DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The Walton-DeFuniak Library, the train depot, various churches and dozens of the historic homes that surround Lake DeFuniak each were built because of the Florida Chautauqua Association and its annual assembly, says local historian Chris Mitchell.
Those and other buildings were part of the nonprofit association’s historic, almost 300-acre resort, where famous speakers and thousands of lovers of learning began visiting in the late 1800s.
“Most of our people here do not know that it’s a resort, or that it used to be,” Mitchell, who is the grant writer for the city of DeFuniak Springs and a member of the board of directors of the Florida Chautauqua Association, said recently.
Thanks to a state grant, however, local residents and visitors soon will have a convenient way to learn much about the Florida Chautauqua Association and its annual assemblies, some of the earliest of which featured speakers such as abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe and politicians such as William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley.
A $49,500 grant from the Division of Historical Resources, which is part of the Florida Department of State, has paid for 17 interpretive panels for the historic grounds of the Chautauqua resort.
The panels will explain the resort’s purpose and how various buildings served the resort. The buildings include the old Louisville & Nashville railroad depot, the Hall of Brotherhood, three churches, two homes and the library, which is the oldest continuously operating library within its original structure in Florida.
The resort opened in 1885 and, through 1928, hosted an annual assembly that focused on education, art, religion and recreation.
“This was marketed as 'The Education Resort of the South,'” Mitchell said.
“Chautauqua” was the name used for the assembly itself. It was the warm-climate version of the original assembly in Chautauqua, New York.
Attendees of the original assembly in DeFuniak Springs listened to lectures and participated in other events in tented classrooms. It didn’t take long for the annual event’s attendance to skyrocket.
“About 4,000 people a day were coming,” Mitchell said. “Attendees would arrive by train. A band would be playing, and there was a carousel. The train depot was the main entrance to the resort grounds. You would get your program, or schedule of events, and check into the grand hotel (the now-defunct Hotel Chautauqua).”
That hotel, which had about 100 rooms, would overflow with guests. Eventually, 33 “cottages” — some of which are actually large, Victorian-style houses — were built around the lake. Many of them were rented by assembly attendees for a week or more.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the interpretive panels of the self-guided walking tour is set for 10:30 a.m. Friday in front of the DeFuniak Springs Visitors Center, 1162 Circle Drive.
At the event, actor Chuck Puckett will portray Wallace Bruce, who was the longest serving president of the Florida Chautauqua Association, and Mayor Bob Campbell will deliver remarks.
The visitors center will be the starting point of the tour. Interpretive panels attached to decorative cast iron lamp posts next to the center will explain Chautauqua’s purpose and feature an 8-foot-wide map of the resort.
The map is based on an 1884 map/planning blueprint that Mitchell believes was created in part by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park in New York City.
“These were mostly New Yorkers who created these grounds” of the Florida Chautauqua campus, Mitchell said.
In addition to other sites and structures, two houses – the Pansy Cottage at 392 Circle Drive and the Dream Cottage at 404 Circle Drive – will each get an interpretive sign.
The Dream Cottage belonged to Bruce, who in 1889 was appointed by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison as U.S. consul general to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Bruce erected a statue of President Abraham Lincoln in an Edinburgh cemetery to honor the Scottish men who fought and died in the American Civil War, Mitchell said.
It marked the first time an American president’s statue was placed on foreign soil, he said.
While Bruce was in Edinburgh, Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was in London, Mitchell said. He said Robert Todd Lincoln learned about the statue of his father and became friends with Bruce.
Robert Todd Lincoln later wrote in his diary that he was going to visit Bruce at his Florida home but didn’t want to tell people about his trip.
“He was quite famous at the time,” Mitchell said of Lincoln’s son. “Wallace Bruce’s only Florida home was here in DeFuniak Springs, and it’s still standing on Circle Drive.”
Puckett, the actor who will portray Bruce at Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, now lives part-time in the Dream Cottage.
The Florida Chautauqua Association remained intact until 1935, then was disbanded until finally being revived in 1993.
Assemblies began being held again in 1996. While each of the early assemblies lasted up to eight weeks, the modern programs last four days. They’re held in January.
Featured speakers in more recent years have included former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, actor Jerry Mathers, who played the role of “Beaver” on the TV show “Leave it to Beaver,” and actor Demond Wilson, who played the role of “Lamont” on the TV show “Sanford and Son.”
DeFuniak Springs Visitors Center employee Carla Brown recently shared admiration for the Florida Chautauqua Association and its assemblies, as well as the historic buildings on its campus.
And Rosalynn Carter “was so impressed with what we were doing here, she went back and started a Chautauqua in Plains, Georgia,” said Brown, a Bonifay native who moved to DeFuniak Springs in 1977.
Next to the visitors center is the historic L & N railroad depot, which now houses the Walton County Heritage Museum. Diane Merkel, archivist for the Walton County Heritage Association, said the depot was built in 1889.
The museum’s vast collection of items includes a painting of Frederick de Funiak, the railroad executive who DeFuniak Springs is named after.
The interpretive panels that will be celebrated Friday will include one about the depot, in which thousands of people eagerly passed through on their way to the annual Florida Chautauqua Assembly.