Lake DeFuniak and warm winter weather brought northerners to DeFuniak Springs by train. Many built Victorian-styled winter homes around the lake. They also created and participated in Florida Chautauqua, the second such organization in the country (after the original in New York State) to celebrate education, the arts, recreation and intellectual discussions.
Victorian DeFuniak Springs, FL:
By Susan J. Young
When the L&N Railroad began operations in north Florida in 1882, one stop along the tracks was a quaint town called "Open Pond," so named by the Muscogee/Creek/Euchee Indians who had lived for thousands of years in and around the area.
The name aptly reflected the town's top feature -- an almost perfectly round freshwater, spring-fed lake.
Just steps from the train station, this lake drew wealthy northerners seeking a warmer climate in wintertime. The road around the lake was aptly named Circle Drive. And the town's name was changed to honor the railroad's chief engineer Frederick deFuniak.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, visitors built a slew of eclectic winter Victorian homes and buildings around the lake. (One example is shown in the photo at right.*).
In fact, DeFuniak Springs grew from 100 or so residents in 1887, to approximately 800 in 1890 and to 900 in 1893.
The L & N Railroad promoted and advertised the town and its involvement with the Chautauqua movement. The railroad's low-cost, roundtrip fares of the era were $30.55 from Cincinnati; $30.05 from St. Louis; $29.25 from Louisville; and $22.50 from Nashville.
Today, your visit to DeFuniak Springs, located just a few miles north of I-10, is likely to be by car. However you arrive, though, your journey will immerse you into the architecture and style of 19th and 20th century America.
More than 150 town buildings are on the National Register, 40 around the lake alone. Visitors will view Victorian, Queen Anne, Vernacular and Colonial Revival styles.
In the early 1900s, the area quickly gained a reputation as the focal point of Winter Chautauqua.
Chautauqua grew from the desire for improving religious and secular education for the general public.
In the late 1880s, independent Chautauquas became platforms to discuss the latest thinking in politics, economics, literature, science and religion
The first Florida Chautauqua met on the grounds of Lake DeFuniak in 1885. It was the second Chautauqua organization founded in America.
In fact, if you look closely at the two-story Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood (see photo at left*) in DeFuniak Springs, FL, you will see it resembles the original New York Chautauqua building.
Built at a cost of $28,000 in 1909, the Classic Revival building's facade contains three neo-classical porticos and a dome topped by the "Lantern of Religious Trust." Originally, the building also had two additional porticos at each end.
Doric columns adorn both the first and second floors. Many remain, but originally there were 40 representing the number of U.S. states during the early 20th century.
A 4,000-seat auditorium previously attached to the back of the building was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975. A project is under way to restore the auditorium.
Chautauqua was a focus of the upper class in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Florida Chautauqua included a book club, lectures by prominent speakers, musical concerts, opera, theater, instruction in myriad subjects and lakeside recreation.
The train brought thousands of visitors to the town during the Chautauqua era. Programs were held in tents and small buildings near the lake until the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood (described below) was built.
But Chatauqua's popularity began to wane after a run of several decades. The Florida Chatauqua closed in 1920.
Today, however, the spirit of Chautauqua still thrives in DeFuniak Springs. The Florida Chautauqua Winter Assembly was revived in 1996.
Illumination Night is celebrated in February and the season continues through the Chautauqua Festival in late April.
Lakeside Walking Tour
Stop at the Chautuqua Hall and pick up a walking tour brochure from the Walton County Chamber of Commerce.
The DeFuniak Springs Walking Tour is a circle of the lake. Along the way, you'll peruse 39 historic buildings, all on the National Historic Register.
At 211 West Circle Drive, visitors will see a superb example of a Pointed Gothic Revival Church, the St. Agatha's Episcopal Church building (shown above right*), which dates from 1896.
This is the only original church from that Chautauqua era still standing in DeFuniak Springs. The church has gorgeous stain-glass windows and a hand-crafted pipe organ.
Editor's Note: Most of the historic homes are privately owned and not open to the public. That said, the exteriors -- with their turrets, double verandas, classic fluted columns, gingerbread trim and windows dormers -- are worth the trip. Plus, the lakeside setting makes for a pleasant stroll. If you prefer to drive, the circle area seems "sleepy" so unless you're visiting during a special event time, you can easily pull the car over and get out to take photos from the sidewalk.
Also, you should plan to stop in the Walton-DeFuniak Public Library (shown at left*).
It's the oldest structure in Florida originallybuilt as a library that's still serving that purpose.
In addition to perusing the building and its books, visitors will also discover a collection of Medieval armor and other artifacts.
Built around 1895, the distinctive blue Thomas House (shown at right*) with its pink trim is one of the town's most endearing examples of Queen Anne architecture.
Located at 188 West Circle Drive, the Thomas House has many special features.
For example, it boasts a three-story round turret with conical roof; patterned shingles; a two-story canted bay; and elaborate verge board and truss work.
Constructed in a Folk Victorian style, The Dream Cottage (shown at left*) was built in 1888 for famous poet Wallace Bruce.
Bruce was the former U.S. Consul to Scotland and a prominent leader in the Florida Chatauqua.
The home is located at 404 Circle Drive.
At 262 Circle Drive you'll discover The Verandas, an example of folk Victorian style (shown at right*).
The "steamboat" design features double wraparound verandas on the front and sides of the building.
The main house, maid's house, and even the wood-frame wire fence have been restored to their original design and condition.
Large palmetto trees on the property reflect Florida landscaping.
A lavish Queen Anne styled home (shown at left*) is located at 550 Circle Drive.
Constructed in 1907, the home was built for Kenneth Bruce, son of Wallace Bruce.
As a symbol of hospitality the original wrought-iron gate has never been fitted with a catch for closing.
A large collection of armor, colllected by Bruce, was originally displayed here, but now resides in the small library mentioned at the outset of this story.
At 772 Circle Drive is a Classical Revival style house (shown at right*) that was built in 1905 for Stuart Knox Gillis, a teacher and prominent attorney of the time.
Mrs. Gillis stenciled various designs on the walls of the first floor, a decorative technique that was not common at that time.
The house was given to Palmer College in 1931 to be used as a home for its president. That college operated through 1936.
Not all structures around the lake are so grandiose in style, though. Some are simple cottages with appealing architecture.
For example, the Thomas T. Wright Cottage at 234 Circle Drive (shown at left*) is an endearing building.
This charming board-and-batten Folk Victorian home was built for Colonel T.T. Wright, an early developer of the Florida Chautauqua and DeFuniak Springs.
In fact, Circle Drive was originally known as Wright Drive in his honor.
Train Depot Museum
A highlight of your walking tour is a stop at 1140 Circle Drive.
Located within the old train depot, the Walton County Heritage Museum (850-951-2127 or www.waltoncountyheritage.org) has several rooms of artifacts including Victorian quilts, antique furniture, old signs and train fare.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Elsewhere in Town
Head across the railroad tracks from the Train Depot Museum and you're in the heart of the old downtown of DeFuniak Springs. You can check out all the sites easily as it's only a five or six square block area.
The Big Store houses two shops with antiques, hand-made dolls and gifts. The recently opened Little Big Store is a general mercantile store patterned after those of the 20th century with authentic store fixtures of the era.
Definitely take a gander inside the newly renovated Hotel DeFuniak (877-DEFUNIAK or www.hoteldefuniak.com), located at the corner of 8th Street and US Highway 90. The hotel is shown at right*.
Or you might want to consider a stay at the hotel if you want to spend more than one day exploring the historic Circle and downtown area.
If visiting DeFuniak Springs, you might also check out the Busy Bee Cafe, which has one decidedly southern specialty -- a green fried tomato sandwich.
Just a few blocks away from the Hotel DeFuniak is the Walton County Courthouse building, dating from 1907.
On the courthouse grounds is Florida's first monument to its Confederate dead. (You can see the monument to the left of the courthouse in the photo at left.*)
A ladies' memorial association raised $250 to construct the monument. It was first erected in 1872 at Valley Church. The monument was later moved to Euchee Anna, the former county seat, before being moved to DeFuniak Springs.
As you drive out of downtown DeFuniak Springs, you'll see more Victorian and Queen Anne buildings along the way. One example is shown at right.*
Before getting back on I-10, you might want to follow signs up the hill to a local winery.
The aptly named Chautauqua Vineyards and Winery (www.chautauquawinery.com), 364 Hugh Adams Rd., offers wine tastings, a superb gift shop, views of the wine production process, and clean rest rooms.
The vineyards and winery (the visitor building is shown at left*) are owned by Paul and Kate Owens of Brewton, AL. The vineyard was planted in 1979.
Most popular with visitors is the the winery's semi-sweet red Muscadine wine made from Noble grapes.
One other perk. DeFuniak Springs is only about a 45-minute drive from the Beaches of South Walton, a collection of beaches offering everything from upscale golf, shopping, dining and accommodations to small beach cottages and condo rentals.
Info and Links
Beaches of South Walton: 800-822-6877 or www.beachesofsouthwalton.com
Walton County Heritage Association: 850-951-2127 or www.waltoncountyheritage.org
City of DeFuniak Springs: www.defuniaksprings.net/index.htm
Hotel DeFuniak: www.hoteldefuniak.com
Florida Chautauqua Assembly: www.floridachautauqua.org
Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood Foundation: www.chobf.org
Original New York State Chautauqua: www.ciweb.org
*All photos above are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.