In 1881, railroad executive (and Confederate veteran) Colonel W. D. Chipley camped on the shore of a naturally round lake while surveying Florida’s panhandle for the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad. Local lore has it that Chipley was so struck by the beauty of the area that he declared, “Here a town shall be built!” That lake is now known as Lake DeFuniak and, true to Chipley’s proclamation, a town began to blossom.
Among the more surprising charms of DeFuniak Springs (named after the vice president of the railroad’s parent company) is the abundance of homes featuring stunning Victorian architecture, especially along Circle Drive, which surrounds the lake. Like many aspects of the community, these homes are linked to a rich history. Almost anyone you talk to in town is likely to mention Chautauqua (shuh- TAW-kwuh), an educational forum based in upstate New York that put DeFuniak Springs on the map in the late 19th century. After Chipley’s railroad station was built, the Chautauqua Assembly (which President Theodore Roosevelt once called “the most American thing in America”) made its winter home in DeFuniak. Perhaps the original snowbirds, many northerners involved with the assembly built their own winter homes around Lake DeFuniak, showcasing the ornate Victorian style that was in vogue at the time. A competition of sorts grew between these part-time residents, resulting in vast, ornately decorated homes as they tried to outdo each other.
The houses are now home to many full-time locals, including Dennis Ray, owner of the Little Big Store. This old-time general store brings back visitors on an annual basis for the old candy cigarettes and Claeys hard candies they loved as kids or the authentic butterscotch they can’t find anywhere else. The true charm, though, is the time warp, evident as soon as you walk through the door. “This is more than a store; I’m creating an experience for the people who walk in here,” says Ray, who is as friendly as he is knowledgeable about all things DeFuniak, and may even be able to sit by the old pipe stove in the shop to chat a while.
Beyond Ray’s store, the historic downtown district (which sits in about 10 square blocks, just north of the lake) is an antique shopper’s dream. It seems that every other storefront tempts with old-fashion wares, and some even do so with savory scents. Shops like Marie Lathinghouse’s Sanford & Sister Antiques offer soup and sandwiches for customers who have worked up an appetite strolling around town — or those who have done so by browsing the shelves overflowing with every type of collectible imaginable, from hand-powered kitchen appliances and tools to box cameras and walking sticks.
While on a walking tour, beautiful architecture isn’t the only thing to stop and see around Lake DeFuniak. Also along Circle Drive is Florida’s oldest continuously operating library. It was built as a one-room structure in 1887. The original librarian’s desk still sits in the entryway, along with another surprise element: a collection of medieval weapons and armor.
In the heart of the historic downtown district, the Hotel DeFuniak is the perfect launching point for exploring DeFuniak Springs, and the quaint bed-and- breakfast warrants some exploration as well. Built in 1920 and restored from top to bottom in 1997, each of the 11 rooms is adorably decorated with themed furnishings and fixtures. Choose between the art deco, Asian or French country rooms, to name a few, when booking your stay.
Adjacent to the hotel is Bogey’s Restaurant. Judging by the crowds that quickly gather in the lounge, it’s safe to say that locals flock here just as often as visitors. “You don’t have to go to Destin, wait in line and pay a huge price for a great meal,” muses one regular. Chef Brad Harding adds a gourmet touch to fresh seafood creations, such as the triggerfish St. Augustine (with mushrooms, red peppers and capers in a lemon-butter sauce) and soft-shell crabs finished in a garlic beurre blanc. Be sure to check Bogey’s Facebook page — being the first to speak a daily Humphrey Bogart-related quote to Michelle, co-owner and manager, earns you a discount on your check. Bogey’s is also the spot for a nightcap, as the lounge stays lined with locals aft er the tables empty. Other bites not to miss are the fried-green-tomato sandwich at Murray’s Cafe and the Chicago-style hot dog at H & M Hot Dog, an institution since 1947 and once owned by the current mayor, C. Harold Carpenter.
- Location — DeFuniak Springs is 75 miles east of Pensacola and 30 miles north of Grayton Beach and the Gulf of Mexico.
- Place to Stay — Hotel Defuniak
- Best Time to Visit — January’s Chautauqua
- Where to Eat — Bogey’s Restaurant, Murray’s Cafe and H & M Hot Dog 850-892-9100
- Shopping — Little Big Store 850-892-6066, Sanford & Sister Antiques 850-520-4653 and Sotheby’s Antiques 850-892-6292
- Resources — City of DeFuniak Springs