Friday, November 22, 2019

The Florida Chautauqua Assembly, Forerunner of Adult Education

Chautauqua's 4000-seat Hall of Brotherhood, on the National Historic Register.
By Marilyn Turk

When friend and fellow writer Lenora Worth and I decided to write a Christmas book together, we took a trip to Defuniak Springs, not far from where we live in the Florida panhandle, planning to use the quaint little town as a model for our setting. We learned that the town was the home of the southern Chautauqua Assembly, so our research led to the origin of the event and why it took place there, far from any large cities.
The first Chautauqua was organized by a Methodist minister and a businessman in 1874 and took place on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York during the summer. Its initial goal was to train Sunday school teachers in an outdoor, camp-like format. However, as the gatherings grew in popularity, other notable speakers such as William Jennings Bryan, social and political leaders, as well as performers, were added, expanding the event into an adult education project called the Chautauqua Institution. Due to the popularity of the event, its leaders sought a more southern location where they could host a similar event during the winter months.

Original plans for the Florida Chautauqua
At the same time, Florida was recovering from the Civil War. In 1881, the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad was incorporated. As a survey party set out from Pensacola to survey the route for the railroad, they happened upon an open area with a perfectly round lake. 

The party camped on the shores of the lake and decided the place would be the perfect spot for a town. They named the place Lake DeFuniak after the president of the railroad, Frederick DeFuniak. Later the name was changed to Defuniak Springs, recognizing the source of the lake’s water.

Hotel DeFuniak
Up to 4000 people a day arrived during the Assembly

When the founders of the new town heard that the New York Chautauqua was seeking a southern location, they invited the leaders to locate the winter assembly at Lake Defuniak. The Florida Chautauqua was thus formed and opened in 1885.

Original Assembly building held 2500
The grounds consisted of the passenger train depot which primarily operated as the main entry to the resort, the lavish Chautauqua Hotel, a charming small library, the 2500-seat tabernacle, the Chautauqua Art Department and land plots where wealthy Americans built Victorian cottages to stay during the Winter assemblies. The annual assemblies operated in that location until 1927.

1884 library

Today, the 4000-seat assembly hall that replaced the original tabernacle, the quaint little library and Victorian homes still stand beside the lake, and the old depot is a museum.

What a perfect place for Springlake, the location of The Christmas Gazebo.

The Christmas Gazebo - Two Christmas novellas

The Christmas Gift by Marilyn Turk

In 1910, amateur photographer Lettie Morgan accompanies her aunt to Springlake, Florida for the annual Springlake Assembly. Jonathon Townsend, wealthy heir to the family fortune and first-time chairman of the event, wants the event to run smoothly.
But when the train bringing guests to the Assembly is robbed, Jonathon, who is part-owner of the railroad, must find the robber and appease the attendees. Can the young photographer who’s captured his attention provide clues to the robbery?
As Christmas approaches and the Assembly comes to a close, will Jonathon find a way to entice Lettie to stay?

The Christmas Surprise by Lenora Worth

When Lynsey Milton comes to Springlake, Florida, to revitalize the town’s historic main street, Jon Townsend, the heir apparent, resists helping her. He’d rather return to the quiet life of a country lawyer. Lynsey needs to seal this deal since a promotion is in her future. But Jon wants to stay in his Victorian mansion, keeping his grief to himself. He won’t fall for a woman who’ll soon leave.
When they make a discovery in the gazebo by the lake, Lynsey gets Jon into the Christmas spirit. Can an old gazebo and a beautiful vintage ball gown bring them together?


  1. Interesting post! Do people still live there in the houses, or is it a museum?

  2. Defuniak Springs is still a town and people live in the Victorian houses. In fact, in December, all the houses decorate for Christmas and they have a nightly Christmas lights display. On Dec. 7, there will be an Open House for an opportunity to see inside the homes.

  3. Interesting post about your trip to Defuniak Springs for you and Lenore. Thank you for sharing. The Christmas Gazebo will be a fun read this Christmas season.