Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Silver Lake's Evolving
Institute Community:
An Historical Look at Changes

Updates and Corrections: 11-6-19.
When the Institute was first chartered in Bergen, NY, by New York State Legislature in 1857, it was an entity of the Genesee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Its purpose was to serve to plan and execute what were then known as camp meetings where conversions to faith in Christ were heavily promoted. A second part of its mission was to promote the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God as one's source and power for living. It was often referred to as "the second blessing."  

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit was a well known church doctrine for Methodists but one which left open what was "of the Spirit" and what was "of men and women" in their aroused emotional state. Those who believed it was a more orderly ritual were known as the traditionalists or formalists. Those who believed it was expressed through loud and disruptive human emotion were known as Nazarites who in 1860 split from the mother church and took on the name of "Free Methodists."

Silver Lake, NY, was at the geographical center of the Genesee Conference so the decision to locate there was easy. They purchased land on the east shore from a farmer named Chapman in late 1871 and organized a work camp in the summer of 1872 to prepare the wooded area for camp meetings to begin in August of 1873. They also prepared wooden bases on which tents could be installed and there were boardwalks stretching from one designated area to another. They built common area buildings such as the dining hall and the boarding house. They named it Camp Wesley and it was reported that the first train came through that summer on the Silver Lake Railroad.



C. 1885; INSTITUTE C. 1920

When the camp meetings began in 1873 at the new Camp Wesley at Silver Lake, they were all in one accord--traditionalists all. The services were held in the great outdoors with only the preachers under a raised shelter with a roof known as the Pavilion. The worshipers were on roughly cut wooden benches. When the rain came, the camp meeting was often delayed until it eased up. This continued until Camp Wesley pooled its money with the Niagara District and purchased a 50-feet tent which enabled all to be sheltered during the rain.

With most of the emotional expressions now no longer a part of the local Methodist Episcopal camp meeting, the meetings began to resemble basic church services--more formal in nature, although the exuberance of the preachers helped make up for the loss and excitement of wailing and fainting women and their shouting husbands.

The Chautauqua Institute, begun at the same time by the same bishops, had not attached themselves to the church, but remained an independent, laity-led enterprise which had the added benefit of large financial backers. Surprisingly, the laity brought more progressive ideas to the table and Chautauqua began moving ahead in leaps and bounds with branches established across the nation.

Camp Wesley's Trustees kept hearing about the latest ideas for meeting people's needs but still had to yield to the basic church-adopted themes and plans. The talk of the advantages of the Chautauqua plan increased over the first 12 years of Camp Wesley and the Bishop's office in Buffalo also began to express positive comments about the Chautauqua teaching methods and dramatic changes in subject matter.

By 1885 research was done and contacts made, so Camp Wesley was ready to experiment with the Chautauqua style. Classes were eventually offered in typewriting, short hand, filing, transcription and letter writing. Women were now being accepted into office positions where these skills were needed and the camp wanted to offer these relevant subjects to help them become employed.

The Genesee Conference accepted Camp Wesley's proposal about the Chautauqua method, and after just one experimental year, the method was totally adopted and the name was changed from Camp Wesley to the Chautauqua Assembly. The name Chautuaqua was not included in any documents being interchanged with the Genesee Conference, so the name became easily shortened to The Assembly by 1888.

The Trustees, along with the Superintendent of Instruction began formulating a long range plan for the buildings they needed to accomplish their newly-understood mission (in addition to the preaching mission). They determined that first and foremost, they needed a grand amphitheater and work began to finance it. The amphitheater (auditorium) was completed and was first used in the summer of 1888.

The second building for the Chautauqua Assembly was the Hall of Philosophy used initially for classroom space. Built originally as a two-story and later expanded to a three-story by raising the top two floors and building the final story at ground level. The building was completed in 1889. It was located where the Asbury Camp and Retreat Center offices are now located in the current Wilmott Lodge.

The Epworth League was instrumental in getting the Epworth Building (now named Epworth Hall) built. It was used as a boys' dormitory for a while and became an indoor auditorium where speakers, concerts, and worship services were once held. It currently services as the Institute's Performing Arts Center at Epworth Hall. Its building was completed in 1892.

Following the devastating results of the "Cleveland Depression," all programming came to a halt shortly after the turn of the century and the Assembly went into default. Through the financial help of Mrs. John N. Stoody, many of their properties were returned to their original owners as were Institute properties and programming began again in 1908 with the Epworth League.

The grand amphitheater had just been totally refurbished when arsonists burned it down which led to another major change. The Chautauqua method was no longer feasible, so the Institute design was put into effect, and the name became Silver Lake Institute in 1920. Sunday School conventions and teacher training became a major part of the new programming to be established for the next several decades.

The Institute is a story of a constantly evolving organization having to adapt to society's needs and adapt to its own changing circumstances to accommodate its mission. While the Chautauqua method had outreach as part of its emphasis, the Institute began turning its attention back to the church and serving the church's needs which were hypothetically based on society's needs.

The Trustees of the newly formed Upper NY Annual Conference demanded a separation of the Institute from the Conference. Three years of negotiations resulted in the independence of the Silver Lake Institute for the first time in its history. The purpose of the newly re-chartered Silver Lake Institute is stated in this simple statement of purpose which is a part of the newly stated charter:

Purpose and Powers. The corporation is a charitable organization within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 that may acquire, take and hold real and personal property, which shall be used to promote the religious, educational, intellectual, moral and physical welfare of the people. To this end, the corporation may hold meetings and provide for instruction, recreation, health and quiet enjoyment on its grounds at Silver Lake, New York, located in the Town of Castile in the County of Wyoming; conduct worship, schools and classes; maintain buildings, parks, private roads and parking areas, and waterfront facilities; and do such other things as are needful or proper to further its general purposes.

Approximately 100 years after the outreach emphasis of the Chautauqua programs, a renaissance of sorts has emerged through the diligent work of the combined efforts of the Silver Lake Institute and the Asbury Retreat Center. A new outreach program known as the Silver Lake Experience was planned for a two-year period begun in 2013 before the first 3-day program was offered to Wyoming County and surrounding areas in 2015. It was a great success and it was determined to continue to prepare for two years in preparation for each new "Experience." The next two Silver Lake Experiences were held in 2017 and 2019. The committee has now formulated the next "Experience" slated for 2021. Needs continue to evolve and the committee continues to stay ahead of the curve as they plan for the needs and desires of people in 2021.

Another evolving moment is the one attempting to serve the needs of the community who remain on the Institute grounds throughout the fall-winter-spring seasons of the year. This is the third year of social gatherings for this hearty group and committee members have begun including an educational aspect to the social. But it remains a time of fun, recreation, conversation, and food. This is the first year that two events have been planned--Nov. 9th and Feb. 1st.

UP TO 2020

Talk it up. The Silver Lake Institute is in an energetic renaissance with some significant upgrades in buildings and property. Stoody Hall is looking great. The Dock and immediate surrounding Greenway is the new weekly home for worship services. Hoag will continue as an arts building but is now also the rain location for the 2020 worship services. As such it will be getting a new, handicapped accessible lavatory and children's area in the back. Watch for opportunities to support these programs and upgrades.

Epworth is slated to receive a new roof, new lighting, additional electrical outlets and switches, and a new floor. This is all in addition to the improvements made over the last several years.

This is the place to be. This is the place to live! It's a great little community made up of all ages, energies, and abilities. People who love people and people who prefer to keep to themselves. It's a diverse community and we like it that way. We've come a long way since 1873 and we're very happy with the results of it. Come be a part of us!

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