- Historic Sites
A visit to two villages that still share the nineteenth century’s conviction that we can communicate with the dead
April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
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.
The nostalgic architecture isn’t what first catches my eye; it’s the small signs that say things such as KITTY OSBORNE—MEDIUM.
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.