The Florida Chautauqua Association was founded in 1993 by citizens of DeFuniak Springs, Florida who wanted to bring the original assemblies held here from 1885-1928 back to life. The once-gated campus grounds, opened in 1885, were founded by leaders of the New York Chautauqua needing a campus in a warmer climate for winter assemblies. Today's leaders orchestrate the modern assemblies as a 4-day educational program for families comprised of notable or famous keynote speakers, educational breakout sessions, performance teas, evening dinner performances and exhibits relating to an annual theme.
Chautauqua is a county in the northwest corner of New York where, in 1874, a Methodist minister and a businessman joined forces to create a resort/camp to educate Sunday school teachers in the areas of art, education, recreation and religion. These four "areas" were known as pillars, and each season of classes and presentations were planned through these pillars. Eventually, people started referring to the Sunday school assemblies simply as "Chautauqua," referencing the place at which they were held.
The annual assemblies were so popular that, by 1884, Ulysses S. Grant was lecturing at Chautauqua. The NY organization leaders of the assembly needed to expand their season to accommodate more people now that more than just Sunday school teachers were attending and stressing the original intent of the facilities. The Winter would prove too harsh for travel to NY, so leaders looked South for land to construct a campus and host assemblies within the four pillars of the annual program during the Winter months.
A railroad line was being laid through the Florida Panhandle - attractive area for a new campus.
While NY Chautauqua leaders were scoping the country for a Winter campus location, railroad companies in Florida were being encouraged by state leaders to quickly lay railroad tracks through NW Florida for development. The South was still recovering from the Civil War, and railroad development was one way to improve economies and settle various areas of the state. As an incentive, the state promised land on each side of the track to railroad company developers. That meant the company owners laying track through a wooded area next to a perfectly round spring-fed lake in the central Florida panhandle region would own that land - land they saw could be developed into a resort - perhaps an "educational resort" with a rail line running right beside it to bring excursion trains filled with paying guests to a convenient location halfway between Jacksonville, FL and New Orleans, LA. They started planning the layout of their resort when they learned the nationally acclaimed Chautauqua was looking for such a location for a new campus. The railroad executives sent an invitation to the NY Chautauqua leaders for a visit to the area they called "DeFuniak Springs" named after their railroad company owner, Frederick DeFuniak.
In February 1884, NY Chautauqua Representtive A.H. Gillet announced that the new Chautauqua would be located in Lake DeFuniak. After months of planning, fundraising and construction, the Florida Chautauqua Assembly in Lake DeFuniak opened one week late on February 18, 1885 due to the main auditorium being incomplete. Many of the first classrooms were in tents along the banks of Lake DeFuniak.
1884 plans of the Florida Chautauqua Campus
The original campus/resort grounds (opened in 1885) were gated and required an admission fee. The grounds consisted of the passenger train depot which primarily operated as the main entry to the resort, the lavish Chautauqua Hotel, charming library, the tabernacle (2,500-seat auditorium, later replaced by the 4,000-seat Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood), Chautauqua Art Department and plots for wealthy Americans to purchase and on which to build quaint Victorian-era cottages in which to stay during the Winter assemblies. Today, this once-gated resort is believed to be the first planned community in Florida.
Hotel Chautauqua on the Florida Chautauqua resort grounds
Many of the first classrooms were in tents along the banks of Lake DeFuniak. The format for the first 4-week Assembly emphasized religious training and educational activities in such areas as philosophy, theology, art, music, elocution, and cookery. Concerts, impersonations, lectures, travelogues and stereopticon slide shows also provided imaginative and educational entertainment. At the end of that assembly, travel writers and journalists heralded the event to be a great success. In December, 1885, the first Southern Forestry Congress, arranged by the Florida Chautauqua Association, was held on Lake DeFuniak, with full support of the American Forestry Congress. The first planting of trees in the Deep South occurred on the shores of Lake DeFuniak as part of that program on December 17, 1885.
Attendees outside the 2,500-seat auditorium called The Tabernacle
Visitors to the 1886 Assembly heard lectures on health titled "Care of the House We Live In," and listened to other speakers on such diverse topics as astronomy, Scotland, Greece, Florence, Switzerland, and Love and Marriage. Musical entertainment that year wa provided by the Rogers Goshen Band from Goshen, Indiana and supplemented by the Chautauqua Chorus performing evening concerts on the lake.
In 1887, the assembly was expanded from 4 weeks to 6 weeks, and in the following years, it became bigger, longer and busier. By 1897, the program featured numerous entertainment acts and, in 1899, the first moving pictures were shown in DeFuniak Springs. The small village outside of campus/grounds was growing, too, and citizens decided to incorporate the area as the City of DeFuniak Springs in 1901.
By 1909, thousands of people were attending the assembly from all over the world, and the Florida Chautauqua campus campus leaders opened a new 4,000 seat auditorium to replace the 2,500 facility to accommodate the 4,000 tourists a day now arriving by excurision train to hear the greatest lecuturers of the times.
Florida Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood
In 1917, the assembly attendees were astonished to see the moving picture, Civilization, on a big screen and their interest in the new medium signaled that the end of the Chautauqua era was near. In addition to motion pictures, newspapers, telephones, magazines, radio and the automobile were impacting attendance. World War I would begin the downturn of attendance at Chautauqua as all the excursion trains that once brought people to DeFuniak Springs by the thousands were now rededicated to war time use. In 1922, the assembly took its first pause, and resumed in 1923. The final Florida Chautauqua Assembly held by the Association would be iin 1928. The Association would continue to offer plays in the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhod. In 1935, the leaders finalized an agreement with the City of DeFuniak Springs to transfer ownership of the Hall of Brotherhood to the City and to cease operations.
4,000 people a day arrived in DeFuniak Springs at the height of popularity of the assemblies.