It happened on Friday, June 12, 1925.
The lives of three men came together for an hour or so in a large room in a building in Kansas City. One of the men had reached his late 40s, and the other two were still in their mid 20s. The oldest was already well known for many accomplishments, but all still had major achievements ahead of them.
Each of these three men, in different ways, challenged the way things had always been in Kansas City, and each of them, in his own way, swung a hammer at the strong wall of tradition, creating a moment that appears to have been a first in Kansas City history.
The oldest of the three was Charles F. Horner—no relation that I know of. He had already reached notability in Kansas City and the Midwest for his impact on the area’s cultural life.
Horner was born in 1878 in Menomonie, Wisconsin, (or Downsville, about 10 miles south), the son of William Horner and Martha Barron Horner. Within the first eight years of his life, the Horner family moved first to Correctionville, Iowa, and then, in 1886, to Plum Creek, Nebraska, in the Platte Valley. Horner described his father as “a giant in strength,” who “labored with his muscles as no other man I ever saw.” William Horner also “surrounded himself with books,” and had a thirst for knowledge and education which certainly rubbed off onto his son. His mother, Martha Barron Horner, he described as a woman who “almost literally danced her way through the drudgery of my boyhood days. Through all her toil she moved with the grace of tall lilies bending in the breeze. There was always a song on her lips and her voice was like a lark.”
By the age of 15, Charles Horner had finished high school and by 16, after riding “far and wide looking for a school to teach,” began teaching in a district the people had named Hardscrabble, in a school built with sod. Within two years he had gained a reputation as a gifted debater in Eddyville. He must have made quite an impression, because “the school board met at once and elected [him] principal of the schools that boasted of a school bell and two teachers—at the age of 18. He served in that position for two years. During this time, because the schools were open only six months a year rather than nine, Horner supplemented his income working as a cowboy. (In an interview in the Kansas City Star in 1931, Horner said, “If there is one useful thing I haven’t forgotten in the last thirty years, it is how to ride a bucking bronco.”)
From his parents Horner had developed cultural impulses that he now found paralleled those of the larger population. He saw that “All over rural America, where the larger share of the people of the nation lived, conditions were much the same. In an awakening power of the country, a yearning for knowledge and an impulse for creative effort, though scarcely recognized as such, were dominating the lives of the people.” Horner once traveled 20 miles to see a lecture.
This was before entertainment became the major industry it has grown into over the last century. As Horner himself put it, “Probably no one of us had heard an opera or a symphony orchestra or anything better than a traveling company playing ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ or ‘East Lynn.’ It is no wonder that we flocked to political meetings and regaled our talents in Literary Societies.”
After his two years as principal, Horner went to the University of Nebraska and then returned to Plum Creek, now renamed Lexington. He and his father became partners in the purchase of a grocery store, and he opened a real estate and insurance office, becoming relatively well to do as a property manager for absentee landlords. He earned $10,000 his first year, and sold the grocery store. He refocused his goal, aiming now to use his business experience as a means to step into a career in law.
During his years as a Lexington businessman, a man from Omaha talked to him about backing a series of winter lectures. Remembering how many times he had traveled great distances to hear lectures himself, Horner probably didn’t take a great deal of convincing. After the winter lectures, he also sponsored the bringing of a summer Chautauqua series to Lexington.
Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying that the Chautauqua movement was “the most American thing in America.”
The Chautauqua consisted of, initially, lecturers. Originally these came from Christian instruction and sermons. Some Chautauqua assemblies focused entirely on religion and were essentially summer church camps. As the movement grew, many would draw from more secular speakers, and would bring in musicians and singers, and other forms of entertainment, drawing from the Lyceum circuits, sometimes in competition. Many of the speakers became very popular and famous. The most popular was William Jennings Bryan, Horner’s fellow Nebraskan and the man the Democrats nominated at their national convention held in Kansas City in 1900.
Horner finally decided to go to law school in 1906, when Dean Roscoe Pound promised him advanced credits, and sold his business. When he called the dean’s office to finalize the question of his credits, he was told the dean would not be there for the coming year.
The next day he was offered a job booking Chautauqua attractions.
Horner reorganized the scheduling and routing of Chautauqua performers, making it far more efficient. He moved to Kansas City by 1911, when he and his Chautauqua agency appear in the city directory. In 1914 he established the Horner Institute of Fine Arts, which followed Chautauqua ideals, and which provided year round employment for his Chautauqua personnel. The recent history of the UMKC Conservatory of Music states, “Horner charged the lowest possible tuition for the new school, underwriting its operating costs from the profits of his Chautauqua business.”