Florida’s Oldest Library: DeFuniak Springs

Florida's Oldest Library: DeFuniak Springs 4

The St. Augustine Historical Society holds the distinction of being the oldest continually operating museum and historical society in Florida, founded in 1883. The honor of oldest library continuously operating in the state, however, does not belong to any in St. Augustine. While St. Augustine did have the oldest library in the state, it is no longer active and was not in a purpose-built structure. Given those qualifications, the oldest library in the state of Florida is the Walton-DeFuniak Library in DeFuniak Springs in Walton County. Located in DeFuniak Springs Historic District, the library has been continuously in operation in the same purpose-built building since 1886. Home to some 25,000 items, the library is currently run by the City of DeFuniak Springs, operated by donations from the city and Walton County Commissioners. The library and the town it stands in derive their name from Lieutenant Colonel Frederick R. De Funiak, an Italian-born Confederate States Army officer who later was involved with various railroad companies, including L&N, which controlled the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad that was responsible for the town’s development.

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Originally, the library was a product of the Chautauqua association, which was an adult-oriented education and social movement in the United States that became very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This organization sought to provide more educational and social event opportunities to help develop communities of educated and community-concerned citizens. Constructing and curating a library would help to not only educate the DeFuniak Springs community, but it would hopefully provide new opportunity to a town growing as a result of its railroad connections.

Local women as a part of the Ladies’ Aide Society, which later became the Ladies’ Library Association, were responsible for securing the land where the library was built. From 1886 to 1902, members of the association took turns running the library, until Alice Fellows was selected to serve as the first librarian, a position she held until she passed away in 1926. The group was largely responsible for securing the library’s collections early on, raising money for books by hosting meals and ice cream socials. They also generated income from memberships as well, utilizing the community as a means of sustaining the library until the city took over its management in the 1960s. The library was also one of only two libraries in Florida to be awarded a grant from the Carnegie Institute, though they were sadly forced to decline the offer as the city had other improvements considered more pertinent to be made.

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The Walton-DeFuniak Library stands out for another unique distinction as well in that it hosts a collection of all sorts of antique weapons and armor which were at one point owned by a professor at the nearby Palmer College, Kenneth Bruce. Bruce began collecting these weapons and armors while in Scotland in the 1880s and 1890s, as his father was the U.S Consul there. When Kenneth Bruce died in 1916, the weapons were willed to Palmer College, and remained there until the school closed due to the Great Depression. From there, the weapons and armor were taken to the DeFuniak Springs City Hall, where they remained from 1936 to 1945. Miraculously, the collections survived a major fire, and were transported around various locations in the county for display. They eventually arrived in the library in 1984, where they remain to this day.

 

Sources Consulted

https://www.co.walton.fl.us/461/DeFuniak-Springs-Library

https://www.defuniaksprings.net/945/Walton-DeFuniak-Library

https://thefloridachannel.org/videos/historical-markers-walton-defuniak-library/

https://www.wjhg.com/content/news/Panhandle-library-is-one-for-the-history-books-488069781.html

 

Written by Robert Covert