The second in a series on how the friendship between a pair of musically gifted, independent young women in the early 1900s, led to the friendship over a century later of two of their descendants.
My previous post introduced readers to Ruth Bowers and Grace Desmond, musical prodigies at the turn of the last century. It covered how Ruth’s grandson, Jay Sherwood, contacted me, Grace’s niece, when he was writing a book about his grandmother’s musical career.
Today’s post introduces readers to the movement known as “Chautauqua”, and how Ruth and Grace–who soon became friends–were young women ahead of their time: traveling, becoming financially independent, and achieving a status few women of that era achieved.
When author Jay Sherwood first contacted me three years ago about my aunt Grace Desmond’s involvement with the Chautauqua movement of the early 1900s, I not only knew nothing about her experience with it, I didn’t even know what “Chautauqua” was. I was in for quite an education.
A Bit about Chautauqua
As Jay explained in some of his initial emails to me:
In the early twentieth century–well before the advent of radio and TV–Chautauqua and Lyceum programs brought live music, education and entertainment to rural America through lecturers, entertainers and classical musicians–like Jay’s grandmother, violinist Ruth Bowers, and my aunt, pianist Grace Desmond. Chautauquas were held in the summer months and Lyceum programs spanned the fall and winter seasons. Together, Chautauquas and Lyceums were the main form of live entertainment for much of rural America.
Many of the lecturers and entertainers, like three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and magician and illusionist, Eugene Laurant–were household names at the time, and many of the musicians were well-known professional performers.
Although the Chautauqua circuits only lasted about twenty-five years, they had an important impact on American culture during the early twentieth century, and it seems that Ruth and Grace were a part of that unique era of American history.
During the summer of 1911 they traveled a Chautauqua circuit throughout the west and Midwest performing in such small towns as Forest City, Iowa; Austin, Minnesota; and Montgomery, Missouri.
Following their summer tour in 1911, Grace and Ruth parted musical ways to go on separate Chautauqua tours with other performers.
Ruth formed her own company in 1912 and performed on the Horner Chautauqua circuit traveling throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Texas, while Grace teamed up with Katherine Ridgeway, a renowned reader, elocutionist, and storyteller of the day. Grace headed out west on that tour to Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
So, how exactly did Jay, Ruth’s grandson who resides on the west coast of Canada, find me, Grace Desmond’s niece, who resides in the American Midwest?
Connecting with a Descendant–a Century Later
Well, it seems that a post I’d written for this GeneaJourneys blog two years earlier, which included Grace’s name and profession—pianist—had popped up in Jay’s Google feed as he was doing research for an upcoming book on his grandmother’s musical career.
A caption beneath an image in that post was all it took for Jay to track me down and identify me as a descendant of Grace Desmond—the same Grace Desmond who served as pianist for his grandmother’s troupe, the Clarke-Bowers Company–and the same Grace Desmond who eventually became Ruth’s very good friend in the summer of 1911.
And why was he googling Grace Desmond’s name?
Beyond learning more about his grandmother’s musical colleague and traveling companion–Jay explained it to me later like this:
“For all of my books, I try to make contact with descendants of some of the people involved. Sometimes I get new material to add to my book. Sometimes, the family stories I hear give me a better understanding of the person in the narrative.
“Your aunt, Grace Desmond, was one of the key people with my grandmother on the 1911 Chautauqua circuit. She’s in some of my grandmother’s pictures and is mentioned in several of her letters, so I wanted to know more about her. When searching the internet for “Grace Desmond” I found your post about her, and …. Voila!”
Young Women ahead of their Time
Since that initial contact three years ago, Jay and I have been regular email pals, exchanging information back and forth about the fascinating connection we share: his grandmother—classical violinist, Ruth Bowers, and my aunt—classical pianist, Grace Desmond—a pair of women well ahead of their time.
As Jay points out, at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, female musicians like Ruth and Grace were traveling, becoming financially independent and expanding ideas of what women could do.
As he writes in Chautauqua Serenade, the book he penned about his grandmother’s life on tour from 1910-1912:
“In the early twentieth century, there were three main occupations for women who wanted to work outside the home: teacher, nurse or secretary. For women who were talented and determined, there was also the possibility of a career as a musician, whether in Chautauqua, vaudeville, symphony, or other types of shows….
…Traveling musicians had adventurous lives available to few women at that time. On tour, these women had an opportunity to continue developing their talent by playing to large, enthusiastic audiences and interacting with other musicians. They were independent both financially and in their ability to travel and were recognized for their ability. They stayed in hotels, wore fashionable clothes, met a variety of people and were occasionally entertained at residents’ homes in some of the communities where they performed…
These women musicians were accorded a status that few women achieved at that time. Through the example of their lives they were part of the first wave of the women’s liberation movement in the early part of the twentieth century.”
As Jay further explained to me: “When we think of the women’s liberation movement in the early 20th century the suffragette movement often comes to mind first. Through the lives they led, my grandmother, your aunt Grace, and other women on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits were also, through their accomplishments and activities, at the forefront of what would later evolve into the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s.”
Well, who knew? Certainly not me!
So thank you, Jay for searching for Grace Desmond on the internet, contacting me, and passing on all you’ve discovered about my aunt’s early musical career.
Prelude to Pianissimo
From prelude to pianissimo, Jay’s book–Chautauqua Serenade–is a labor of love.
The first draft of his book was produced two years ago as a gift to his mother (Ruth’s daughter) on his mother’s 90th birthday. When Jay realized though, just how much original material and primary sources he had gathered on his grandmother’s career—letters, postcards, programs and photographs; newspaper articles, reviews, mementos and memorabilia—he knew he had to take his labor of love one step further.
That’s when he decided to produce a much more expanded version of his original manuscript and professionally publish the story of Ruth Bowers.
And now he has….
Published in September by Caitlin Press, this tribute to Ruth brings to light both the professional and personal life of a 23 year old violin virtuoso in the early part of the last century.
From postcards in the attic to posters in the archives, Jay traces Ruth’s routes for three years as she criss-crossed America bringing classical music to the ears of thousands who’d never heard it before.
It’s a book laden with photographs, newspaper reviews, postcards, and letters home that reveal just what life was like on the road for his gifted, adventurous, trailblazing grandmother over the course of six different Chautauqua and Lyceum tours from 1910 to 1912.
In my next post, I’ll share some of the adventures of Ruth and Grace–both on the circuit and off–as they dealt with lost luggage, “machine rides”, socializing in Chicago in 1911, and even typhoid fever, which forced one of them to end her tour a little early.
Jay Sherwood is an award-winning historian, retired teacher-librarian, and author of six history books on British Columbia, one of which was a finalist for the 2015 BC Book Prize and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing.
His latest work, Chautauqua Serenade: Violinist Ruth Bowers on Tour 1010-1912, was released in September by Caitlin Press, Inc. and is available at Amazon.com (US) or Amazon.ca (Canada) or Barnes & Noble.com. More information about the book can be found at the following link: www.ruthbowersmusic.ca
Copyright © 2016 Patricia Desmond Biallas
(All photos courtesy of the Ruth Bowers family collection, unless otherwise noted.)