The history of the Chautauqua Assembly starts before the Civil War in Chautauqua, New York. Its early beginnings were as informal camp meetings begun in 1855 by Methodists on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. Seventeen years later a Methodist minister and a layman in the Methodist faith expanded the camp meetings into formal education for Sunday School teachers. It was promptly successful and in 1874 the program was organized as the Chautauqua Institution. This became a family event combining religious education and the family summer vacation. The Institute broaden its spiritual education to a wide variety of belief systems and added lectures from reformers of the Gilded Age, musical performances, scientific lectures, literature, and arts and crafts.
The popularity of the summer program led to replications across the country that included camp facilities, permanent buildings and the same or similar lectures. In August 1884 the Florida Chautauqua Association was formed by representatives of the New York Chautauqua Institution and some local residents of DeFuniak Springs. It became the winter location for the Chautauqua Institution. For the next thirty-seven years DeFuniak Springs hosted the winter presentation of lectures and musical performances and became known as one of the educational hubs for the panhandle.
The first Chautauqua program presented in DeFuniak Springs was in February 1885. It was quite an event. W. D. Chipley, who was instrumental in bringing the Institute to DeFuniak Springs, offered discount railroad fares and many of the local homes, hotels and boardinghouses made room for the expected visitors. The Chautauqua Hotel was completed in early 1885 and was at full capacity for the first program. Folks could camp; either bringing their own tents or renting or purchasing them in town. Folks attending could purchase land from Chipley’s Lake DeFuniak Land Company and build cottages. It is estimated that about 3,000 people came to DeFuniak Springs for the first program. Diverse topics from geology to literature to morality were presented and craft and music classes were in abundance.
The Temple, built for meeting space for the event, quickly became a great place to hold annual conferences. In March 1886, the Chautauqua Assembly hosted about 700 Florida teachers and school superintendents for sessions on teaching methods, educational subjects and theory. This led to the formation of the Florida Education Association. Back in October, I introduced my great-grandfather, William Franklin King. Grandpa King left for DeFuniak Springs about 1890 and attended the State Normal College there for two years, receiving his Licensure of Instruction in 1892. He was there attending college when the Chautauqua Assembly was at its peak. In 1891 Washington Gladden, an American Congregational pastor and leader in the Social Gospel movement, presented six lectures on “Labor and Property” and a Professor Felkal gave four lectures on astronomy. Some of these lectures even included a test at the end! I’ve often wondered what lectures Grandpa King would have attended while there and whether he went back for subsequent programs after returning home. He had an uncle and cousins in the area so it would have been easy. Grandpa would have certainly attended any of the spiritual presentations and likely the scientific ones. He loved music so any of these performances would have likely been on his agenda. I can picture him enjoying his time in learning and listening and engaging in discussion with other like-minded folks. If I could travel back in time, I would spend the day with him at the Chautauqua Assembly.
DeFuniak Springs was the winter home for the Chautauqua Institute until 1922 (correction: The Chautauqua Assembly tells me recent research indicates the last one was actually 1928). Unfortunately for Florida, one of its persistent problems – land speculation and over-heated buying leading to a land bust – was just around the corner. Florida started its great depression early with a land crash in the mid-1920s that slowly crept into other aspects of the economy. DeFuniak Springs was not immune, nor was the rest of the panhandle. The stock market crash of 1929 sped up the process. But like all good things, the Florida Chautauqua Assembly didn’t really die, it just lay dormant for a time.
In 1996, the Florida Chautauqua Center was formed to revive the Florida Chautauqua Assembly. The upcoming winter program will be January 26-29, 2017. The program is online at The Florida Chautauqua Assembly. I’ll make up my mind soon but given my current activities with Yellow River Baptist Church and Grandpa King’s love of sacred harp singing I suspect Piney Grove will be on my Saturday agenda. Friday is proving a challenge since as of 2017 I am still not able to be in two places at once!
Frankly, sometimes I get a bit bothered by how our society has come to view the art of general learning. At times I feel there is little support these days for delving into subjects for the sake of understanding all of what surrounds us and how we got to where we are. Apparently, our need for fast cars, instant phone connections, high-speed Internet and microwave dinners has become a focus on learning a skill at a minimal level and memorizing a few basics or not even bothering to go that far. There appears to be a complete disdain for many areas of science though it fuels everything from our concept of health to the gadgets that surround us. Spelling has become a lost art and basic adding and subtracting requires a calculator. Many social sciences, like history, are presented as dull collections of facts with no effort to make it come alive or meaningful to today.
I’m sounding old. I use to hate it when my parents would launch into one of those long-winded recitations on how life had gone to Hades in a hand-basket because of whatever was irritating them. And I particularly hated my Dad’s admonitions about ending sentences with prepositions and dangling participles. If I said, “Where is it at?” he would respond, “Between the a and the t.” And then I would groan (way under my breathe!). But I do think we’ve lost some important thinking and reasoning skills along the way. Everything has been dumbed down to what fits in a sound bite or a tweet. The late 19th and early 20th century society seems to me to have valued learning for its own sake much more than our current one does. And I really am fascinated by the social and political events of the Gilded Age (there will be a post later in the year on the politics of the period). The panhandle saw a number of educational facilities start up and schools and education became much more available across the state during this period. While many of these institutions did not survive the Depression and WWII, they were a testament to our ancestors’ thirst for understanding and quest for a full and rich experience of life.
Okay, lecture over. I find the Chautauqua Assembly a fascinating part of our northwest Florida history. It was started during a dynamic period in our past and provides a glimpse into our ancestors’ way of life and how they visualized their part in that. Today, as yesterday, it was an excellent family outing and a chance to learn something new, appreciate our history and be thankful that our winters are generally better than most areas north of us. This winter we can be truly thankful about the latter, even though it was a bit chilly on the 7th and 8th. One of the best places in North America to experience 25 degrees at the beginning of the week and 75 degrees at the end!
Until next time when we will visit Escambia Farms.
- Utopian Communities of Florida: A History of Hope by Nick Wynne and Joe Knetsch, The History Press, 2016, Kindle edition
- Florida Chautauqua Assembly
- The Chautauqua Institution
- The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 by Joseph F. Kett, Stanford University Press, 1994.