Early Birmingham resident noted in 19th-century chautauqua scene

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 16, 2018

 “Songs, stories, costume selections (and) character delinations” are among the talents touted in this ad for Birmingham native Ellsworth Plumstead.

“Songs, stories, costume selections (and) character delinations” are among the talents touted in this ad for Birmingham native Ellsworth Plumstead.

Photo provided by Leslie Pielack, the Birmingham Museum

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BIRMINGHAM — Before families tuned into television or even the radio for information, there were the chautauqua programs.

Farmers in small towns and villages out in the countryside would gather together to hear lectures on a variety of subjects, hear about current events and enjoy a little live entertainment.

Like Hollywood stars today, certain chautauqua performers and speakers became especially popular over the years, including one from right here in Birmingham.

At 7 p.m. this Thursday, local historian and Friends of the Baldwin Public Library board President Pam DeWeese will talk about the city’s ties to the national chautauqua movement as part of the Birmingham Museum’s “Bicentennial: Looking Back at Birmingham” lecture series.

“Pam is an excellent presenter who really brings the past to life,” Birmingham Museum Director Leslie Pielack said in a prepared statement. “We are excited to have her share her insights with the public about the unique connection Birmingham has to the 19th-century chautauqua movement.”

The chautauqua “superstar” DeWeese will spotlight is Ellsworth C. Plumstead, an entertainer and impressionist whose unique skills made him famous across the country.

“My husband and I had been to see the original Chautauqua Institute in New York, and we just loved that,” DeWeese said of her husband, Birmingham City Commissioner Carroll DeWeese. “When I was volunteering at the museum, I’d be doing research on various things, and I came across (Plumstead) in the course of doing that.”

DeWeese’s presentation will be the second installment in the lecture series, followed next month on May 10 by Pielack’s presentation of the final lecture, titled “The Most Important Road: How the Saginaw Trail Became Woodward Avenue and Built Early Michigan.” She’ll discuss what she calls an “ingenious business scheme” that led to the founding of Birmingham.

The lecture series is a joint effort between the Birmingham Museum and the Baldwin Public Library.

“The American Chautauqua Movement and Birmingham’s Ellsworth C. Plumstead” will be held at 7 p.m. April 19 at Baldwin Public Library. For more information, call the Birmingham Museum at (248) 530-1928 or visit bhamgov.org/museum. Baldwin Public Library is located at 300 W. Merrill St. in downtown Birmingham.

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