Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
by Siobhan Regan
The 80-degree weather brings sweat onto the forehead of the group of members part of Mission: Reach.mission impossible. They scrub away at old, off-white benches sitting on the grass of Forest Park in Shelbyville. Despite the work, most of them smile and joke around with each other.
“We don’t do it because we are told to,” Zachary Baker, a member of Mission: Reach said. “We do it because we want to.”
As the benches are cleaned the members move them back inside a large 20-sided dome. Other students sweep the walls and polish the floors of a grand stage. They work quietly inside the voluminous space, as if the past is still whispering to them and the smell of history permeates the room.
The dome works as a huge amphitheater known as the Chautauqua Auditorium that has been in Shelbyville for 114 years. This auditorium is one of a kind due to, not only the 20-sided walls that are 8 feet long, but also the interior that has no support beams present, allowing a clear view of the stage.
The auditorium is currently under phase one of restoration efforts that will take many years to complete and lots of money. Just one phase could cost around $170,000. This first phase will include fixing the outside of the building and replacing the windows. The executive committee of the Chautauqua Auditorium do not plan to change the building too much because of its unique historical significance.
“It’s going to be an ongoing progression of things,” Brenda Elder, fundraising event planner chairwoman, said.
Two years ago the building was on the demolition block. There was threat about it being torn down, but this strengthened the efforts to keep the history alive with the building.
“Without it, it would just seem so bare out here,” Elder said. “It gives an opportunity to people to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
The Auditorium has hosted many famous people such as Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell, The John Phillips Sousa Band and REO Speedwagon. Elder said that it not only helps the bands or people get recognized, it also helps the Auditorium when they donate their time.
They have also had several guest speakers such as Carrie A. Nation, Hank Williams Jr., Howard Toff, etc. The Auditorium also can host weddings, plays, community events and different kinds of celebrations. The cost of booking events is affordable. An upcoming event they will be hosting will only cost around $100.
“We are trying to show the Chautauqua as being something that can be used for very many things,” Elder said.
The Chautauqua Auditorium used to be fairgrounds in the late 1800s. There was a racetrack that ran around the building, but after an accident the fairgrounds went into bankruptcy in the 1930s. The Chautauqua Foundation eventually bought the area and, for awhile, had a 10-day Chautauqua festival every year.
“People would actually stay here,” Elder said. “They would rent cabins and they would rent tents. There were all kinds of transportation bringing them in here. It was a big festival.”
A “Save Our Chautauqua” flier explains the early history of Chautauqua. The Chautauqua started out in Western New York. It is an Iroquois word that describes the movement that starts at a lake. A Chautauqua Institution was a summer school for Sunday School teachers. The building was created by John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist bishop, and Lewis Miller, an inventor. This institution was just about education, but as time went on it became more about adult education and educating the middle class. A course called the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle allowed for this higher education and would later be part of something that would bring thousands of people to Chautauquas; to not only enjoy education, but other things like concerts. Shelbyville actually had two Chautauquas setting the city apart from other Chautauquas in the area and making it more prominent.
The Chautauqua Auditorium was built in 1903 by H.B. Trout, a bridge builder. It took about eight months to build at a cost of $7,500.
“Its a heritage,” Elder said. “(The Chautauqua) is something I don’t feel you’re going to see everywhere you go.”
The Mission: Reach is currently cleaning and repainting the benches and walls of the building for June 20 when the Air Force Band of Mid-America will play at the auditorium.
“We really feel strong that we’ve got to give back to America,” Joshua Sullivan, leader of Mission: Reach, said. “Without rural communities America wouldn’t exist.”
Mission: Reach is a volunteer program that allows high students from all over the world to help out in cities. Forty-five members from parts of Illinois, Mississippi or Missouri volunteered to go to Shelbyville. They do mainly service projects like pulling weeds.
“Volunteers help so much,” Elder said. She said in-kind contributions including volunteer work enable them to obtain matching funds through grants. Forty-five volunteers working four hours for the day are matched at $10 per hour for grant purposes, she indicated.
The Mission: Reach program started about five years ago. Sullivan not only wants to help the community, but he also thinks it’s important to teach younger generations to take care of these older things.
Yesterday Mission: Reach pulled weeds from Shelbyville resident’s homes. Baker said that they had a good time as they worked on people’s yards. Tomorrow they plan to pull weeds at the Sunken Garden also in Forest Park in Shelbyville.
“We take, and take and take and now it’s our time to return, to give,” Baker said. “For the next few days we are going to give all we have and in return we feel proud about ourselves.”