In 1856, only a year after the founding of Northfield, a Lyceum Association was established “to create a taste for literature and a thirst for knowledge” through lectures and debates. In June of 1914, the Circuit Chautauqua stopped at Northfield for the first time and attempted to slake the thirst that had been created in town. Held in tents and last-ing a week, Chautauqua programs brought culture and entertainment to people outside of urban areas. In the mid-1920s, when these programs were at their peak, they were said to have been seen by more than 45 million people in more than 10,000 communities.
The Chautauqua, held in Northfield June 19-25, 1921, illustrates the type of program that citizens flocked to for enlightenment and entertainment. Dr. Gabriel Maguire, billed as “the first man to go up the Congo River after Stanley came down,” lectured on his seven years of “startling experiences with beasts, cannibals and pygmies in Dark Africa.” A highlight was his description of being attacked by an “infuriated rhinoceros.” South American explorer G. Whitfield Ray spoke of his 15 years in the jungles, discovering descendants of the ancient Incas who buried the elderly alive and dined on “serpents, parrots and other Indian delicacies.” A male quartet and an Australian violinist provided “snappy music,” while the “world’s greatest coloratura soprano,” Madam Ellen Beach Yaw, was wowing the crowds by reaching B flat above high C, with “marvelous purity and sweetness.”
In June of 1920, Northfielders had seen Princess Neawanna of the Ojibwa Indian tribe as part of Chautauqua. Garbed in a “beautiful native beaded costume,” the princess was described as an “eloquent speaker of strong personality” who gave “a plea for a vanishing race – virile – forceful – informing.” She showed curios of her people and called for a removal of mis-understandings between races. A newspaper story said, “Princess Neawanna is recognized as among the foremost students of that interesting period when the far-flung continent of North America was passing from the hands of the Indian to the progressive ownership of our forefathers.”
Community picnics were a June tradition in Northfield from 1914-1920. The first picnic attracted more than 1,500 people to W.F. Schilling’s farm. A newspaper account noted that the participation of Northfield businessmen was “not unanimous,” but by the next year, when crowds had increased to 3,500, all businesses were closed between 11a.m. and 4 p.m. on the day of the picnic and a tug of war was featured between businessmen and farmers. The third annual picnic in 1916 was covered by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which said that Northfield was “unquestionably giving the best exemplification of the community idea in Minnesota” by “bringing town and country together into a mighty group of co-workers where factions are unknown.” The community joined together in song, with music also provided by the St. Olaf band and Carleton glee club. To applause and cheers, Schilling declared, “This is God’s own country if ever there was one.” In 1921 the community picnics were combined with July 4th celebrations.
During a more recent June in 1976, the town welcomed back the Northfield Boys Chorus at the home concert at Carleton’s Skinner Memorial Chapel on June 13 after a successful 12-day bicentennial tour of six states, including Washington, D.C. On this tour, the 62 members of the Boys Chorus sang a wide variety of music – hymns, spirituals, show tunes, patriotic songs, contemporary songs, even a “mini-operetta of Tom Sawyer.” The Chorus presented a mini-concert on the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center and in the Washington Cathedral choir loft, as well as a 45-minute concert at the Ellipse of the White House. The Chorus was pictured at the Capitol with Minnesota Congressman Al Quie of Northfield and Senators Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Robert Swanson directed this choir throughout its existence, from 1969 to 1984.
Information for this story was found in the archives of the Northfield Historical Society. Phyllis Swanson contributed the photo of the Boys Chorus in Washington, D.C.