The Lesson of Clara Barton and the Chautauqua Assembly

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Clara Barton’s house and American Red Cross headquarters, pictured in 1904.

In our December issue, Susan Sarfati, CAE, wrote about the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit adult-education center in southwestern New York state, which every summer offers a nine-week program of “fine and performing arts, intellectual discussions, interfaith services, and recreational activities.” Susan did a splendid job outlining everything that makes Chautauqua so interesting, with an emphasis on what meeting planners can learn from the program.

What I didn’t realize is that the Chautauqua Institution — founded in 1874 as a camp for Sunday-school teachers — sparked a national adult-education movement in the United States that lasted for decades, with Chautauqua “assemblies” proliferating across the country. I learned that this past weekend, when my family visited the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Md. — a 38-room house that was built in 1891 especially for Barton, who had founded the American Red Cross 10 years before. Who built it? Twin brothers Edwin and Edward Baltzley, wealthy industrialists who wanted to develop an idyllic community on 516 acres outside Washington, D.C. As part of their plan, the Baltzleys built a Chautauqua assembly, and enticed Barton to locate Red Cross headquarters on an adjacent plot. Barton also served as head of the Glen Echo assembly’s Women’s Executive Committee.

According to our National Park Service tour guide, the Baltzleys were convinced that Barton — who at that time was very famous and much revered throughout the country — would lend their assembly a certain cachet. And maybe they were right. The assembly was hugely popular when it opened but didn’t last long, dissolving after five years thanks to the brothers’ money troubles. Eventually the grounds were redeveloped as an amusement park, and today they’re home to Glen Echo Park, an arts and cultural center.

Still, the house served as American Red Cross headquarters until 1904, when Barton resigned as president of the organization, and she lived there until her death in 1912. Hers was an interesting and valuable life, and for meeting professionals Barton’s brief but potent relationship with the long-vanished Chautauqua assembly suggests the power of tying live programming to a person whose message and personal example are so inspiring.

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