The Chautauqua Assembly returns to DeFuniak Springs, the Land of Summer

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Not far from the emerald coast of the Florida panhandle, a small town with a grand history nestles amid the pines and oaks. This is DeFuniak Springs. The downtown district is home to a variety of businesses housed in the familiar architecture of southern towns. Just across the tracks, past the red caboose, is Circle Drive—home of the Chautauqua Assembly.

The Chautauqua Assembly is DeFuniak Springs’ cultural inheritance, a legacy from the past that may be the key to the town’s future. The Chautauqua Assembly is an educational and recreational gathering that has grown from a one-day event in 1996 to an eleven-day celebration from February 26 to March 7 this year.
“This is Disney for the mind […] an intellectual, cultural and spiritual feast,” says Diane Pickett, Founder and President of the Chautauqua Center, Inc., in DeFuniak Springs. “The Chautauqua is an opportunity to bring to the fore contemporary issues in a civil and civic discourse.”

The first Chautauqua began in New York over a century ago as a gathering place for the arts, education, religion and recreation. Founded by two Methodist ministers, the Chautauqua Institution was the forerunner of adult community education and the start of the nation’s first book club, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, which still exists. The Chautauqua Institution grew in popularity and was visited by nine presidents, including Clinton, Reagan, Roosevelt and Grant. The Institution continues to offer nine-week summer courses.

Harsh New York winters dictated the need for a winter location for the Chautauqua. A Winter Assembly in the Land of Summer was established in DeFuniak Springs in 1885. Warm, sunny days and the access to the railroad made the town the perfect seasonal getaway. Florida’s cultural tourism is rooted in the Chautauqua; for more than thirty years, thousands traveled by train to the event. The advent of newspapers, movies, and automobiles led to the decline of the movement in the l920's. Nearly seventy-five years later, DeFuniak Springs would reclaim the Chautaquan heritage, through the direction and efforts of Ms. Picket.

Rebuild it and they will come:
The Chautauqua and the pivotal role it could have for the future of DeFuniak Springs became Pickett’s focus. She jokes that, when she arrived in DeFuniak Springs, she decided the place would have to get a lot more interesting if she were going to live there. DeFuniak Springs faced the same problems shared by other small towns. Believing that the historical richness of the

Chautauqua was DeFuniak Springs' key to revitalization, Pickett was a woman with a vision.
While reviving the Chautauqua, Pickett fell in love with DeFuniak Springs, a place she describes as a large neighborhood comprised of people who know each other extremely well and still like one another. “This is Mayberry with a mission. This town has so much to offer. We have a unique history, wonderful volunteers, civic pride and a burgeoning writer and artist community.” Her interest in the town includes her active support of DeFuniak Springs’ emerging arts.
Three murals, a desk, a basin and several other pieces showcased in Pickett’s home feature the work of artist Mary Vinson. Porcelain art was one of the original arts taught at the first Chautauqua. Vinson, who will turn eighty this year, will be teaching and demonstrating the porcelain art the Assembly.

Disney for the mind, 2004:
The year’s Chautauqua Assembly includes subjects as diverse as medicine, craft workshops, photography, special women’s programming, senior issues, beginner and advanced art lessons, health and fitness lectures and bioterrorism. Visitors will find heritage art programs (soap making, weaving, candle making), juried art shows, children’s craft programs, Uncle Remus stories, musical performances, adult and children’s fashion shows and opera.

Jan Turnquist, the living historian at the Louisa May Alcott Museum in Massachusetts, will perform a mono drama. Woman’s Day magazine Lifestyles editor Janet Sobesky and Brent Pallas will host “Business Etiquette for the New Millennium.” Dr. Sandy D'Alemberte is one of the keynote speakers. D’Alemberte is the Pres Emeritus FSU, former Dean of FSU Law School and a former Dade County legislator.

Victorian teas, period costumes, Civil War living-history encampments, quilt shows, an antique auction, walking tours of the historic district and the tour of homes will complete the ambience. City manager Mike Standley says the city is pleased with the Chautauqua Assembly, “not just because it brings people to town, but it preserves the town’s heritage.” This preservation is most apparent in the dedicated restoration of the homes on Circle Drive. To stroll down Circle Drive is to be instantly be transported to the late 1800’s; it is truly like stepping onto a movie set. Over three dozen Victorian homes edge the perfectly circular Lake DeFuniak, located in the heart of the community. Many of these incredible homes will be opened at various times during the eleven days.

One home on the tour, recently featured in the December issue of Victorian Homes, is a beautiful hundred-year-old-home owned and impeccably restored by Drs. Dennis and Brenda Ray. All of the antiques are in operating order, and the home has the original pine plank flooring. Dennis Ray’s knowledge of antiques and the period is extensive; there are scores of stories he is willing to share. Another stately building is the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Programs were presented in 4,000-seat outdoor auditorium to the Chatauquans who gathered on the shores of Lake DeFuniak each winter.

While the novelty of modern marvels wears thin, factors that led to a diminished interest in the Chautauqua Assembly may be what compel people to embrace the event again. In a society suffering from information overload and industrialization—historical preservation is fueling cultural tourism. Overamped folks are seeking the spiritual renewal and esthetic discovery the Chautauqua fosters. “The Chautauqua is definitely the most creative thing I have been involved with,” says Pickett, “It occupies your heart and mind each and every day.” This winter residents and tourists can once again discover the proud legacy of the Winter Assembly in the Land of Summer in DeFuniak Springs, “a little town doing great things.”

Advance passes are available or individual tickets may be purchased at the door. Prices range from $6-$l5 for lectures and performances. Many events are free. For a complete copy of the program, which contains an order by mail form, send a SASE to The Chautauqua Center, 2760 US Hwy 33l South, DeFuniak Springs Fla. or telephone 800-822-6877 or check the web site at www.florida-chautauqua-center.org

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