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Vawter, Keith
(April 23, 1872–February 5, 1937)

–developer of the chautauqua circuit—was born in Indianola, Iowa, the son of John Beverly Vawter, a clergyman and Civil War veteran, and Flora (Keith) Vawter. Vawter attended Drake University, then worked in a family business, Vawter & Sons Booksellers, in Des Moines from 1896 to 1899. On August 27, 1899, he married Cora E. Kise of Marshalltown, Iowa. They had a daughter, Betty.

    In 1899 Vawter established the Standard Lecture Bureau in Des Moines. In the late 19th century lecture bureaus provided speakers, musicians, and other entertainments to managers of local opera houses. The programs, often referred to as lyceums, proved popular. Chautauquas provided similar programs in the summer months when the non-airconditioned opera houses were too warm for comfort. Chautauqua was named for a camp near Lake Chautauqua, New York, which Methodists used as a summer institute to train Sunday school teachers. Many towns established local chautauquas, then contracted with speaker and lyceum bureaus to provide the talent. Some towns even erected special open-air buildings to house their chautauqua.

    Vawter connected with the Redpath Lyceum Bureau of Chicago in 1903 and helped establish the Standard Redpath Chautauqua. In 1904 he organized a chautauqua circuit of 15 towns in Iowa and Nebraska. After the venture lost more than $7,000, Vawter developed a plan to make the operation profitable by using more efficient practices. The existing method of organization included long moves from one town to the next and left many open dates for performers. In addition, the quality of the performances was uneven, upsetting many managers. Vawter's innovation was to group towns together in a circuit. He also monitored the quality of the talent he hired and chose the dates and talent that would be available. His plan used the talent full time and saved the costs of open dates. By reducing the length of travel between towns and eliminating backtracking, Vawter lowered railroad transportation charges. He also reduced advertising costs by purchasing wholesale advertising in quantity, while increasing publicity efforts. At first, he had difficulty with local managers who resisted having an "outsider" operate "their" chautauqua, but he eventually convinced them that he provided a superior and more balanced program of uniform quality at a more affordable price.

    At Vawter's suggestion, the 1904 Redpath Chautauqua season used a circus tent for performances, since six of the towns on the circuit did not have a chautauqua building. By 1907 the Redpath circuit included 33 towns in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. In 1910 Vawter changed the color of the tents from brown to white to distinguish the chautauqua as a higher form of entertainment from the circus. The Redpath circuit grew and became profitable. By the 1911 season, it provided programs to 68 towns, employed 227 people, and used 12 railroad freight and baggage cars. Speakers Vawter hired included Warren G. Harding (before he became president), Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, Senator Albert B. Cummins of Iowa, and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

    Eventually, Redpath sold a one third interest in the business to Vawter. In 1926 Vawter sold his interest and went into banking. He purchased interests in banks in Coggon, Center Point, and Walker and served as president of the Center Point Bank and the Walker Bank & Trust Co. He served as president of the board of trustees of Drake University in 1918- 1919, and received an honorary LL.D. from Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, in 1931.

    The Vawter family lived in Cedar Rapids for 25 years. At one time the city had signs at the city limits proclaiming "Cedar Rapids, home of Keith Vawter, founder of the circuit Chautauqua."Eventually the family moved to Walker and then to Marion, where Vawter died from a stroke in 1937. He was buried in Cedar Memorial Cemetery, Cedar Rapids.

    The chautauqua industry continued to thrive until the 1930s, providing a variety of high-quality speakers and entertainment to rural audiences. A combination of the economic downturn of the Great Depression and the development of other entertainment forms, such as sound motion pictures and radio, contributed to its demise.
Sources Vawter's papers are located in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Other materials about Vawter and chautauqua are in the collections of the Museum of Repertoire Americana, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. See also John Harrison Thornton, "Chautauqua in Iowa," Iowa Journal of History 50 (1952), 97–122; Charlotte M. Canning, The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance (2005); Andrew C. Rieser, The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives, and the Cul ture of Modern Liberalism (2003); James R. Schultz, The Romance of Small-Town Chautauquas (2003); and M. Sandra Manderson, "The Redpath Lyceum Bureau, an American Critic: Decision-Making and Programming Methods for Circuit Chautauquas, circa 1912 to 1930" (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1981).
Contributor: Michael Kramme