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Some say "Chautauqua," is an American Indian word for "Bag with a string tied around the middle," the shape of the lake of that name in New York State. Indeed, the 1892 charger of the Mt Gretna Chautauqua derives from that original and notable "Chautauqua Institution" founded in 1874 and model for hundreds of other chautauquas around the country, as well as a forerunner of college summer schools and the myriad summer festivals born in the latter part of this century. The bylaws, revised for modern times but still in 19th century language, state its current purpose: "advancement of literary and scientific attainment, recreation, and entertainment:. The Annual Art Show, nightly summer performances in the Playhouse, and lectures in the Community Building serve that purpose, even though all but the latter are not guided by organization separate from the Cahutauqua. The Chautauqua Board of Managers continues the tradition of summer lectures and varied programs in the Community Building.
During the century after its founding in 1892 , the Chautauqua by necessity evolved into a community service organization. Its elected Board of Managers maintains the grounds, buildings, and trees by assessing 200 households an annual maintenance fee (the same for each household). The companion Mt Gretna Borough Council does much the same thing, with primary responsibility for streets, for the same households, collecting taxes by millage assessment of each property. Although some Chautauqua residents fear otherwise, very little of their taxes and assessments pay for the arts programs. The Art Show makes money for the entire community, Music at Gretna, and Gretna Theater rent the Playhouse. The Cahutauqua remains primarily a residential community. Most of the tomes in the Chautauqua are older. Some date back more than a century. The oldest, many in the Queen Anne or Victorian style, are nearest the Playhouse. Many have undergone repeated restorations and renovations, but some remain relatively untouched. Most have the traditional Mt. Gretna porch with railings and corbels that owners adorn with strings of lights and paper lanterns. They hide among tall oak and pine trees and wild rhododendrons along narrow winding streets, many named for Eastern colleges, on the steep hillside overlooking the lake or the Playhouse. Not all have garages. Prices are modest, from about $60,000 to $195,000. The Playhouse, Jigger Shop, Mens' Club tennis courts, Post Office, and Porch and Pantry Cafe front along Rt. 117 and the homes that nestle into the hill behind on terraced streets are invisible from a distance because of the dense forest.
Residents who live around the Playhouse expect nightly performance sounds and daytime rehearsals and stage work throughout the summer. In fact, the builder of the Playhouse, John Cilley, located his own home so that his porch served as a box seat overlooking the stage. Sometimes call the Carousel House" because of its circular porch, it was restored to its original condition ten years ago by the Ebright family.