Chautauqua Park – Boulder, Colorado

by Jim Harrington

Only 16 blocks away from the Best Western Plus Boulder Inn is the historic Chautauqua Park the 40 acre crowning gem in Boulders Mountain Park and Open Space land holdings that include 45,000 preserved and protected acres with over 150 miles of hiking trails. At the base of Boulders inspiring beautiful Flatirons lies a place with turn of the last century charming cottages, a dining hall, a general store, an academic hall, an auditorium, and an open lawn dedicated for people to occasionally watch fireworks and often reflect more deeply into the intrinsic value of one’s life and place in society. Chautauqua Park with breathtaking views, trailheads to amazing hikes, and historic buildings hosts educational and social events to make Boulder ‘not just another pretty face’ but also the ‘Athens of the West’. Boulder’s Chautauqua is the place where the best of the natural world and the best of the examined life come to meet, reflect, move and celebrate. Chautauqua is a place to escape habitual routine in order to engage the body, mind and senses with the inspiration of nature, human heritage and community to elevate both ones thinking and spirit.

Chautauqua meadows
Chautauqua meadows

Boulder is filled with world class climbers, athletes, scientists, progressive artists, poets, activists, writers, yoginis, musicians, buskers and so many more residents who have been inspired by the Chautauqua spirit. Boulder’s beauty is both a timeless natural wonder and a cultural vibe.  Boulder’s cosmopolitan culture of today emerged from a Chautauqua movement of yesteryear.
Boulder’s Chautauqua Park is also called the Colorado Chautauqua and was born out of a nationwide Chautauqua movement that swept across the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The very first “Chautauqua” was a summer school created in 1874 near the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York.  The word ‘Chautauqua’ is an Iroquois word meaning either a bag tied in the middle or two moccasins tied together which describes the shape of the lake. It was initially called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Academy. Methodists of the day experimented with educational opportunities for people outside traditional school settings. Instead of a rigid campus, school or classroom they wanted a more relaxing retreat style, vacation like setting for instruction and discourse. The intent was to be more educational than revivalist. The idea grew rapidly beyond their initial instruction for Sunday school teachers into a broader professionalization of teaching and from there into more artistic and academic subject matters, lectures and trainings. As educational content expanded the original Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Academy became known simply as the Chautauqua Institution.
The Chautauqua movement created about 12,000 traveling and permanent in town encampments for summer community learning centers across the country.  At its height Chautauqua was especially popular for those that did not have the resources to attend costly college institutions. The Chautauqua’s functioned as a career training ground for many lower and middle class women and men.  Nationally the Chautauqua movement was its own unique form of secondary education.

Postcard of Chautauqua Park - Boulder, CO from the turn of the century.
Postcard of Chautauqua Park – Boulder, CO from the turn of the century.

Boulder’s Chautauqua Park opened in 1898 as the most Western outpost of the Chautauqua’s.  This national adult education movement was created to combine culture with the aesthetic beauty and rigor of the great outdoors. Gilded Age travelers’ flocked to Boulder to meet celebratory artists, listen to revolutionary lectures, learn about self-improvement and go hiking in an idyllic natural settling close to the luxurious amenities of town. Teddy Roosevelt a champion of the western rigorous and intellectual life called the Chautauqua movement “The most American thing in America”.
In spite of the heathy rivalry between Colorado and Texas the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder was developed by the Texas Board of Regents to ‘create a summer school for teachers in a cooler desirable location’.  Boulder won the bid for Texas to hold a cultural and educational center in town originally called the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua. It was promoted as the ‘most significant and educational retreat west of the Mississippi river’. Boulder was chosen because of its ‘spectacular mountain settings and health giving environment’.  To make Chautauqua happen in 1898 the City of Boulder held a bond election where the residents voted to purchase the alfalfa and apple orchards of the Bachelder ranch which was to be used for the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua then also called Texado Park. Over the decades the name changed from Texado-park to the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua to Colorado Chautauqua and eventually just Chautauqua Park. Chautauqua Park contributed to Boulder’s up and coming status as “not just a pretty place” but rather as a sophisticated and innovative city.  In the mid 1930’s during the depression, the rise of car culture, radios and movies the national Chautauqua movement slowly died out. The greater Chautauqua spirit lives on in public access television, libraries, YouTube videos, Ted talks, online education etc.

Dining Hall at Chatauqua
Dining Hall at Chautauqua

Today Boulder’s historic Chautauqua Park sees about a half a million visitors a year and is the only Chautauqua site west of the Mississippi still fully operational and intact in its original form.  It is one of the few continuously operating Chautauqua’s in the United States and it is the only one to operate year round. Boulder’s Colorado Chautauqua has been a treasure since its opening and was designated as a national historic landmark in 2006.  Visit Boulder and create your own Chautauqua adventure while enjoying the modern amenities here at the Boulder Inn.