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The Heritage of the Herald and Breeze

By Ron Kelley

The heritage of DeFuniak Springs, its founding, the establishment of winter home of the Chautauqua Assembly, and the Herald – Breeze newspapers are entwined so thoroughly, they cannot be separated.

In 1929, one edition of The Breeze contained a special third section, a kind of extra insert or tab. It was called Woman’s Club Edition and gave a brief history of how DeFuniak Springs was found and formed.

“The common origin may be traced back to a summer night in 1881, when three members of a surveying party, seeking a route for the projected railroad across the state, lay down on a grassy slope surrounding the little lake, which has since been poetically described as ‘God’s crowning circle, wrought with compass true.’”

Col. W.D. Chipley, Maj. W. J. Van Kirk and Thomas T. Wright set about vigorously to bring their discovery, and their vision for it, to fruition. A land company was formed and a hotel built.

An early DeFuniak Springs resident, C. C. Banfill, learned that Dr. Gillet, representing the original New York Chautauqua, was in Florida looking for a suitable location for a winter assembly. Contacts were made, invitations were sent and Gillet traveled by train to DeFuniak Springs and arrived during a torrential downpour. Despite seeing the town at its worst, the potential possibilities for development won the day and, according to the “Camp And Fireside,” published later in Cincinnati, “the ultimate result was the Florida Chautauqua Association,” created in August 1884.

From there, it all began. King’s General Store soon opened. Homes began to appear. The McKinnons, Cawthons, Campbells and others joined together to forge a lovely little town out of a wilderness that sat on the slopes of a big pond.

A wooden county courthouse was built, which later burned. A large auditorium, called “the Tabernacle” was built in what is now known as the Lakeyard. It was there the first winter Chautauqua Assembly was held. The purpose of the Chautauqua Movement was to promote “better educational advantages and the advancement of religious and virtuous ideals.” DeFuniak Springs became the official winter home for the Chautauqua Assembly. The town quickly grew and flourished, enjoying its status as a cultural mecca along the beautiful Panhandle.

The first Assembly was organized and managed by Dr. Gillet, who continued to organize the Assembly each year until his death in 1892. Among the guests on that first program was a guest speaker named Wallace Bruce, a man who would prove to have the most significant impact on the town of any single individual, either before or since. Wallace Bruce, described as a poet and scholar, already acclaimed on the lecture circuit, was instantly enchanted with the place.

According to the Breeze, “Mr. Bruce came, saw, and was captivated by the beauties of nature, the Southern sunshine and balmy air. “Though a Northerner by birth, he was among the first to build a home on what is now called Circle Drive. He is responsible for spearheading the drive to build the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, the stately building that still stands on the shore of Lake DeFuniak. That building, and the longs seasons of lectures, concerts and performances it hosted, has played an important role in the development of DeFuniak Springs.

Wallace Bruce also built a winter home he called “The Dream Cottage,” which was – for years – described as the house with a pine tree growing through the veranda. Next came “Pansy Cottage, the home of Mrs. Alden of Cambridge, Massachusetts, author of the “Pansy books,” popular with youth in the 1870s.

Into this idyllic and tranquil setting – wouldn’t you know it? – the press soon arrived and set up shop, staking its claim as historians, town criers and the most reliable source of news for the populace.

Most people know the DeFuniak Springs Herald was established in 1888. Most people also think the Herald is the county’s oldest newspaper. However, that’s not exactly true, although it’s not exactly false, either.

The DeFuniak Springs Herald was not the first newspaper to be published in DeFuniak Springs. A newspaper called, “The Signal” was the first newspaper in Walton County. A gentleman by the name of W.B. Saunders was the pioneering editor, publishing the first paper in 1884. After his untimely death, the paper continued for a while thanks to the determination of his wife. Mrs. Saunders, with the assistance of Mrs. Clara Dryer continued to put out the paper for some time. However, it proved too large a burden and they sold it to Dr. Henry. Dr. Henry sold it to a stock company. By this circuitous route, it soon landed in the arms of Larkin Cleveland, who, as owner and publisher, re-named the paper the DeFuniak Springs Herald. Cleveland wrote in the somewhat grandiose style popular in that day. He kept the townspeople informed and amused for decades, and his passing was mourned in newspapers across the Florida Panhandle.

While the Herald was putting out its weekly paper, other would-be media moguls arrived to try their hand at the newspaper business.

The second journalistic effort was “The Critic,” under the management of a Mr. Coulter and Mr. Shugart. It folded nearly as quickly as it appeared. Next came “The Rambler” under the management of Mrs. Sallie Cummings. It was noted at the time that the lady’s “idiosyncrasies and their consequences would make an interesting narrative, but, of course, that’s another story.”

In 1892, Royal W. Storrs arrived and opened “The Breeze.” Nearly 40 years later, the Breeze reported that “under his energetic and able direction, (The Breeze) has developed into an acknowledged influence, and is today one of the leading papers of West Florida.” After his death, management then passed to J.B. Allen for several years and it was then purchased by Royal’s brother, Howard C. Storrs.

The Breeze circa 1895
Over the years, the Herald and the Breeze chronicled the lives of local citizens, their fortunes, travels and guests. Both covered the start of WWI and II and everything in between. Every Chautauqua Winter Assembly was publicized and critiqued. People were arrested and fined for cursing or swearing in public and for spitting in the streets. At least one person was charged with an un-nameable offense. The charges, never officially released, were later dismissed, still un-named.

Gov. Sydney J. Catts fought for and captured the Governor’s Mansion in 1917 for a single term in Tallahassee. A Democrat, he actually gained the governship with the Prohibition Party, which still exists. After his term, Catts returned to DeFuniak Springs. He remained a colorful character and launched two unsuccessful campaigns for governor. He was charged with counterfeiting, but was never convicted. It’s all in the pages of the Herald and The Breeze.
Temple of Truth  circa 1920

In the 1940s, readers will find accounts of the new concrete Choctawhatchee Bay Bridge, with its shiny, new draw-bridge, that effectively ended the need for the daily ferry boat trips. WWII was well-covered with news about local men and women who were fighting in faraway lands, as well as efforts on the home front to gather up rubber tires and scrap metal, hold civil defense drills and other war-effort activities.

The early campaign of a young political whipper-snapper named Bob Sikes was also documented, along with poll taxes and war bonds, the murder of Sheriff Bob Gatlin and the endless flotsam and jetsam of small-town life.

Eventually, The Breeze was purchased by the Herald, the company’s assets were taken by hand from the Breeze’s final office, which was in the rear of what is now the Triangle Chevrolet-Buick building on 7th Street. The paper, ink, type set and office supplies were walked down the alley to the back of the Herald office at 640 Baldwin Avenue, close to 6th Street. The Herald occupied that spot for nearly 60 years.

In 1970, the Herald-Breeze was bought by Larry and Merle Woodham of Woodham Family Publishing Company. At one time, they owned The Herald-Breeze, The Holmes County Advertiser, the Washington County News, the Florala News and two smaller community papers in Bay County.

Today, Larry and Merle still publish The Florala News. Their son, Gary, owns and operates the Herald – Breeze. With major development south of the Bay, the Breeze has become The Beach Breeze. Although both owned by Gary Woodham, the Herald and Breeze maintain their own cultural identities and offer different news to different communities. Combined together, they do what they have done since their founding 120 years ago – provide the most reliable, factual and timely news of any news source in Walton County.

In the last four years, the Herald-Breeze has gone from black and white to color, updated its style of reporting, launched a website, moved its business offices for the first time in over 60 years, moved its printing office from Florala to DeFuniak Springs, instituted new features and new writers and increased its subscriber base. It is fortunate that copies of the Herald and Breeze have been saved since the newspapers were established. Before 1910, the collection is a bit spotty, but some actual issues were preserved in plastic. From 1910 to 1969 issues are available for viewing and research by the public at the Walton County Courthouse. Most were photocopied, but there are actual newspapers, too. The DeFuniak Springs Library also has a smaller collection of our papers. From 1970 to the present, issues are kept at the Herald office, now located across from the red caboose, at 720 Baldwin Avenue.

Newly-discovered special newspaper tabs from 1892-93, highlighting those Chautauqua Assembly programs were given to the Walton County Heritage Museum and are currently on display.

The DeFuniak Springs Herald and The Beach Breeze, like history, like time itself, marches on.