Chautauqua Club of Shelbyville has been educating women for 100 years

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By Beth Herrinton-Hodge

“We are one hundred years old as a club, but not one of us is one hundred years old!” said Mary David Myles, secretary/treasurer of the Shelbyville Chautauqua Club.


She was addressing a group of past and present members of the club and local dignitaries who gathered Thursday at Science Hill Inn to mark 100 years since the founding of this women’s club.

Science Hill Inn seemed a fitting place for the Chautauqua Club to hold its centennial luncheon, given that the group’s initial meeting was held on the grounds of this private girl’s school under direction of the Poynter sisters, who founded the school and established the club’s chapter.

They created a legacy of gathering inquisitive and educated women who enjoyed challenging each other to rigorous study and knowledge on wide-ranging topics, and the model the original members established is carried on today.

The unique name of the club actually stems from the traveling groups of the esteemed Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York, which was founded in 1874 as “an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” The program created “circuit chautauquas” or “tent chautauquas, which toured cities and towns to educate and demonstrate to the public in a variety of topics.

Around the turn of the century, Chautauqua tent meetings came through Shelbyville by train. They set up their tents beside the old Northside school and offered performances in the arts and culture, as well as educational lectures to the local community. The tents could accommodate more than 3,000 people, and the people of Shelby County would fill them.

“This was before radio broadcasts brought news, education and culture into people’s homes,” Myles said.

In the fall of 1912, the Poynters invited 16 women to their home to carry forward, among themselves, the educational and cultural endeavors of the Chautauqua tent meetings, which marked the beginning of the Shelbyville Chautauqua Club.

They agreed to meet two times per month, on the first and third Monday afternoons, for tea and presentations. And those tent performances set a tall standard.

Each woman was assigned a topic, and she would prepare a presentation, performance or lecture on the topic. The presenter’s intention was to stimulate the mind and deepen the members’ understanding of a broad range of issues and topics.

And 100 years after that first meeting, the group continues to meet monthly and to share intellectual endeavors with one another.

“For one meeting, we might have a musical performance. For another meeting, we learn of some aspect of the Civil War,” Myles said. “Once a topic is assigned, the presenter has the freedom to determine how they will narrow their topic.

“They may use a variety of means to make their presentation. The only requirement [besides a 45-minute time limit] is that it be enlightening.”

This means there is study involved in the preparation. Club members want to learn something new when they gather.


Celebrating history

The topic for the Centennial luncheon was history. Women came dressed in vintage clothing. They pulled out (and dusted off) antique gloves and jewelry. And there were hats. What woman would have dared go out in public, in 1912, without her hat and gloves?

The women’s manner of dress contributed to the festive atmosphere of the luncheon. Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty, Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, and former Gov. Martha Layne Collins were among the guests. Each dignitary spoke briefly and congratulated the women for the club’s longevity and for the intellectual gifts the club has given to Shelbyville.

Rothenburger brought a citation from the Shelby County Fiscal Court proclaiming Oct. 4, 2012, as “Centennial Day.” He noted the history of service that the club embodies as well.

“During World War I, we suspended our studies to help with the war effort,” club historian Lillian Sorrels said. “During World War II, we spent our meeting days volunteering in the Red Cross tent at Bowman Field in Louisville.”

Today the group supports the Reading Reindeer program at the Shelby County Public Library, which provides children’s books to homes that have no books.


‘It challenged her’

Collins shared memories of her mother’s carving out two afternoons a month for her Shelbyville Chautauqua meetings. “Mother was excited to come,” she said. “It charged her batteries. She never went to college, but this group was a treat for her. It challenged her.”

These same sentiments are shared by today’s club members. Ernestine Jennings, club president, remarks said the group fills her life.

“I didn’t become a member until after I retired from teaching,” she said. “I was invited to serve on the board of the club, and the next thing you know, I’m standing for president!”

It fell to her to coordinate the centennial celebration, but, as Collins reminded the women, “This club functions as a team. You all step up and work together for a cause.”

Said Myles: “We have never been a large group, but we’re a committed group. What we do together is important.”