorium. Among them was Lana Peters, a speaker who ran through the park on a rainy day in a white dress, Mrs. Curlin, an educator who formed the 16 Club comprised of 16 schoolgirls, and Ford Lang, a musician who played with the Lone Star band.

But one of the biggest names she spoke to was Josephine Ruskin.

“She was the one who took on the challenge, who really was the one who said ‘We are going to get the Chautauqua restored, renovated and used,’” she said. “After re-dedication on July 4th, 1975, she was actually named Miss Chautauqua for all her work. If you ask people now who were on planning and zoning, city parks, they will tell you they remember her coming and talking and saying this is so important. She really did a lot – everything.”

Last year, the Texas Senate passed HB 1254, a bill declaring July 26 as Waxahachie Chautauqua Day in Texas. The Chautauqua Preservation Society recently hosted their birthday celebration at the Chautauqua Auditorium, where Ahlfinger served as the keynote speaker to detail her experiences and the award-winning research paper.

“There’s excitement because you see what these people were talking about and how it came to pass,” she said. “The Chautauqua Preservation Society, especially Maureen Moore and Kirk Hunter, have done a great job keeping Chautauqua in great shape.”

Ahlfinger said the Chautauqua is an essential part of Waxahachie’s heritage and it should never be forgotten.

“Not many cities or towns can claim they have Chautauqua buildings,” she said. “The Chautauqua stood for education and learning, and making education and learning opportunities available to everyone, not just in one place, but across the nation. It’s very important because it gives us a date to remember and keep the Chautauqua alive.”

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David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX

469-517-1456