The first time I heard about Winona Lake in northeast Indiana was during my research for my Masters thesis at TEDS. My project was a study of two Mennonite congregations in eastern Pennsylvania that were
heavily influenced by American evangelicalism during the 1950s. The pastor of one of these congregations, an evangelist named John S. Heistand, visited family members in Goshen, Indiana, and while in the area, attended what Heistand called a “Rodeheaver songfest” in Winona Lake. I came to learn that Homer Rodeheaver was a local celebrity of national importance. Every great evangelist had his equally popular song leader, and Rodeheaver had filled that role for Billy Sunday. For students of the history of American evangelicalism, Rodeheaver was just one part of Winona Lake’s storied history. It is best known, of course, for its status as what was perhaps the most recognizable Bible Conference venue in America.
But what may be less familiar to many, is the fact that this small rural Indiana town would not have taken on this reputation had it not been for its earlier role as a prominent Chautauqua site (founded as “Spring Fountain Park”), which began in the 1880s. Teddy Roosevelt once said that Chautauqua was the “most American thing in America.” Indeed, this movement of cultural refinement, which began in western New York, embodied the reforming impulses of Progressive era America at the end of the nineteenth century. Winona’s Chautauqua heritage began
when the lake was still called “Eagle Lake” and by 1900, religious meetings were only one small part of the larger summer time schedule of cultural, educational, and theatrical programs.
As someone who has always been interested in the history of religion in America, when I came to teach at Grace College in 2008, I could not resist getting involved in this story through our campus archives and two small museums we have on the campus of Grace College. In addition to the Reneker Museum of Winona History, which was started in 2000, the home of the Sunday family has also been a museum since Helen Sunday died in 1957. This year, these on-campus facilities, along with a growing archival collection, have been reorganized as the Winona History Center under the direction of the Department of History and Political Science. As chair, I was happy to take on his challenging but important new venture. It will serve our students well (we have internship requirements and offer a minor in Public History) but also serve future researchers and scholars of American religious history as our collections become more accessible and better organized. Just recently, we’ve rolled out our website, Facebook, and Twitter pages. Readers can contact me directly if they are interested in visiting!