The Florida Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood

The Florida Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood is the physical embodiment of every good and pure idea our founding fathers fostered as they established DeFuniak Springs. A Winter Assembly in the Land of Summer.

In 1929, a local newspaper report read, “DeFuniak Springs enjoys the distinction of a town built about and idea. It’s history and that of Chautauqua are one, and its action is but thought materialized.” The Hall of Brotherhood you see before you now is the perfect symbol of the Chautauqua idea. The majestic building was and is the home of the Florida Chautauqua Assembly here in DeFuniak Springs. 

Chautauqua, originally founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent in 1874, was a religious teachers’ educational experiment for summer learning. They wanted a formal training session for young men and women leading Methodist and other Protestant denominational Sunday school classes. Early success pushed the men to broaden the course offerings to include music, arts, academic subjects, and physical education. The success of the Chautauqua Institute gave birth to the “Chautauqua Movement”. In 6 short years, the Chautauqua brand was established as a national forum for public discussion of current events, literature, religion and politics.  

The origin of Chautauqua in DeFuniak Springs can be traced back to a warm summer night in 1881. Several members of a railroad surveying party, led by Colonel William Dudley Chipley, discovered a grassy slope surrounding a nearly perfectly round, spring-fed lake. Soon after, Colonel Chipley began developing the area as a railroad outpost.  In 1884, Mr. Charles C. Banfill of Lake DeFuniak (As it was originally named) had a chance encounter with Dr. A. H. Gillet of New York. Mr Banfill was visiting Jacksonville in search for a new preacher while Mr. Gillet was touring Florida in search of a suitable location for a winter Chautauqua. In Dr. Gillet’s own words, “He overheard a conversation regarding the location of a Chautauqua Assembly and said, ‘I have the very place, come and see it.’” The men travelled by train to Lake DeFuniak and, through torrential rain, they surveyed the grounds. All agreed this was the ideal spot for the winter retreat. Colonel Chipley, along with Dr. Gillet, travelled to Chautauqua, New York, met John Vincent, and regaled him with stories of the beauty of Lake DeFuniak.  

Dr. Gillet was named superintendent, Colonel Chipley was named Vice President and Mr. Banfill served as Treasurer. The men quickly made arrangements to hold a Chautauqua Winter Retreat around the lake from February 10th to March 7th, 1885.  

Advertisements to Chautauqua patrons were bold in their predictions of the new assembly assuring that, “no pains will be spared to make the lecture program one of the very best.” 

Several structures were erected to house the assembly, consisting of classes during the day and various types of entertainment at night. To accommodate the growing number of attendees, a large auditorium called the Tabernacle was built for the 1887 session. The Tabernacle is described as “the most complete and sightly building to be found in the round of the Chautauqua Assemblies.” “It is 100 feet square … entirely enclosed, floored, well warmed and lighted, and comfortably seated to accommodate 2,500 people.” The Tabernacle was used daily during the Winter Chautauqua Assembly to accommodate large crowds for daily lectures from nearly 100 touring guest speakers.  

One such speaker was Wallace Bruce – a man who would play a substantial role in the growth and success of the Florida Chautauqua. Bruce became an early fixture at the Florida Chautauqua, even building a winter home on the grounds. Wallace Bruce produced a majestic design for the Florida Chautauqua with a Grand Auditorium as the focal point for all activities and events.  

Construction of the Chautauqua Auditorium was completed in 1909 at a cost of $28,000. The original building containing the Yale Hall, Washington Hall and the Hall of Scottish History and Literature, and a portico at each end in addition to the three across the front. The porticos were supported by 40 columns and the structure boasted 150 columns total. To pay for the magnificent structure, Bruce sold naming rights for the columns for a fee of $100. Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased on in honor of George Stephenson, renowned “Father of the Railways” and Senator George Wetmore secured another for General Nathaniel Greene of the Continental Army. The building topped by the “Lantern of Religious Trust,” and is considered by many to be a stylized replica of the capital building in Washington D. C.  

The 1909 Florida Chautauqua pamphlet opened with, “The Florida Chautauqua celebrates her 25th anniversary…with the dedication of a new auditorium capable of seating 4,000 people and Hall of Brotherhood, with imposing columns and dome, containing rooms for classes in elocution, literature, Bible study and music. In short, the best thought, the best expression, the best work born of minds…are placed before the patrons of our Chautauqua.”  

At the dedication General John B. Gordon addressed the crowd as he laid the corner stone with these words, “The Hall of Brotherhood tells the story. Every beam and timber, each brick and stone that shall complete its structure, from this supporting cornerstone now laid to its finished turret, will speak to coming generations of the sentiment that suggested it. American brotherhood, a reunited country, on which depends not only the life and perpetuity of the Republic, but the welfare of universal humanity, are the glorious realities which this Hall is to represent. In the name, therefore, of every state in this Union, and of our priceless freedom, invoking Heaven’s blessing upon it, I dedicate this spot where the Hall of Brotherhood is to stand a holy invocation to the everlasting fraternity of the American People.”  

The Hall of Brotherhood you see today is merely the grand entrance to the imposing structure that once stood on these grounds. But this building is the icon that lives in each member of this community. It reminds us of our past and points us to our future. And it serves as the perfect starting point for your journey of exploration of the Florida Chautauqua Campus around Lake DeFuniak. Please explore the Hall of Brotherhood before continuing on your tour. 

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