City and state officials will unveil a new attraction for heritage tourists on Friday, Aug. 2, at the DeFuniak Springs Visitors Center, located at 1162 Circle Drive, at 10:30 AM. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.
The attraction, funded with a $49,500 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, is comprised of a large 1884 map and story of the area’s resort/campus opened in 1885 for an annual multi-week event called the Florida Chautauqua Assembly. The map identifies buildings and sites on the once-gated grounds for visitors to visit and to explore the contents of individual panels (also called interpretive panels) of information and photographs relating to that site.
“Our historic district is coveted by thousands of visitors annually because of its Victorian-era charm,” said DeFuniak Springs Mayor Bob Campbell. “What many don’t understand is that they are stepping onto a once-gated resort/campus which attracted as many as 4,000 people a day at the height of its popularity.”
Thousands of people arrived at the resort daily from 1885 to 1928 during the annual assembly to learn about subjects in the areas of art, education, recreation and religion. Notable speakers and lecturers included abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Democratic presidential nominee and orator William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president Thomas Marshall, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” songwriter Julia Ward Howe, and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.
Records show that Governor William McKinley was also invited by resort/campus leaders to speak at the assembly before he became president, but no documents confirm whether he actually visited DeFuniak Springs.
Seventeen interpretive panels will be in place throughout the grounds for self-guided tours at the Aug. 2 grand opening. Tours begin at the Visitors Center with one grand panel showcasing the 1884 map of the resort/campus flanked by two other panels explaining the history of the Florida Chautauqua and its impact on American culture. Four 12-foot cast iron lighted lampposts frame the main exhibit.
The event will be comprised of a ribbon cutting, welcoming remarks by Mayor Campbell, acknowledgements to state and organization leaders and remarks by “The Honorable Wallace Bruce” (interpreted by Chuck Puckett of DeFuniak Springs), who was the longest-serving president of the Florida Chautauqua and served as President Benjamin Harrison’s consul general to Edinburgh, Scotland.
“We are grateful to the Florida Division of Historical Resources for making this heritage tourism attraction possible,” said Mayor Campbell. “We invite everyone to celebrate this historic moment and to be among the first to… walk in the footsteps of presidents, first ladies, American poets and other notables in American history.”
– Christopher Mitchell