- 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
Members of Lily Dale helped establish Cassadaga in 1894. They built it on land donated by a wandering clairvoyant.
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.