Walking Tour Overview
The following information is written on the interpretive panels located on the grounds of the DeFuniak Springs, Florida Visitors Center, 1162 Circle Drive, DeFuniak Springs, Florida 32435. These panels, along with smaller once throughout the historic grounds and funded with a grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, provide for a self-guided walking tour of the Florida Chautauqua Resort/Campus opened in 1885 and once marketed as "The Education Resort of the South." These grounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What is this place?
You are on the grounds of a once-gated resort/campus opened in 1885 for a multi-week event called the Florida Chautauqua Assembly. The assemblies lasted here from 1885 until 1928. The grounds and Assembly were owned and operated by an organization called The Florida Chautauqua Association. The Association became bankrupt in the late 1920s and had to sell off many of the structures to private individuals and to the City of DeFuniak Springs. The last building sold by the Association was in 1935 which officially ended operation of these grounds as a resort/campus.
An 1884 ap of the grounds is to your right. Note the boundary fence line drawn around the perimeter of this map and the entry point at the top showing how these grounds were gated. The entry point is the location of the train depot.
Most travelers to this historic resort/campus arrived by excursion trains for a choice of a one-day, week-long or multi-week stay to participate in learning activities in the areas of art, education, recreation and religion. These four areas are known today as “pillars.”
The resort/campus was comprised of the train depot a grand hotel (which once stood to your left), art department, library, a 2,500-seat auditorium (replaced with a 4,000-seat auditorium), four churches and a large park called Chipley Park. The perfectly round spring-fed lake served as the centerpiece of the resort and hosted many recreational activities including swimming and boating. Association leaders sold plots of land on the resort/campus grounds to affluent citizens who wanted to build a cottage with maid’s quarters within the gates to be close to all the activities the Florida Chautauqua had to offer. By 1888, the Association owned 12 buildings and 33 cottages.
Visitors to the resort/campus were greeted by bands and a welcoming committee who escorted passengers to a nearby ticket booth to purchase tickets to events, classes and various activities. They were provided a printed program including a schedule of events for a multi-week operating season beginning in February and ending in March.
Association leaders marketed these once-gated grounds as “The Education Resort of the South” and “The Winter Assembly in the Land of Summer.”
Famous Americans who lectured or visited these grounds
Some visitors came long distances to hear presentations y, or to meet, such notable Americans as Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stow, Author of Battle Hymn of the Republic Julia Ward Howe American Red Cross Founder Clara Barton, Democratic Presidential Nominee and Orator William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President Thomas Marshall. [Although an 1895 printed program announces that Gov. William McKinley of Ohio (who later became president of the United States) accepted an invitation to make a presentation no records have been found indicated he attended the Florida Chautauqua Assembly that year.]
At the height of the Chautauqua Movement in America (late 1800s-early 1900s), these grounds received as many as 4,000 people a day. The historic downtown business district on the other side of the railroad tracks developed due to the onslaught of tourism to this resort/campus which included souvenir shops restaurants boarding houses, hardware stores, and even such attractions as a merry-go-round.
What is Chautauqua?
Chautauqua is a place in the southwest corner of New York state where in 1874, (nine years after the Civil War) a Methodist minister named John H. Vincent and a businessman named Lewis Miller (who would be Thomas Edison’s father-in-law) collaborated to build a campus on the banks of Lake Chautauqua to educate Sunday school teachers in the areas of art, education, recreation and religion throughout an annual eleven-week “Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.” As years passed, Assembly leaders welcomed many notable Americans to lecture at some part of their program. President Ulysses S. Grant attended in 1875. The 20,000+ annual guests eventually included more than just Sunday school teachers, and the Assembly’s name was eventually referred to as “Chautauqua.” There is no clear definition recorded as to what “Chautauqua” means. It is simply the name of a place in New York.
Many people who visited the Chautauqua Assembly in New York were inspired to organize and host similar assemblies in their own communities. As many as 260 independent Chautauquas once operated throughout North America, any of which offered programming like the New York Chautauqua Assembly, a.k.a. “The Mother Chautauqua.” All other assemblies were called “independent” or “daughter Chautuquas.”
President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted by many historians as having declared “Chautauqua is the most American thing in America!” By the 1920s, people were traveling long distances by car or learning great things over the radio, meaning less dependency on the rail system to get to and from Chautauqua campuses and less dependency on learning “in person.” The Great Depression also forced many campuses to go bankrupt, ending the American Chautauqua Movement.
What does this have to do with this resort/campus?
Unlike virtually all other Chautauquas throughout North America, the Florida Chautauqua (winter) Assembly was conceived by those involved at “The Mother Chautauqua” in New York who wanted to see the establishment of a major Chautauqua in the South. The winter worked for these men and women because they were free to attend a southern Assembly during these cold months of the year. The Florida Chautauqua was also endorsed, promoted and supported by the New York Chautauqua and many attended both. In this way, and in this rare circumstance, it was “associated” with “The Mother Chautauqua.” However, the Florida Chautauqua resort/campus grounds were never owned or operated by the New York Chautauqua. Those helping to create these gounds and Assembly established a organization called the Florida Chautauqua Association to operate the Assembly and grounds independent of “The Mother Chautauqua.”
The End of the Florida Chautauqua
The last documented assembly on these grounds took place in 1928. The gates to the resort/campus no longer existed, and the homeowners on these grounds were no longer affiliated with a governing organization. The churches operated independently from an official programming. In 1935, the Florida Chautauqua Association leaders sold the last building used for the Assembly (the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood and auditorium) to the City of DeFuniak Springs, Florida.
The Florida Chautauqua today & the Chautauqua Trail
In 1993, a local group of volunteers formed an organization to revive the Assembly which took place on these grounds. The event is held the last full weekend of January. The organization which orchestrates these assemblies has adopted the same name of the original organizers, The Florida Chautauqua Association. The first fully revived assembly took place here in 1996, and many across North America are being revived today. The original New York (“Mother”) Chautauqua never ceased operation, evend during the most difficult economic times starting in the late 1930s and is now fully engaged with the most notable speakers and leaders of our times. Lakeside Chautauqua in Lakeside, Ohio is another continuously operating campus. Leaders of these revived events and continuously operating resort/campuses have joined a collaborative organization called the Chautauqua Trail and meet annually on a different Assembly site to discuss future growth of these programs. Explore America by attending Chautauqua assemblies. Visit www.ChautauquaTrail.com for locations and schedules. To attend Florida’s historic Chautauqua, visit www.ForidaChautauquaAssembly.org.
- By Christopher Mitchell
- Historical research by Robert Daniel
- Grant funding by the Florida Division of Historical Resources