Historic DeFuniak Springs, Florida
I have come to realize that there are a lot of places, that, at first glance, there does not seem to be much there. I have also come to realize, that, it only takes a little exploring, to change the way you see that place. Welcome to DeFuniak Springs, Florida. This is one of those places.
When you first exit Interstate 10 on the outskirts of town, it does not look like much. A few fast food and chain restaurants, along with some stores, hotels and other local businesses line both sides of the highway. Basically, it looks like a typical little town, that has been here for awhile. At first glance, it appears to be a town that has managed to settle into a way of life that, despite some run down buildings, works for those who live here.
We have been here for a few days now. We have eaten at a few of the local spots, and I have ventured out looking for a spot to run. I was having a hard time figuring out how, and why, this town was even here. I knew I had to be missing something, because, there is a sign at the edge of town, welcoming you to Historic DeFuniak Springs. I wasn’t seeing the history. I decided I was going to do a little exploring and see what I could find.
The other day, I had gone for a run around the lake. I had noticed that there was an Information Center across from the lake, so I decided I would start there.
I walked in, just as the woman who worked there, was giving a small talk to a group of visitors. They welcomed me to join them, so I sat down and listened as she talked about how the town came to be. I knew it! I knew there was a reason this town existed!
Turns out, DeFuniak Springs is actually the home to Florida’s Historic Chautauqua. I would include a pronunciation of that word for you, but I was having a really hard time pronouncing it myself.
Now, I have seen that word on signs and it was even the name of a local winery that I visited the other day, The Chautauqua Vineyard and Winery. I had no idea what it was or what it meant though. To help me understand, she had to take me back in time to the 1800’s, and all the way north to New York.
The word chautauqua is Iroquois for “jumping fish”, and was the name of a lake in New York during the Civil War. In 1874, during the summer months, they used this land around the lake, as a meeting place to hold summer school for Sunday school teachers. It became known as the Chautauqua Institute. Though it started as a school for Sunday school teachers, it was never affiliated with any certain religion. There was a nation wide interest in education during this time, and the main intent for the Chautauqua Institute was to provide an adult education to the working and middle classes.
By 1885, the “movement” as they were referred to, had made its way to Florida, so that they could continue with education during the winter months, but in a warmer climate. They chose DeFuniak Springs, and built their campus around the shore of Lake DeFuniak, one of only two perfectly round lakes in the world! The other is in Sweden – just a little fyi 🙂
DeFuniak Springs, named after Frederick DeFuniak, President of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad, was originally inhabited by Native Americans, until about 1881 when the railroad came to town. They cleared the land around the lake, built shops, and turned the stop along the railway, into a town. It was a few years later, when one of the town developers, W.J. Vankirk, attended the Chautauqua in New York and decided that by bringing the movement south to DeFuniak Springs, it would not only provide the warmer climate, but bring real estate and growth to the area. By 1886, the Florida Teachers Association had been formed here.
In 1927, the Florida Chautauqua held its last annual assembly. Even though the Chautauqua had ended, DeFuniak Springs remained a destination of choice for people seeking culture, literacy and also entertainment.
Today, the Historic District of DeFuniak Springs, offers a glimpse of what it was like back in the day. Most of the homes that surround DeFuniak Lake, are the original homes. The original Library, train depot, hospital and Hall of the Botherhood (where meetings for the Chautauqua were held) are still there. I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk to a few long time locals that have lived here their whole life. They not only told me stories about the town, but allowed me to take pictures as well. I hope that you will enjoy the pictures, and maybe get a feel for what the area is like. I have enjoyed my stay here, and I am thankful that I decided to do a little exploring. DeFuniak Springs is definitely a hidden gem down here in the south. It is worth stopping and visiting downtown. Grab a bite to eat, and talk to a local….you never know what story you are going to hear – they seem to have a lot to talk about!
This is the Chautauqua Hall of the Brotherhood. It was built to look like the United States Capitol. It was the original meeting hall for the Florida Chautauqua. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, Thomas Marshall, spoke here.
It was pointed out to me, that this house has a window with diamond etching, as well as the original curved corners on the balcony. The timbers had to be heated and then bent into shape to form the curved corners.
This is called the Magnolia Grandiflora. It has a spreading top of 82 feet, is 60 feet high, and its trunk is 13.5 feet around. It is the 8th largest tree in Florida. (It has obviously grown since that sign was added) 🙂
This was the home of Wallace Bruce. Bruce was a former U.S. Consul to Scotland. He was also the longest serving President of the Florida Chautauqua. The locals refer to this home as, The Dream Cottage.
This is a more “modern” house compared to the others. It was built in 1938 for Henry Elliot, a local banker. It did not really show up in my photo, but in the second photo, the entryway is completely decorated for Mardi Gras. Apparently, last weekend was a large Mardi Gras celebration that the town does every year. The entire lake area is decorated for Mardi Gras, they have a parade and a lot of local food, drinks and entertainment. All of the houses around the lake are decorated for the occasion.
Both Wallace and Kenneth Bruce were travelers. The two of them collected armor and weapons from all around the world. This collection was kept at the home of Kenneth Wallace, until he passed, at which time, his collection was moved to the Library.
This home was originally built for Judge Campbell. Today, it is owned by Jean Anderson (pictured). They have been the only owners of this home. Jean has lived here her whole life, and is the first person to decorate a tree on the lake at Christmas. Since that year, the town has decorated the lake every Christmas. They currently put up over 5 million lights around the entire lake. Christmas at DeFuniak Lake is one of the biggest events during the year, and lasts from Thanksgiving night until New Years Eve. Jean wanted me to know that she also designed the sweatshirt she is wearing – in support of the Christmas light display – Christmas Reflections. 🙂
This was the home of a very prominent turpentine dealer, T.M. McConnell.
This house was built for Stuart Gillis and his wife. Mr. Gillis was a teacher, as well as an attorney. His wife stenciled designs on the walls of the first floor, which are still there today.
This is one of my favorite buildings – The Lakeside Hospital. It actually operated as a hospital until the early 1970’s! Today, it serves as the Florida Chautauqua Association, and houses its offices on the front part of the first floor. Many of the hospital fixtures and features are still present on the upper floor. It is also said to be haunted! 🙂
Another one of my favorite buildings – The Library. Built in 1886, it is the longest operating library in all of Florida! Fun fact (that they will not tell you at the information center – a perk of talking to locals though) : It turns out, that a certain type of protected bat (the Mexican Free Tailed Bat) have made their home in the attic of the library. Because they are protected, they cannot be removed. It is not a problem, because they stay in the attic and do not destroy the books or artifacts in the library. However, in the summer months, because of the heat, they have to load up a book mobile with all of the books, and close off the library. The heat makes the smell of the bat urine just too unbearable. The artifacts are not able to be viewed, but books can still be lent out. It apparently does not have to stay closed for very long, and no one seems to mind. It just doesn’t seem to make the “story list” at the visitor center 🙂
I hope you enjoyed my tour through Downtown Historic DeFuniak Springs as much as I enjoyed touring it. If you are ever passing through, take a few hours and stop in. The locals are more than happy to share their stories, and the walk around the lake is truly beautiful.