Letters Offer Front Row Seat to Behind-the-Scenes Adventures in Life on the Road with Chautauqua, c. 1911

   Ruth Bowers and Grace Desmond, traveling classical musicians in the early 1900s, were part of the short-lived Chautauqua movement which brought live entertainment to small towns across rural America before the invention of radio and TV.

Previous posts on this blog focused on how Ruth’s grandson, Jay Sherwood, introduced this writer, Grace’s niece, to the concept of Chautauqua and to Grace’s role in this unique part of  American culture–something our Desmond family knew nothing about. 

In today’s post, I share some of the adventures Grace and Ruth had  off stage that summer of 1911, as they dealt with lost luggage, “machine rides”, oppressive heat, an auto breakdown, and meeting celebrities of the day.


Original letters penned by Ruth Bowers in 1911 describing her life on the Chautauqua circuit. (Photo provided by Jay Sherwood.)

Much of what Jay Sherwood learned about the travels of his grandmother, Ruth Bowers, in the last century came directly from letters and postcards discovered in a family attic: Letters from Ruth to her mother, to her friends and to her sweetheart, Gibby, who eventually became Ruth’s husband.

In these letters, Ruth recounts her adventures–both good and not-so-good–of life on the road as a Chautauqua performer. Today’s post, includes snippets of some of these letters giving readers a front row seat to the behind-the-scenes lives of these gifted, adventurous young women who shared their musical gifts on the Chautauqua circuit more than a century ago.

In this letter to her mother, Ruth mentions her colleague, Grace Desmond, for the first time:

June 23, 1911, Fri. morn, Chicago, The Coates House

My dear Mother,

Well, here I am…Arrived at 8 o’clock yesterday morning after an uneventful ride. I phoned Miss Desmond and arranged for a rehearsal Sat. morn. She said she & Mr. Clarke were going for a boat trip today, to be gone all day and talked as tho’ she and Sir Charles were the best of friends…

And the following day Ruth writes:

June 24, 1911, Saturday eve, Suite 1210 Stewart Building, 92 State St, Chicago

Mother dear

I know you will be anxious to hear how I like our Co. so will drop you a line while Amy is doing stunts on the piano and is singing.

The Desmond home in Chicago, c. 1910. (Desmond family photo collection.)

The Desmond home in Chicago, c. 1910. (Desmond family photo collection.)

This morning I went to see Miss Desmond thru the pouring rain (it surely has been a terrible day) and was never more surprised than when I stopped at a glorious big stone mansion, one of the most glorious homes I was ever in – and Grace has light hair!!

She is a very stylish attractive girl about my age and is a pupil of  William Hall Sherwood and Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler. Mr. Clarke looks like his picture, I think, very courteous and nice. He complimented me highly and altogether our first meeting was successful.

Miss D was out with Clarke 8 weeks last winter and that is all the traveling she has ever done.

The Clarke-Bowers Company, comprised of Ruth, the violinist; Grace, the pianist;  and C. Edward Clarke, a baritone; kicked off its season in West Liberty, Iowa, on June 27, 1911–just days after Ruth and Grace met and practiced together at Grace’s home in Chicago.

The Clarke-Bowers Company: Grace Desmond, C. Edward Clarke, and Ruth Bowers, horsing around for the camera between  performances in 1911. (Photo courtesy of the Ruth Bowers family photo collection.)

It didn’t take long for the two young ladies to strike up a friendship.  In one of her first letters home Ruth writes to her mother about her fellow troupe members:

June 30, 1911, Belle Plain, Iowa, the Herring Cottage

My dear Mother,

We left Chgo on Tues aft and got to West Liberty at 9:30 pm. It was a real pleasant place and we showed on Wed very successfully.

Mr. Clarke gives a nice collection of songs and sings beautifully. I like him very much. He is courteous and pleasant and full of fun…

Grace is a dear–she has her 20th birthday next month. She is an excellent pianist and accompanies dandy.

And in a letter home a few days later Ruth writes:

July 5, 1911, Waverly, Iowa, the Fortner

My dear Mother,

…In the eve after our show Mr. Clarke took Grace and I for a boat ride–it was a beautiful eve and we enjoyed it immensely….Our program is taking well in spite of its serious nature (classical, ahem). Grace is an ideal pianist and I like her personally very much, so once again I am thrown in with fine people.

The Clarke-Bowers Company traveled by train to 63 different cities in just 66 days in Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota that summer, giving afternoon and evening performances in each town they visited.

Clarke, in the summer of 1911, waiting to board a train for the next stop along the Chautauqua circuit.

Chautauqua performers boarding a train en route to their next program. (Ruth Bowers family photo collection.)

Jay, Ruth’s grandson, estimates that the Clarke-Bowers Company played in front of at least 75,000 people that summer. Most nights, Ruth, Grace and Clarke stayed in local hotels, but sometimes they stayed in the homes of their hosts in the towns where they performed. It was a grueling schedule, but one that the trio for the most part, enjoyed, from the tales Ruth relayed in those old family letters.

This letter from Ruth to her mother typifies what life on the road was like for a Chautauqua performer:

July 16, 1911, Luverne, Minnesota, the Manitou

Dearest Mother,

Have just returned from our afternoon service. I wish you could have dropped in and heard us. The tent was crowded and the program went fine…Mr. Clarke sang gorgeously–his voice is great and he puts so much soul into his singing–so with Grace playing so beautifully at the piano we have “some music from our Company…”

Hundreds gathered under Chautauqua tents like this one in small towns across America anxiously awaiting the start of the next performance.

Hundreds gathered under Chautauqua tents like this one in small towns across America anxiously awaiting the start of the next performance. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa, Chautauqua-Redpath collection.)

…Thurs at Le Mars…we had to get up at 3:30 am to make a train.  Arrived at a little dump at eight o’clock and driven over two miles to LeMars.  But it was a dandy place when we got there. The park was gorgeous and over 100 people camping on the grounds.  In the aft we were entertained by the Eastern Star Ladies and taken for a machine ride….

Left at 8 am this morning for Rock Rapids and came 16 miles in a big touring car to Luverne.  This is a very swell town. I wish you could see the style of this hotel, a big three-story affair, with the most beautiful gowns on the girls–some class, and machines lined up around the Chaut. grounds. I never saw so many autos in my life–the people surely must be rich…

Ruth had a beau from Pittsburgh named  Gibby–the  man she eventually married. Here’s a passage from a letter Ruth wrote to him that summer:

Gibby and Ruth, c. 2014, after Ruth finished her Chautauqua tours. The couple married in 19__.

Gibby and Ruth after Ruth finished her Chautauqua tours. They were married in 1913. (Ruth Bowers family photo collection.)

July 9, 1911, Cresco, Iowa, Strother House

My dear Gibby,

Nothing to do but think of you, so will scribble to you until dinner is ready. How did I get to this unknown burg?

This is how it happened! Last eve. Bishop Quayle [a lecturer] invited us to accompany him here so we could get a good rest today and be near our tomorrow destination [Austin, Minnesota], so Grace and I had a most glorious automobile ride in his big car for forty-two miles.

Oh you moonlight night! But what’s the use of moonlight when there is nobody around to spoon!

It certainly was one of the most delightful drives I ever took. We left Waukon at eight fifteen, stopped at Decora [twenty miles away] for ice cream, etc., passed a stand with hot greasy popcorn–each had to have a bag, so after we hand our hands full…and a box of chocolates we proceeded on our way and arrived here at eleven thirty…

Not all Chautauqua performers were musicians like Ruth and Grace. Preachers, orators and even magicians entertained on the circuit over the years.  In this letter, Ruth  writes her mother about being on the same program with the renowned American orator, William Jennings Bryan:

William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, three-time presidential candidate and renowned orator, was one of the most popular lecturers on the Chautauqua circuit. He supported Prohibition and attacked Darwinism in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” which took place 14 years after he toured with the Clarke-Bowers Company in 1911.

William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, three-time presidential candidate and renowned orator, was one of the most popular lecturers on the Chautauqua circuit. He supported Prohibition and attacked Darwinism in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” which took place 14 years after he toured with the Clarke-Bowers Company in 1911.

July 19, 1911, Forest City, Iowa, Summit & Anderson Hotels

My dear Mother,

It’s all over! But I must tell you the joke.

Our train was an hour and twenty minutes late getting to Forest City and the exalted Clarke-Bowers Company was thrown into one auto, Hon. W. J. [William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and Chautauqua lecturer] in another, and I was on the platform playing Zigeunerweisen before sixteen hundred people in less time than it takes to tell about it in my green dress and red trimming, that exquisite stage gown designed by Modiste Bowers [Ruth’s mother].

Oh! I feel like quite a celebrity…

….Bryan was so pleasant and before he left this eve he came and shook hands and wanted to know when ‘next would we be together…’

Four days later, Ruth describes an excursion with her fellow Chautauquans during some time off:

July 23, 1911, Eldora, Iowa, The Winchester

Dearest Mother,

This is a real pretty town on the Iowa River…Two of the crew boys took Grace and I out on the river for a long boat ride. Had a dandy time and landed at a real pretty grove down the river about two miles. Got back here in time for dinner and gave our concert as usual at 2:30…

Happy times on the road in 1911 with the Clarke-Bowers Company. Clarke is at far left with hat and coat; Ruth is seated in the middle between two "crew boys" and Grace is standing at far right.

Happy times on the road in 1911 with the Clarke-Bowers Company. Clarke is at far left with hat and coat, Ruth is seated in the middle between two “crew boys,” and Grace is standing at far right. (Ruth Bowers family collection.)

…Everything going smooth and pleasantly and the time is passing quickly. If you haven’t sent my laundry, hold it for a few days, for our trunks are lost and we don’t expect to get them until next Friday. My bag is so chucked with stuff I can hardly close it now, so can get along without it a few days.”

But things did not always go so smoothly for the Clarke-Bowers troupe, as Ruth relates in this letter home:

July 25, 1911, Denison, Iowa, The Hotel Denison

My dear Mother,

This is a dandy town, real swell and quite a change from the awful dump we had to stay at over Sunday. Absolutely, we spent the most lonesome, boresome day I ever spent in a hope-to-die for town, Lake City, in the worst dump of a hotel–it was awful…

…We took a machine ride part way in the worst trap of an auto, and when about halfway up a hill the old thing broke down and we started sliding slowly downhill. Talk about frightening! Picture us in such a place on a country road at 4 o’clock am with the rain coming down in torrents and only a half hour to train time. Great spot! 

But the driver managed to fix the old “chug-chug” and we puffed into Sterling five minutes before train time…”

Frank W. Gunsaulus

Frank W. Gunsaulus, renowned preacher, humanitarian, and Chautauqua lecturer, inspired meat-packer Philip D. Armour to donate $1 million to start the Armour Institute, known today as the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Frank W. Gunsaulus, a noted preacher, educator and humanitarian of the day also joined the Clarke-Bowers circuit in 1911.

His “Million Dollar Sermon” inspired Philip Danforth Armour, a business tycoon and the richest man in Chicago at that time, to establish the Armour Institute, an engineering school in Chicago that still stands, and is known today as the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In this letter home, Ruth writes of being  joined on the circuit by Gunsaulus:

August 4, 1911, Corning, Iowa, Hotel Bacon

My Dear Mother,

Frank W. Gunsaulus of Chicago joined us Monday at Hedrick. Everybody in this part of the country knows him and he is second only to [William Jennings] Bryan in popularity. He is head of the Armour Institute of Chicago and pastor of the largest congregation in Chicago, also preacher in the Auditorium (the Grand Opera Theatre) Sun afternoons.

For being such a world-renowned speaker and a man of such vast reputation, he is so democratic and pleasant. Full of funny stories and experiences. He will only be here with us this week as he leaves on Monday for Chautauqua Lake, N.Y., to take charge of the lectures there. He has been fine to me and given me public praise from the platform. It is surely a great education to meet such distinguished men.

Ruth shared numerous other details about Chautauqua life the summer of 1911 in other letters home as well.:

….The Chaut yesterday was very large and the grounds are in a big grove. About 25 tents for the campers are on the grounds.

..Last eve Mr. Kramm, a football player of Cornell [Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa], took me to supper at a private house…

…Our expenses have been running high–an average of over seventeen dollars a week.  Mr. C and I get the same salary and Grace gets $30. I wish you could hear our concert. It certainly is good–their part of it!…

…Yesterday was Grace’s birthday. Twenty years old. She seems older. I got her a nice pair of silk stockings. She was real pleased with them.

… Am standing the trip very well, but I get pretty tired of the monotony some days, especially when it is hot and Grace gets the blues.  I like her so much, she is such a sweet girl…Hope all are well.  Don’t work too hard, Mama.

In an email I received a few years ago from Jay Sherwood, Ruth’s grandson and author of  the book “Chautauqua Serenade”, he had this to say about the relationship between Ruth and Grace:

“Ruth had only one sibling–a brother. As I’ve been going through [Chautauqua items I’ve collected] I’ve been learning about your aunt through pictures, postcards, programs and brochures. I was thinking today that your Aunt Grace must have been like a sister to Ruth that summer. These letters seem to reinforce that idea…”

Ruth Bowers and Grace Desmond became fast friends when they traveled the Chautauqua circuit together the summer of 1911.

Ruth Bowers and Grace Desmond became fast friends when they traveled the Chautauqua circuit together the summer of 1911. (Photo courtesy of the Ruth Bowers family photo collection.)

As the summer of 1911 wore on, temperatures rose, and the heat began to take its toll on the performers. And why wouldn’t it have?  Air conditioning had yet to be invented. On August 11, from Conception, Missouri, Ruth wrote:

My dear Mother,

I spent the afternoon after our concert in my room in my nightgown with ice on my head. The day before had been bad enough, 100 degrees in the shade, but we had been staying at a private house with a nice big lawn at Albany, so we managed to exist…but yesterday the hotel was fierce…I never put in such a wretched day…

Things go from bad to worse for Grace though, as Ruth recounts to her mother a few days later:

August 16, 1911, Milan, Missouri,  Hotel Stanley

My dear Mother,

Received your letter this morning. We are still existing with the weather…oh, it’s beyond description what we went through on Friday, Sat and Thurs of last week. The hotels were poor, the meals were terrible and I tho’t I would surely give out…

It was too much for poor Grace and we fairly dragged her to Seymour on Sunday. Got her to bed in a dandy hotel. Called the Dr and found she had a raging fever of 103 degrees, with all the symptoms of typhoid.

Monday morning she was carried to the physician’s home, had a trained nurse, and if able, was to leave last night for Chicago. We are waiting for news in regard to her condition now.  Poor girl, how I hated to leave her among strangers. I nursed her Sat night and Sun night–gave her ice baths and medicine every three hours and slept on the floor between times….

…Don’t worry about my health. I’m drinking lots of lime and lemonade as the Dr directed me in order to avoid the fever, and I’ll let you know at once if I don’t feel well, but I know I’ll be alright.

Love from,


As Jay speculated in an email to me about the letter above: “My guess would be that your aunt got typhoid fever–fortunately a mild case–and one that they took care of to the best of their medical ability at the time. It seems Grace got ill around August 13, so she missed the last three weeks of the tour and another pianist had to finish the tour in her place.”

Up Next

Despite Grace missing out on the last few weeks of the Clarke-Bower Company’s 1911 Chautauqua tour, the friendship between Ruth and Grace continued–at least for a little while–as you’ll see in the next post. In a letter to Ruth, Grace reveals details about exactly what happened to her once she left the tour, and Ruth fills her mother in on a visit to the “immense, three-story” Desmond home in Chicago, where Ruth reunites with her friend Grace, and a very good time is had by all in the big city of Chicago.


Chautauqua Serenade, book about the life of Ruth Bowers on on the Chautauqua circuit in the early 1900s was written by her grandson after much research online and in repositiories.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 1910-1912, 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



This entry was posted in American History, Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Letters Offer Front Row Seat to Behind-the-Scenes Adventures in Life on the Road with Chautauqua, c. 1911

  1. Lorene Cook says:

    Excellent look at the entertainment of the time, Pat. So nice to see these photos of Aunt Grace.

  2. Jana Last says:


    Thanks for sharing these posts about your Aunt Grace and the Chautauqua movement. Very interesting!

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2016/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-8-2016.html

    Have a great weekend!

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