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Monona Lake Assembly

Tabernacle at Monona Lake Assembly (1895)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-62990

Monona Lake Assembly

In the 1870s an outdoor summertime gathering to train Sunday School teachers was started at Chautauqua, a lakeside town in southwestern New York. The movement, after evolving to mix recreation with educational activities, spread across the nation in the ensuing decade. Few Chautauquas were larger or more successful than the one held at Madison at what is today Olin Park.

On April 10, 1881, Madisonians gathered at the Congregational Church to attempt to make Madison the permanent home of the Chautauqua in Wisconsin, not only to improve Sunday School teaching, but to bring thousands of tourists to the city. The first Sunday School Assembly (later called the Monona Lake Assembly) began on August 8, 1881 and lasted for ten days. People came from across Wisconsin and the upper Midwest to “consult as to the best means of instilling Christian truths into the minds of young people.”

In just two weeks prior to opening day the organizers transformed Lakeside from a lonely woods into a tent city. Hundreds of tents were set up for campers, usually families, with a large auditorium tent in the center of the grounds. Inside was a platform that held 300 singers. The tent was used for worship and instruction.

The Assembly was across the lake from Madison. To get there from town attendees traveled by train, carriage, or steamboat. Authorities inspected the Lake Monona steamboats to ensure they were safe enough to handle the expected crowds. Each day the Scutanabequon traveled non-stop between Angleworm Station (at the foot of South Hamilton Street) and the grounds. The Bay State also carried passengers when not on its normal Tonyawatha run. For a number of years steamboat traffic had been dwindling, and the Assembly gave it new life. The railroads put up several special covered stops nearby.

Seventeen special police patrolled the grounds. Charley Slightham fed the multitude in the old Pavilion building, and served ice cream and lemonade at all hours. On Sundays, only campers and season ticket holders were admitted to the grounds. At other times anyone could attend; a single admission cost 15 cents and a season ticket $1.

Governor William E. Smith spoke on opening day, Tuesday. That evening there was a concert with massed choirs and musicians. The Wednesday schedule was typical - Reveille at 6 a.m.; prayer at 6:40; breakfast at 7; choir drill at 8:30; a Bible lesson at 9:30; a morality lecture at 10:30; dinner at noon; another lecture at 2 p.m.; a normal class about the purpose of Sunday School at 3:30; a lecture for teachers at 4:30 – “What Not to Teach” was the first day’s topic; supper at 6; a lecture at 7; a final lecture at 8; and Taps at 10.

On hot days many participants rode Captain Barnes’ lake boats to take advantage of cool lake breezes. Some arranged excursions to Kilbourn (the Wisconsin Dells) aboard the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul line. On children’s day all the city Sunday Schools were given free tickets.

On the last evening fireworks exploded in the sky over Lake Monona; many Madisonians watched from steamers and sailboats on the water.

James E. Moseley became the “father of the Assembly,” its driving force and one of the best known Chautauqua managers in the country. Founder of a bookstore on Pinckney Street across from the Capitol that opened for business in 1858, he rose to become president of the International Chautauqua Alliance in 1902. Under his leadership, in 1882 the Assembly bought the 20-acre parcel of land and in succeeding years improved it with an ice cream parlor and a superb auditorium in the shape of an umbrella with the handle cut off. Built by J. H. Findorff, there were no posts to impede the vision of 5,000 spectators, and it was the largest room for gatherings in Wisconsin.

Year after year Moseley put on a two-week long program that furnished entertainment, instruction, and inspiration to hundreds of families who camped in the enclosure. Among the speakers were President William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. The Monona Lake Assembly continued attracting large crowds, some as large as 15,000 people, until 1904, when attendance began to decline.

There were occasional tragedies. The first year one of the girls in Slightham’s dining hall was scalded by boiling water. On July 26, 1900, Jennie Rupp, Fannie Dunn, and Nellie Dunn were being rowed back to Madison by Alexius Baas at 11 p.m. when their rowboat was struck by one of the lake steamers, the Tonyawatha, and the four were thrown into the water. Jennie Rupp drowned. “Lex,” the oarsman, saved both of the Dunn sisters. He claimed he did not see any lights on the Tonyawatha; crew members insisted the lights had been on.

In 1908, after several years of declining receipts, majority stockholders decided to sell the parcel. The minority stockholders, among them John Olin, who fought to keep the land from being turned into a lakeside subdivision, took their former partners all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block the sale. In the midst of the legal battle, on July 14, 1911, the city bought the Monona Lake Assembly grounds, making it the first park bought entirely with city money. Known as Monona Park until 1923, it was renamed to honor John Olin, the father of Madison’s parks, that year.

Mark Gajewski