In the days before television and radio, the chautauqua ruled.
Inspired by the mother of all chautauquas in New York state in the late 1800s — a tent show featuring lectures, poetry readings, music and drama — similar shows sprang up in the fields outside of rural communities. They became one of the early purveyors of popular culture.
It was "infotainment," as Dewey Roth of Rosemount called it.
Roth and others will revive the tradition under a tent at the Dakota County Fair starting Monday with a whirlwind of songs and skits — 21 pieces in an hour — about Minnesota history.
A handful of local performers started putting on the tent show during the 1999 Dakota County sesquicentennial, and this year's show features "greatest hits" from past shows as well as a few new pieces.
In the show, each performer takes on a variety of roles. In "Norwegians on Snow Shoes," which chronicles the Blizzard of 1888, Roth plays a school marm. He's also at various times a deputy, an expert on electricity, a Norwegian farmer and Gov. Pillsbury during the grasshopper plague. He plays spoons and he rattles rain sticks.
True to the spirit of the original chautauquas, which often featured temperance speakers, the show opens with a meeting of the St. Joseph Abstinence Society. "Some people are at the meeting and decide they need to leave," said Roth of the skit.
A skit titled "Footprints on the Prairie" deals with the impact of early settlers on the landscape. "That sounds oh-so historic and serious," Roth said, "but there is going to be more laughing than anything else."
They also reanimate the Younger brothers, outlaw colleagues of Jesse James, who were captured in 1876 after their attempt to rob the Northfield bank. And one skit focuses on Farmington's rural delivery; it includes a surprised homeowner aiming a shotgun at a mail delivery man and a song and dance about the Sears Roebuck catalog.
" 'Moonshine Mama' is really popular," Roth said, referring to a piece about two sisters arrested for moonshining on their Minnesota farm during Prohibition. "It's a country, bouncy thing."
The performers add or subtract a prop or costume where needed. "Just a little something to give it some character," said Jennifer Merhar of Farmington, who swaps out her lit cigar from "Moonshine Mama" for a babushka and apron when she performs as a Polish immigrant working in the stockyards.
Pete Martin writes the material for the skits, and musician (and Red House Records President) Eric Peltoniemi sets it to music. And then the group works collaboratively to shape the pieces.
"We want you to learn history," Merhar said. "We want you to laugh. It's a clean show. It's G-rated, but there's some belly laughs."
Other events featured at the 2013 Dakota County Fair:
• This year, organizers arranged for the first concert to be held in the grandstand on Thursday, Aug. 8, with a performance by country music duo Love and Theft and a special guest, country-western singer Craig Campbell. Also new this year, riders can serve as "donkey jockeys" in donkey races on Monday, Aug. 5.
• Entertainment includes a tractor pull; bull riding and barrel racing; demolition derby; pony rides; Wolves, Woods and Wildlife exhibit; and performances by the Last Ride, the Lost Highway and the Johnny Holm Band on the Beer Garden Stage.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.