It’s not often that a volcano interferes with my travel plans, but in April 2010, that’s exactly what happened. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, sending a dense ash cloud over Europe and closing UK airspace, I was about to return to London from the US after a week’s work in Florida. What I was doing in Florida in the first place was unusual enough. I’d been invited to teach at Trinity Preparatory School in Orlando, as part of their Visiting Writers Program. Robert Boerth, an English teacher at the school and head of the programme, was familiar with my books, and had arranged for me to lead classes in esotericism, consciousness, and the history of the 1960s counterculture. These saw me lecturing on Gnosticism and Swedenborg for a religious studies class, on mysticism and ‘higher consciousness’ to psychology students, and on hippies, communes, and LSD to a history class. I even sat in on two seventh-grade history classes that were researching the 1960s and 70s, and was charmed when one 10-year-old told me he was ‘studying’ Woodstock, the mother of all rock festivals. Another was doing ‘punk rock’. For a conservative Episcopalian school, I thought, they sure taught some radical stuff!
When my flight to Heathrow was cancelled, the school put me up for the duration at a hotel near the huge University of Central Florida campus. I was grateful for the room, but although comfortable, the hotel was in the middle of what seemed an endless strip-malled nowhere, like some Ballardian nightmare. With little more than shopping plazas and gated communities stretching into the distance, and having run out of reading material, I was faced with the prospect of having to entertain myself for an unspecified length of time. So when Robert suggested we visit Cassadaga, the “South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community”, I was intrigued and immediately said yes.
COLBY'S SPIRIT CAMP
Cassadaga, which is a Seneca Indian word meaning “water beneath the rocks”, was founded in 1875 by the trance medium George P Colby, although almost another 20 years passed before the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association received its official charter in 1894. Colby was born in Pike, Alleghany County, New York, in 1848, the same year that the Fox sisters famously started the spiritualism craze that quickly spread across North America and Europe. As a toddler, Colby moved around – first to Indiana, then to Minnesota, where his mediumistic abilities first appeared. Colby’s parents were Baptists, and at the age of 12, he was baptised in a frozen lake during a particularly cold winter. The family had to cut a hole deep into the ice to perform the sacrament, and it seems to have sent Colby into a near-death experience. He claimed that his dead uncle came to him and informed him that he was a medium and that he would one day found a centre for spiritualism in the South. Soon after, Colby’s talents manifested in clairvoyant abilities and spirit healing – the ‘laying on of hands’.
At 17, while working as a tailor, Colby was sent into a deep trance by a ‘band’ of spirit guides, something his Baptist parents weren’t too keen on. He left the church, and by his 20s was working in public as a medium, a not unusual occupation in America at that time. By the late 1860s, Colby was travelling throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, giving readings and holding séances. His speciality was convincing sceptics of the truth of spiritualism, his various ‘guides’ providing incontrovertible evidence of the reality of the afterlife. Like other spirit guides, Colby’s were multilingual, and he passed on their communications in French, German, Swedish, and other languages. Colby’s performances were so popular that many attendees had to be turned away, and he developed a reputation as the “Seer of Spiritualism”. At one séance, he is reported to have contacted no less than 300 spirits. (As they were disembodied, there was no difficulty fitting them into the auditorium.)
Colby’s most frequent guide was a Native American Indian named Seneca, but a few others also put in appearances. There was a German scholar known as ‘the Philosopher’, a healer named Wandah, and the voluble Professor Huffman, whose speciality was public speaking. In 1875, at a séance in Iowa, Seneca instructed Colby to visit the spiritualist TD Giddings in Wisconsin. He did, and during a séance with Giddings, Seneca told Colby that he must travel with Giddings and his family – Mrs Giddings was a well-known medium too – to Florida. Here, Seneca told him, he would found the spiritualist centre his uncle had spoken of years before.
The group took a train to Jacksonville, which was as far south as the railway went then. From there, they travelled by boat to Blue Springs Landing, little more than an outpost in the lush Florida wilderness. Seneca then guided Colby through the subtropical forest until they reached a spot Colby recognised from one of his séances. The area was unusual because of its small, rolling hills – most of Florida is flatter than last week’s Perrier – and Colby knew he had reached the end of his journey. Soon after this he secured the land. In 1880, he filed a homestead claim, and in 1884 the grant came through. Along with settling land for his spiritualist centre, Colby’s guides told him his health would improve by moving to Florida, not uncommon medical advice today. He suffered from tuberculosis and damaged vocal cords, and Seneca told him he could cure himself by drinking spring water and inhaling pine smoke, an example of the ‘eclectic medicine’ – an early form of ‘alternative healing’ – popular in the US then and with many of Cassadaga’s early inhabitants. Seneca was right; Colby’s vocal cords healed, his TB disappeared, and in 1881 he was off again on another whistle-stop spiritualist tour of 17 states, holding séances in Washington Territory (it became a state in 1889), Oregon, and California. In 1884, he settled for a time in San Francisco, where he lectured and
performed to packed houses.
It was at one of these meetings that Colby met the spiritualist EW Bond – one-time mayor of Willoughby, Ohio – who suggested he invite spiritualists from Lily Dale, “the town that talks to the dead”, in upstate New York, to help him in setting up his spiritualist community. Touted as “the world’s largest centre for spiritual development and the practice of spiritualist religion”, the Lily Dale Assembly started as a spiritualist camp in 1879, and is still going strong today, having since been incorporated into a town that has become a New Age tourist site (see FT205:30–37). The name Cassadaga comes from the Cassadaga Lakes near Lily Dale, hence Colby’s spiritualist community was christened the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.
The idea for the camp was to provide a winter haven for Northern spiritualists eager to escape the blistering winter cold. Surprisingly, Colby declined becoming a trustee of the camp, arguing that his talents were not suited to such earthly pursuits. He did sign over 35 acres (14ha) of his land, to which were later added another 22 acres (9ha), giving the site the 57 acres (23ha) it covers today, and in December 1894 the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association came into existence. Colby became the camp’s inspirational speaker and he passed on messages to the Association from his guides. His subsequent years, however, were not easy ones. In 1911, his house burned down – a fate that at different times befell several of the site’s original structures – and by the end of his life he was living in near poverty, supported in a small apartment by the community until his death in 1933.
SPIRITS OF THE SOUTH
When we pulled off the motorway, I was surprised that ‘Cassadaga’ was on the exit sign; not every spiritualist community has its own off-ramp. After a brief drive through the woods – when Colby arrived there were no roads and he had to hack his way through – we passed a few houses advertising ‘psychic readings’. Then two white gateposts – dating, we were later told, from the 1890s, remnants of the original site – said “Welcome to Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp”.
It was early afternoon in the middle of the week and the place wasn’t crowded. We parked near the Andrew Jackson Davis Building, named after the 19th-century American spiritualist, and which serves as a bookshop and welcome centre, with bingo games on Tuesday nights. The lady behind the counter greeted us with a bright “Hello!” and we explained that we were there to meet Reverend Brian Cox, pastor of the Colby Memorial Temple and a certified medium. A minute later, Cox appeared, a sprightly older gentleman casually dressed, wearing dark glasses and adorned with an assortment of spiritual bling – a variety of semi-precious stones, which I later discovered played a large part in the various healing activities performed at the camp. We introduced ourselves and Brian said he was happy to show us around.
As we walked down Stevens Street, Cassadaga’s main drag, Brian gave us a short history. “Originally this really was a camp,” he said. “George Colby and others were drawn to the area because it’s the site of a powerful energy vortex – some people call it the ‘psychic centre of the world’. When the meetings first began in the 1890s, they were held in a canvas tent, like a lot of other religious revival meetings at the time. The Colby Memorial Temple, which we’ll visit in a moment, was a simple wooden structure, without walls or a floor; it wasn’t until the early 20s that the building we have today was built. In the camp’s heyday, a special train ran from Cincinnati, or you could travel here by steamship from Boston.
“Harmony Hall,” Brian pointed to a large motel-like structure, “built in 1896, was originally an eight-unit apartment building, with a shared kitchen and bathroom, designed for visitors who came down for the season. It was renovated in the 1980s.
He indicated a larger, three-storey structure. “Brigham Hall is named after Hubbard and Sarah Brigham, – ‘eclectic physicians’ – and was built in 1897. It had 18 single rooms, rented out to visitors, a bath house, and an outhouse. It was renovated in the 1920s, but the rooms in the attic were left as storage space, mostly because they’re haunted.”
“Yep. It seems a ladies’ poker club still carries on up there some evenings.”
“Any other haunted spots?”
“Oh, lots. This house here,” he pointed to a whitewashed 1920s wooden house with a pastel shingled roof and a strange marble bench in front that was covered with an assortment of coins. “It appears that the son of the original occupants liked to play with pennies and often the new tenants would find piles of them covering the floor. They’d clear them up but the next morning they’d find them again.”
At the Memorial Temple, Brian was joined by his friend, Richard Smith. Brian explained that the certification for mediums – out of the current 100 Cassadaga inhabitants, 40 are certified mediums – was fairly rigorous, taking from two to 10 years. Brian, who first came to Cassadaga in 1989, got his own certification in 1996. He was ordained a spiritualist minister in 2002, and a healer in 2008. Richard, however, was yet to be certified.
“Are you a rogue, then?” I asked.
“No!” he answered quickly. “But a lot of people think I’m certifiable!”
Inside the temple, which sports a large stage and can seat 500 people, Brian explained that over the years it had been used for a number of purposes, including vaudeville, although today it is mostly used for Sunday religious services and speaking engagements. Music is a great part of the services, and Brian, who has a degree in music, motioned to an all-white baby grand piano – “A gift,” he said, “from one of the parishioners.”
“Can I take a photograph?”
“Sure. Let me know if you get any orbs.”
“Yeah. You know, balls of light. Digital cameras pick them up around here all the time. Especially in the old séance room.”
The séance room is a closed-off area behind the stage. It was no longer used for séances and wasn’t open when we were there. A shame, as I hadn’t had any luck with orbs as yet. In Cassadaga, Florida, Yesterday and Today by Elizabeth Owens, another of the camp’s mediums, I’d read that “[T]he vibrations in the room remain intense due to the amount of ectoplasm that was produced over the years by the mediums.” I wished I could have checked it out, but I wouldn’t be able to make the Night Orb Photography Tour that evening, which includes a visit to the séance room, and costs .00, roughly £15.00. Maybe next volcano.
JUST ORDINARY KOOKS
Outside the temple stands the Caesar Forman Healing Center, a gazebo that was shifted from the nearby woods to act as a private consulting space, and named after one of the camp’s healers. Within it, Brian told me, was a “healing chair” whose occupants were asked to complete a “Colby Memorial Temple Healing Statement”, which declared the benefit they had derived from the visit. With so much spiritual healing going on, I wondered if they caught any flak from the American Medical Association. “Oh,” Brian sighed, “we’re pretty much left alone, although at one point because of the laying on of hands we were told we had to get massage licenses. It can be annoying at times.”
“Any other trouble?”
I was going to say “with the neighbours” – but as practically everyone in Cassadaga is either a psychic, a medium, or a healer, I realised they had no neighbours!
“Well, we have had some Christian groups drive through town and chuck leaflets out the window, telling us the error of our ways.”
“One group,” Richard added, “drove through shouting that we were all going to go to Hell. But we just ignored them.”
“I don’t know what their problem is,” Brian said. “We’re not doing anything bad. Our beliefs are pretty harmless.”
From what I had read about them, I agreed. Cassadaga’s “Declaration of Principles” is pretty straightforward. Belief in an “Infinite Intelligence”, in the survival of bodily death, in the possibility of contacting those who have ‘passed over’ into the next dimension, in the Golden Rule, and in individual responsibility. There’s nothing I could argue with here, and Brian and Richard seemed like decent, regular folk, not so different from many people I met when working at a New Age bookshop in Los Angeles: maybe a little kooky to some, but really pretty ordinary.
Brian had things to do, so with a hearty handshake he and Richard left us to roam around on our own. The streets were quiet; although there was a playground near Colby Lake, no children were in sight, and the average age of the population was 60ish, I would say. None of the current inhabitants are related to the original settlers, although anyone wanting to buy a home here has to join the Association. The weathered wooden houses, most built in the 1920s, were a welcome change from the anonymous shopping plazas near my hotel. Most of them had modest shingles hanging outside, saying “Medium”, “Psychic Healing”, or “Metaphysical Instruction”; without these, they’d just be regular houses. Most also said “Closed”. We checked out the bookshop, which stocked pretty much what you’d expect from a spiritual emporium – crystals, incense, self-help books – and advertised activities going on in the community, like the classes in “Mediumship and Metaphysics” given by the aptly named William Deep, president of the camp.
Then we crossed the street over to the Cassadaga Hotel. I suspected there was some tension between the hotel and the Cassadagians. Although neither Brian or Richard said as much, I could ‘sense’ it – maybe this place was an energy vortex, after all. Although the hotel had originally been owned by members of the community, it had passed into private ownership some time ago, and when Robert and I walked in, I could feel the difference. It had a tourist atmosphere that none of the other places, including the bookshop, did. The kitsch was palpable. It was done up in a late 19th-century style, and you could tell it was aimed at the ‘ecotourists’ who visited after having done Sea World and Disneyworld. On the menu at the “Lost in Time Café”, you’re reminded to book a reading with “Cassadaga’s finest mediums”, and if you want your next bash to be an “esoterical blast”, you can have a “psychic party”, mystically catered, of course. Robert pointed out the “Meditation Station”, a wooden cabinet that reminded me of a TARDIS. Within it was incense, a Buddha statuette, and seat. Nearby was the “Spirit Zone”, a séance chamber that was being renovated to a conference room. It was closed, but I did get a peek at some gauzy material adorning the walls and had a momentary vision of Floridian businessmen swapping ectoplasm over annual reports.
We ambled around a bit more before heading back to the car. Passing the lake again, I noticed a sign saying “Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Closed At Sunset”. Below this it read “No Alcohol Permitted”. That, I thought, made a funny kind of sense. More than likely they have enough spirits there already.
Many thanks to Robert Boerth, Ben Cox, Richard Smith, and the people of Cassadaga, Florida.
Check out the Cassadaga home page for yourself.
1 Christine Wicker: Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, HarperOne, 2004.
2 Or its own rock album. The group Bright Eyes released its album Cassadaga, named after the community, in April 2007.
3 Cassadaga, Pisces Publishing, 2001, p17.
See also John J Guthrie, Philip Charles Lucas and Gary Monroe (eds): Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community, University of Florida Press, 2000.
Go to www.warnerleisurehotels.co.uk/ for details of ‘Discovering Ghosts’ and other ghost tours and leisure breaks.