- 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
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.