Written By: Robert Daniel, Director, Florida Chautauqua Center Historian
For thousands of years, the area today known as DeFuniak Springs was inhabited by Native Americans. On March 4, 1881 the Florida State Legislature incorporated the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad. As the survey party set out from Pensacola to survey the route for the railroad, they happened across an open area with a round lake. The party camped on the shores of the lake and their leader, W. D. Chipley, declared this would the perfect spot for a town and ordered the virgin forest not be cut around this spot and a stop would be made along the line here. The location as named after Frederick DeFuniak, president of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad. First known as Lake DeFuniak the name was later changed to DeFuniak Springs.
Chipley, T. T. Wright, C. C. Banfill, W. J. Van Kirk, and a few others worked to turn the small stop along the tracks into a town, forming the Lake DeFuniak Land Company in 1885. They began to sell real estate and find ways to attract people to the fledgling Heath and Hunting Resort they envisioned. Through a chance meeting while attending the Chautauqua Institution in New York in 1883, Van Kirk learned they were seeking a winter location to extend the program. After meeting with the leaders of Chautauqua and returning to DeFuniak Springs, the group decided this was the perfect draw to bring people to the new village. In 1884, the Florida Chautauqua Association was formed and would operate here until 1936, holding its last annual Assembly in 1927. During this period a State Normal School, a free college to educate teachers, was placed here by the state, and operated from 1887-1905. McCormick University was established here but only operated from 1886-1888, when its buildings were destroyed by a hurricane. Palmer College formed here in 1907 and operated until 1936. Along with the DeFuniak Business College, a preparatory school for the Normal School, as well as the Thomas Industrial Institute, DeFuniak Springs was known as the educational center of the south during this period. The Florida Teachers Association was formed here in 1886.
Arbor Day in the state of Florida started here in DeFuniak Springs. The first planting of trees, in honor of Arbor Day in the state of Florida, were planted on the shores of Lake DeFuniak on December 17, 1885 during the Southern Forestry Congress. It is believed some of those trees planted then still stand on the shores of Lake DeFuniak. After Chautauqua ended its run, DeFuniak continued to be a destination of choice for people seeking culture. An annual Music Festival in the 30s and 40s would draw thousands to watch bands, from all across the state, come to compete.
The Walton DeFuniak Library, established in 1886 is said to be the oldest library in the state still operating as a library in its original building. Step inside and step back to an earlier time. See current sections of the library as well as original editions that date back to the beginning of the library and even a historic armor collection.
DeFuniak Springs once was home to a Federal Agricultural Research station, as well as many orchards of blueberries, Le Conte pears, satsuma oranges, and other crops that were shipped to points all across the nation. DeFuniak Springs was also the location of two large sawmills that provided high quality yellow pine to the nation.
DeFuniak Springs was also home to 22nd Governor of Florida, Sidney J. Catts, whose accomplishments include reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill and of convicts. He also began road improvements, tax reforms and labor reforms. He appointed a woman to his staff and endorsed suffrage for women. Statewide Prohibition Act was also passed at his prodding.
Many of the same things that made DeFuniak Springs so popular in its early years are still found here today. A quiet friendly community, today it still hosts cultural events like the Florida Chautauqua Assembly, Florida Chautauqua Theater, Grit and Grace, various Arts and Crafts groups, and a sense of community unique to itself. The historic district has changed very little over the years. Many of the homes built in early years, by visitors to the Florida Chautauqua who moved here from the north, along with business men of the time, still stand. Homes built by people like Wallace Bruce, internationally known author, lecturer, longest president of the Florida Chautauqua, and former U. S. Consul to Edinburgh Scotland, as well as Isabella McDonald Alden, known by her pen name Pansy, who wrote many loved Christian children’s novels, to name a few.
Today the historic train depot, owned by the City of DeFuniak Springs, houses the Walton Heritage Museum operated by the Walton Heritage Association. The City also owns the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, which was built to replace the old Tabernacle auditorium built in 1884. Built in less than a year, the new Hall of Brotherhood was first used Feb 3rd, 1909 for the opening exercises of the Florida Chautauqua. At that time it was known as the most modern auditorium in the south with color dissolving lighting, seating for 4000, and a grand entryway designed to look like the U. S. Capitol. The stage in the auditorium was said to be able to hold 100 actors. In 1975 hurricane Eloise destroyed the recently restored auditorium, so today only the front lobby and classroom portion remain and are rented out for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and reunions. Historic down town remains much as it did when visitors would arrive by train 100 years ago; the buildings retain their historic look.
Historic DeFuniak Springs has a rich and broad history which affected the nation, a small town that did great things, and still continues to do great things today.