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Citizen historian unearths stories about Vashon’s Chautauquas

By ELIZABETH SHEPHERD

For The Beachcomber

Billie Barb has the look of a master gardener: a short, no-nonsense crop of white hair, comfortable clothes, strong hands and gentle blue-green eyes. And since retiring to Whidbey Island in 1999, Barb has, in fact, spent a lot of time in her garden, nurturing plants and pulling weeds. 

Lately, however, she’s been doing a different kind of digging. She’s been on a treasure hunt to uncover facts about a fascinating chapter in Vashon Island’s history: the turn-of-the-century settlement of a large summer colony and cultural center, called Chautauqua, situated on the shores of Tramp Harbor.   

Working under the auspices of the Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry’s (MOHAI) acclaimed Nearby History Program, Barb has morphed from retired financial analyst to amateur genealogist to budding expert on Vashon’s contribution to one of the nation’s most significant cultural and social movements — the Chautauqua.

An estimated 20 million people attended Chautauqua assemblies held throughout the nation in the years before and during World War I. President Teddy Roosevelt called the Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.” 

Barb’s goal is to publish a lengthy article about Vashon’s Chautauqua and eventually to write a book. One of her main focuses will be Rev. Richard Dilworth, the Islander who worked tirelessly to bring the Chautauqua to Vashon.       

“Rev. Dilworth was an amazing man,” Barb said. “He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, an excellent speaker, a beautiful writer and a very hard worker.” 

Dilworth had been active in the original Chautauqua assembly that began in New York in 1874, she added, and that experience inspired him to create a Chautauqua on Vashon after he was sent to the Island as a minister in March of 1884. 

Barb’s journey back in time began several years ago while doing research into her family’s genealogy. She discovered that her husband’s great-grandfather, the Rev. Phares Harrison, had donated land he had homesteaded on Vashon to the Chautauqua.

Barb was fascinated; she hadn’t known that a large Chautauqua had ever existed on Vashon. Digging deeper, she found that although a lot of scattered information about Vashon’s Chautauqua was available and that a few short articles had been written about it, a complete history of the settlement and its founders had never been published.

It’s a history that will likely fascinate many Islanders who have driven the winding Chautauqua Beach Road, spent lazy afternoons on present-day KVI Beach or wondered where Vashon’s current elementary school got its name.

Vashon’s Chautauqua, modeled closely after the original Chautauqua in New York, was the ultimate expression of turn-of-the-century cultural tourism. Beginning at Dilworth Point and eventually moving and encompassing close to 600 acres in present-day Ellisport, the Chautauqua offered lectures and performances by lauded speakers and entertainers of the day, concerts that took place in a 1,200-seat pavilion, outdoor activities including excursion cruises, campfires and clambakes and accommodations in tents, cabins or a 14-room beachfront  hotel. 

The resort-like Chautauqua thrived on Vashon between 1888 and the first decade of the 20th century, drawing huge crowds of participants who arrived by steamboat from Seattle and Tacoma.

Newspaper ads billed the Chautauqua as a place where “families may escape the noxious vapors and immoral influences of a crowded city and combine health, instruction and pleasure.” 

The Vashon Chautauqua’s popularity lasted until about 1912, when, Barb said, “war, a depression and waning interest took their toll.” By 1920, the Chautauqua was gone, and eventually, all the major structures that graced the grounds disappeared. Today, many Islanders are unaware that it existed at all.

Barb’s work may change all that. She has made several trips to the Island to wander the beaches and bluffs where the Chautauqua took place and to delve into information housed at the Vashon Library and the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum.

She’s also strained her eyes at University of Washington’s Suzzalo Library, looking at microfilm articles from Seattle and Tacoma newspapers from the early 1900s, and combed through King County land and property archives dating back to those days.    

Her research into this rich historical vein has local history buffs excited. 

“We should do an entire exhibit on the Chautauqua right here,” said Reed Fitzpatrick, a board member for the heritage museum association, as he showed a visitor vintage photographs depicting the Chautauqua’s heyday, displayed in the brightly lit exhibit hall of Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum.

“We’re counting on Billie to tell us more about it,” added Laurie Tucker, vice president of the heritage association. 

Barb’s work has also won the admiration of Dr. Lorraine McConaghy, the historian who leads MOHAI’s Nearby History program. McConaghy has shepherded Barb through several courses, including a University of Washington certificate program in genealogy and family history, a Nearby History introductory course and, most recently, an advanced seminar for researchers and writers.

“Billie’s project has been a revelation,” said McConaghy.  “While a lot is known about Chautauqua as a national movement, Billie has focused on it as a Northwestern phenomenon, and she is showing us something about the social, cultural and intellectual attitudes of local people of the day. She’s showing us how they liked to have summer fun: sun on the beach, education, charades and singalongs.  Her work has been a vector, going from genealogy, to biography, to local history that has national importance.”    

Barb is eager to continue her research and share her newfound insights into the personalities and dreams of the people who populated Vashon’s Chautauqua so long ago.  At a Nearby History presentation at MOHAI, Barb chose to present information about her project in the voice of Fannie Harrison, a 14-year old girl who arrived at Vashon’s Chautauqua on July 15, 1889.

Speaking before a large group of historians, the white-haired Barb easily slipped into the rhythms of a well-bred, turn-of-the-century teenager’s voice: “I think my most favorite time at Chautauqua is the evenings, like tonight, when we gather on the bluff around a huge bonfire of fragrant fir. The grounds are lit with candles and Chinese lanterns, and the starlit skies above provide a magic canopy. The pavilion, brightly lit by two large chandeliers, welcomed steamboats bringing excursion parties from Seattle and Tacoma. Visitors, arriving on the steamboat Fairhaven from Tacoma, said that the view from the water was hauntingly beautiful.”

As Barb continued on in the voice of Fanny Harrison, describing picnics, recitations, singing and a program in the pavilion featuring a gymnast performing on the flying trapeze, she seemed at home in a special, long-ago place and time on Vashon Island.

Learn more

To learn more about Vashon’s Chautauqua and other Island history, visit the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum, located at 10105 S.W. Bank Road, across the street from the fire station.

Billie Barb, meanwhile, is seeking additional information, photographs and documents relating to Vashon Island’s Chautauqua. Contact her by e-mail at gardener@whidbey.com.

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