A visit to two villages that still share the nineteenth century’s conviction that we can communicate with the dead
We walk down a street that seems lifted from a Victorian-era children’s book, and there, on the white clapboard cottage’s wall, is the small sign we have been told to look for: MRS. HANSON—MEDIUM . Reverend Hanson answers the door, and behind her sits Mr. Hanson, with his newspaper, in what can only be called a front parlor. We are invited in, but only my wife, Hayden, may enter the reading room, lest my “vibrations” disturb the clarity of Mrs. Hanson’s focus. On the left of the entrance to the reading room, pinned to the wall, is Hanson’s certificate of ordination from the International General Assembly of Spiritualists and her Florida State business license, entitling her to give readings from her home.
Psychic “channeling” is no recent development in America, and the New Age movement we know today is really only the most recent iteration of a feature of the nation’s religious and spiritual landscape that can be traced back deep into our colonial past. Nor did the country’s fascination with communes and “intentional” small communities start in the 1960s. By the end of the nineteenth century there were dotted across the nation villages, sometimes called camps or colonies, devoted to the practice of the same metaphysical disciplines that are in vogue today. Some were permanent from the beginning, others were inhabited only seasonally, and most have disappeared or shrunk to mere remnants of a larger past. We know of Utopians such as the Shakers because of their lovingly maintained buildings and their furniture, which touches us with its beautiful, economical style. But we have only a removed sense of their communities as living centers. Yet their lesser-known cousins, the villages of the American Spiritualist movement, are still to be found, as I have discovered, tucked away here and there across the land. Two of them—Lily Dale, in New York, and Cassadaga, in Florida—are remarkably well-preserved examples of the American camp style.
Lily Dale—formally, Lily Dale Assembly—founded in 1879, is located on 173 acres in Chautauqua County in upstate New York, not far from Lake Erie. Built along the banks of a small lake a mile from the town of Cassadaga and Highway 60, it is the mother of all Spiritualist communities in America and describes itself as “the world’s largest center for Spiritualism.”
Lily Dale began as an auditorium tent around which smaller tents on platforms were erected for the summer season, when families gathered to hear speakers and ministers there. By the 1880s the tents had become permanent structures notable for their small scale, ginger-bread scrollwork, and encircling screened porches, homes built in a time before television and air conditioning, when sitting on your porch in the dark talking with friends was an appreciated pleasure. The streets are narrow and tree-shaded, but as soon as I go through the gates, I can see that more than a century of New York weather has taken its toll. Some cottages are pristine, but others are what realtors would call fixer-uppers.
Susan Glasier, executive director of the assembly, who answers my many questions, tells me that the town is still seasonal, “although we have a permanent population of about 275 people. Our season runs from the last Friday in June to September 5, and during that time the population doubles.” She adds, “Visitors are always welcome,” and about 22,000 a year stop by, though there seem to be fewer than a dozen the day we are there at the height of the season.
The nostalgic architecture, though, is not what first catches my attention. Rather, it is the small signs hanging in cottage gardens that say things such as KITTY OSBORNE—MEDIUM . This is a religious village; its residents are practitioners of their faith’s central tenet, “the demonstrated fact of communication, by the means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World”—those who are physically dead. Modern Spiritualism is informed in many ways by one of America’s great religious impulses, transcendentalism. In the same solidly American theological realm reside Emerson, Thoreau, and, some say, Abraham Lincoln.
Lily Dale is a company town, the land owned by Lily Dale Assembly, Incorporated, and the houses on 99-year leases. It practices a cottage industry whose products are readings and energetic healings. There are between 10 to 15 mediums, individuals “sensitive to vibrations from the spirit world,” in permanent residence, and their number grows to 40 during the season. Many more in Lily Dale are healers. Most carry the title Reverend and are ministers under the umbrella of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, forming a loose, broad community of believers as old as the Mormons.
At the northern edge of the hamlet stands the Forest Temple, a modest, white, open-air structure facing many rows of outdoor seating. At the back is a green and white stained-glass window bearing the words Memory of My Mother . Below the window is a small mirror with black writing over its silvery surface. It says, “This temple erected by B. F. Bartlett and dedicated in remembrance of his mother Obera Bartlett.” There is no one there as I walk around, but a woman passing by tells me to come to the auditorium for the public service at two-thirty, when there will be a talk and someone will channel.
Near the Forest Temple is the Healing Temple, where the laying on of hands has been practiced for more than a century. Across the street from the temples is a museum in a former school. Like most middle-class people of the nineteenth century, the residents of Lily Dale had great respect for education, and the Andrew Jackson Davis Lyceum, one of the town’s largest buildings, attests to this conviction. Largely forgotten today, Andrew Jackson Davis was a celebrity in his time. Author and lecturer, awarded an M.D. late in life, he was also the founder of the lyceum school system, which became a big part of many cooperative communities. But most of all, Davis was known for his clairvoyance. When he spoke, he drew great crowds.
The narrow tree-shaded streets invite walking. The Spiritualists, with their explicit belief in the kinship of all life, were abolitionists and supporters of women’s suffrage. But what their town planning reflects is their passionate environmentalism.
After a short walk I reach a little grove of trees clearly distinct from the rest. At its center is a large old tree stump with stairs built up on one side. When a visitor to Lily Dale was invited to give a stump speech, it was meant quite literally. Visiting Spiritualist ministers and speakers declaimed here, so many and so vigorously that the stump still shows the wear of their boots. A little farther on I arrive at the only brick building I have seen in the village. It turns out to be the Marion Skidmore Library. A look at its shelves reveals what must be one of the largest collections of Spiritualist literature in the country.
Winding along, the little lane leads to the lake and a small white frame hotel, the Maplewood. Its 42 rooms cost from $34 and $69 a night. The only other hotel within Lily Dale is the Leolyn, just outside the gated grounds but also owned by the community. It has 11 rooms for between $49 and $69 a night.
To enter the Maplewood is to step back in time. In the foyer a little sign makes me laugh: NO CHANNELLING IN THE LOBBY . Oddly, the hotel has no place to eat, but a man sitting in one of the wicker chairs gives me directions where to go.
There are three places for food in Lily Dale: the Karma Café, the Lily Dale cafeteria, and Monika’s Delites, a small coffee shop that specializes in Viennese blends. By the time I finish lunch it is almost two-thirty, and I have just enough time to get to the auditorium for the Spiritualist service that is held there daily during the 10-week season. Everyone is welcome.
The service begins promptly with a hymn. Then an older woman comes out on the stage and gives us a sermon in a kind of theatrical Scottish brogue. This is meant to be uplifting, but the thing that affects me the most is the fact that a woman lecturing in an apparent trance seems unexceptional to the audience of 75 or so. Then there is some organ music, and an older man introduces another woman in a floor-length lime green high-necked gown with lace trim. The congregation is mostly women, but it is one of the good sprinkling of men who leans over and explains to me that this woman is the “message minister.”
She speaks about the “spirit side of life” and then begins addressing people in the audience. She has little messages from the dead that she passes on. As I listen to her, I reflect that if she’s for real, I’d like to receive a message from Gil, a close friend from my boyhood who committed suicide in his thirties. The woman talks to the man sitting in front of me about someone named Paul with whom he will do business. When she passes on, I lean over and ask if what he heard made any sense. He says he just talked with a man named Paul who represented a salvage company with which he was considering working. With another man she seems less on, saying something about his singing, which he tells her he does not do. Just at the end she comes back to me and says she sees something about a boat and then a friend “on the spirit side who took his own life in youth.”
Sometime later, on a trip south, Hayden and I leave Georgia, cross the Florida border, and head down near Orlando to Lily Dale’s Southern sister, Cassadaga. As we leave the main highways, the state’s glaring tourist patina falls away. We enter an older, quieter, more ramshackle but to us more appealing Florida. On Interstate 4 there is no off-ramp marked Cassadaga, but a helpful general-store owner tells me to look for Exit 116, to Lake Helen. After you leave the highway, he tells me, “follow the signs a few miles.”
The name Cassadaga is a Seneca Indian word meaning “rocks beneath the water.” I don’t know the importance of that, but a Native American word from the North was chosen, I suspect, to show the connection with the mother community and its nearby town of Cassadaga, New York, as well as to affirm the Spiritualists’ strong identification with Indians, whose cause they championed. Many nineteenth-century mediums channeled Indians and claimed they provided the information the Spiritualists passed on.
In 1894, less than 20 years after Lily Dale’s founding, some of its members helped establish this Florida camp. It was built on land donated by a wandering clairvoyant, George Colby, and it covers 57 acres today, with privately held land around its periphery. For decades Lily Dale readers used Cassadaga to escape the rigorous New York winters, and there is still an exchange between the two communities, although they are now completely independent.
There is a sense of déjà vu when we arrive. We are in Lily Dale with tropical vegetation. There are the same narrow streets, the same cozy architecture, the same little signs that hang like old-fashioned country doctors’ placards from lampposts and stakes in front of many of the houses: REV. JANIE HENDERSON OWENS—SPIRIT GUIDE DRAWINGS; PATTI AUBREY—CERTIFIED MEDIUM; DR. WARREN HOOVER—SPIRITUAL COUNSELOR AND TEACHER METAPHYSICS, CERTIFIED BY SCSCMA [Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association]. These are the crofters of Cassadaga.
Many are elderly, grandmas and grandpas looking much as Norman Rockwell might have seen them. I didn’t fully appreciate this while in Lily Dale, or maybe it is clearer in Cassadaga. As in Lily Dale, no one in Cassadaga seems to have much money, but everyone appears to lead a gentle long-lived existence. Like Lily Dale, Cassadaga has a lake. Overlooking it are a white cement table and chairs, and affixed to the middle of the table is a neat bronze plaque reading A GIFT FROM JULIA SLATER ON HER 100TH BIRTHDAY, AUGUST 25, 1996 .
Hayden and I head for the Cassadaga Hotel, the only place to stay within the village. It has one of those long screened porches that are so inviting. The Spiritualists began building the hotel, which has 10 rooms and 5 suites, in 1927, and it is remarkably intact and true to its origins. Rooms currently go for $50 to $105 a night. Situated at one end of the lobby is the Lost in Time Café, the only place in town we can find to eat. The homemade biscuits are better than all right, and the salads are big, with fresh ingredients. Lunch is simple, cheap, and superior to road food.
Hayden decides she would like a reading. Although the hotel has mediums on call, and the Cassadaga Spiritualist Psychic Therapy Center, one of several centers in town, advertises five of them on duty, we decide to go to the mother stream. So after lunch we walk across the street to the Andrew Jackson Davis Building, which is older than the hotel and houses the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association.
Inside the Davis Building we find a bookstore with lots of works by modern consciousness writers and also obscure early Spiritualist tracts little seen in the modern New Age but on much the same subjects. At one end of the bookstore, a white board bears the handwritten names of mediums on duty, along with their telephone numbers. When I ask how one decides which to pick, the woman behind the counter says, “Have you ever had a kind of gut feeling? A sort of knowingness? Well, there you go. That’s part of your own psychic functioning. Everyone has it, and we encourage you to use it.” End of discussion. I can’t think of anything to say to that.
Hayden selects Helen C. Hanson. The woman behind the counter makes a call, and we are told to walk down to the end of the block and turn left; we’ll see the sign. It will be $40 for half an hour. (Prices range from $25 for a 15-minute reading to $60 for an hour; each practitioner negotiates for her or himself.)
Thirty minutes later Hayden emerges, thanking Mrs. Hanson. As we walk away, she says, “I wanted to see if she could talk to one of my grandparents, but I got ‘a fat lady, with nice hands.’ It was no one I could imagine. Still, I’m glad I did it.” Later that night Hayden telephones her mother and learns about a stout aunt who doted on her as a child. She was, in her mother’s words, “very vain about the beauty of her hands.”
In 1831, just before the transcendentalist flowering that produced so many of these villages, Alexis Charles Henri Clérel de Tocqueville, scion of one of the oldest Norman noble families in France, arrived in the United States. During his travels, he later wrote, he found that Americans “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man… they consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them today to be good, may be superseded by something better tomorrow.” Places like Lily Dale and Cassadaga became one expression of that deeply American drive, and the heritage they have left us extends well beyond their endearing cottages and wooded pathways.