Thoughts on a Florida Chatauqua – Bill Arp, 3/13/1887
Enchanted grounds, elysian news, silver bikes, balmy breezes and sweet odors of orange blossoms, are all mixed
up together here at Lake Weir, and I feel bewildered. When the mocking-birds’ song mingled with my morning dreams,
and awoke me from my slumbers, I looked out upon this beautiful scene and it seemed to me that during the night I had
been transferred by some fairy’s wand to fairy land. I had never conceived of any place so charmingly lovely. and my
first emotions were, oh, that my wife and children were here. I am not going to deal in any gush or rapture over this, for
I would not provoke your readers to long for that which they cannot get. But still, there are hundreds of thousands who
can visit Lake Weir, and it is better worth a winter pilgrimage than any place I have ever seen north or south. No wonder
that these good people have established here a Chatauqua that is to be the pride not only of Florida, but of the tenth. Men
of culture, men of abundant wealth tire the founders of this novel and noble institution, not for money nor any personal
advantage, but for the moral, intellectual and emotional refinement of the people. Happy are the children and youths
of this vicinity are the people whose privelege it will be every year to gather here and drink pleasure and knowlerge
from this pure fountain. I wish you could see this beautiful temple that those people have built, and consecrated to Minerva.
Its gractful dome towers up above the moss covered live oaks and is visible from every part of a lake that is twelve
miles round. A hike whose shores are ornamented with orange groves that almost kiss the water’s edge and have
a background of beautiful houses that look like camios set in emerald green, as Sam Jones says, “that’s it. This is
no town-it is a community. It has no center, no square, no blocks, but everything is in easy reach. The stores are not
even nestled together, but are half a quarter apart.. They take distance here for everytning. It is still a forest all
around, with the long moss hanging from every tree and swaying to the breeze. I miss the broad fields and farms
that we have at home. Even the gardens are scarce and small and the empty cans can be seen here and there in
the background of every habitation. Time will cure this after while, for gardens will have more attention and these
empty cans will be utilized in some way. Railroad facilities are but recent here, and the place is in its infancy.
The old settlers who found this paradise are still here and have subdivided their possessions and are still doing so on
liberal terms to people of their choice. To others they make no price. Georgians, Carolinians and Tennesseans make
up more than half the population but northern families are sprinkled here and there all around the lake, and perfect
harmony and good will prevails. Northern people ventured to Florida long before they dared to risk any other southern
state. They came round to the back door. They saw the golden fruit in our southern gardens and caught the sweet odors
of our flowers. They found the bull dog chained in the back yard and so they pitched their tents, and after while bought
a plat of ground and built upon it and mixed and mingled with our people and now they are here to stay. Old Father Time
is a good doctor. Now, to understand the access to this Chatauqua, let me say that the railroad Ocala to Orlando passes
along the eastern shore of the lake and stops at the pleasant hamlet called Stanton. From there you take a boat for the
opposite shore which is about four miles distant. There is a good hotel here, but as it could not shelter the crowds that
daily come and go, the good people have opened wide their doors, and many tents are pitched, and the trains and the
boat make so many daily trips, there is no trouble about the visitors returning to their homes or to Ocala at any time,
whether day or night. The train to Ocala makes twelve trips a day. Professor Proctor, the leading astronomer of the
world is here, and has begun a series of six lectures, and illustrates them with a powerful camera. The great auditorium
of the temple is illuminated with electric light, but these are darkened, of course, during the lantern exercises. A white
sheet twenty feet square is tacked above the rear of the broad platform, and upon this background the figures are thrown.
The professor is not an orator, but is nevertheless eloquent and seems wrapt in his own sublime thoughts. You soon
find yourself lifted up from this sublinary world, and with timid eagerness you try to follow him in thought as he brings
science to bear upon the creation. His lecture last night was upon the “life of a world”-this world and other worlds,
and the moon. This old world is slowly and surely dying-going to decay as other worlds have done. Like a tree that
sprouts from the seed and grows and puts out its roots and branches, and stands majestic in the forest until it
passes its prime, and then gradually decays and dies.
Just so, he said, all worlds began, and must live and grow old and die-and he proved it-that is, if human reason can
prove anything. The professor was once an infidel, but his own researches into the fields of astronomical science aroused
him from his skepticism, and he stands today one of the humblest believers in the existence and the wisdom and love
of a divine Providence. His presence here is a great acquisition to the Quatauqua. What a bold and daring venture these
people have made. A whole month of lectures not even omitting the Sabbath, and they have two almost every day.
The buildings and grounds have cost near ten thoosand dollars and they expend more every day than they receive.
But they expected to do this the first season. Lake Weir is not alone in this venture. The directors are scattered all
around and everyone brings his individual energy and influence to bear upon the future success. They will succeed.
The people are waking up to the magnitude of this work. At first they were incredulous and bewildered but now they
begin to realize that it is a fact-a living, breathing thing. Lake Weir has a small island not far from its center-an island
that is now covered with orange and lemon groves that are in full bearing. This is the island that was Oceols’s last
retreat. Here he stood at bay and defied the power of the pale faces. But the pale faces took him a prisoner at last.
This is the tradition, and I reckon it is true: I reckon it is, for the old soldiers tell us so. But ever since some sacriligious
vandal proved that William Tell was a historic fraud and a myth. I have been in the cautious state about believing anything
that is dated away back Another vandal has recently proved that George Washington never cut a cherry tree wIth his
little hatchet. Another has dethroned Shakespeare, and if they keep on there will be nothing of sentimental history left.
Before long they will throw doubts upon the revolutionary war and the landing of the pilgrims-but one thing we do know
-there was a war about twenty-five years ago in this country-a bad war a cruel war, and we are just now beginning to
make peace. I wish that every son and daughter of the south, and the north too, could have heard Dr. Hawthorne’s
grand and beautiful lecture on “Building Monuments to Our Heroic Dead.” It was delivered here on Monday night, and
his tributes to the great men of the south, from Washington down, made our hearts beat quick and our motions rise
from pent up fountains and overflow. All hail to Chatauqua!
Last Updated on March 14, 2021 by Bill Arp
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