Florida history: The Chautauqua Assembly’s connection to the Sunshine State

Florida history: Officials went south looking for a winter home and ended up…

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Early in the 20th century, the hub-shaped town of DeFuniak Springs, about an hour north of Fort Walton Beach and about two hours west of Tallahassee, was the unlikely hub for the winter meeting of the Chautauqua, a western New York gathering of intellectuals who discussed arts, sciences, history, politics, theology and cooking.

The Chautauqua began as a Sunday school in 1874 at a Methodist camp on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, near Jamestown, N.Y. Within 30 years, more than 150 such societies, most not connected to the original Chautauqua Lake Association, had spread nationwide.

Association officials went south looking for a winter home and ended up in DeFuniak Springs, a planned community set up in 1883. Founders built several structures, including the Hotel Chautauqua. Rates were $10-$14 a week, with meals. Admission to the monthlong conference was 25 cents per event, $1 for five days or $3 for a full package.

Eight schools offered lectures and classes on subjects as diverse as the art of roasting and life in Burma. Though only about 100 people attended the first gathering, the event was to last more than three decades.

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The demise of the Chautauqua

The advent of newspapers and radio and the explosion of World War I left Chautauqua behind. Its 1927 session was its last. A two-week Chautauqua-like session in 1932 was sponsored by the local Woman’s Club, but with the Depression well on, future sessions were cost-prohibitive.

Many of the original buildings now are private homes. The former “Hall of Brotherhood,” a 4,000-seat auditorium built in 1909 for $28,000 and featuring 40 columns, was sold in 1935 to the city of DeFuniak Springs, which still owns it. During the Depression, the hall hosted sewing classes for local women, run by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.

Over the years, it was used for music festivals, operas, political rallies, school events and church conferences, and was offered to local clubs for meetings. In the 1970s, it underwent a major restoration, paid for by public money and private donations. The city also had built an amphitheater next to the structure.

Reviving the heady days of the Chautauqua – temporarily

Hurricane Eloise, in 1975, destroyed the auditorium. The Hall’s surviving part, a grand two-story entrance, later housed the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, which moved out in 2016, the year the hall began another major renovation, paid for by state grants and local and private money. The newly-renovated building held its first event in December 2020.

Also, in 1977, Chautauqua enthusiasts began an annual festival to recapture the heady days of the Chautauqua. It stopped in the late 1990s.

The Florida Chautauqua Association later was created and, starting in 1996, began holding assemblies similar to the original Chautauqua.

Florida Time is a weekly column about Florida history by Eliot Kleinberg, a former staff writer for three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). 

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