One little girl in the town of Cassadaga, Fla., loves shiny pennies so much, she’s continually leaving them around on the floor. Another inhabitant named Arthur, a former opera singer from New York, has a penchant for cigars and booze. On a visit to the town, you might also run into a woman with a 1950s bouffant hair-do, a man carrying a fishing pole, a tabby cat, and, oddly enough, a lady dressed in Victorian-era garb. The odder fact about some of Cassadaga’s population? They’re dead.
The rest of them, the living of Cassadaga, are largely comprised of members of the Spiritualist religion. More than 200 practice mediumship, conducting readings, healings, and séances for the general public.
We got into the “spirit” of Cassadaga the night before we seven girls departed for the Florida East Coast hamlet and our 7 p.m. appointment for a séance. The responses to my Facebook post flew in like so many ghosts: “How does one pack for an overnight séance trip to Cassadaga?”
From Birgie, one of the group: “I’m letting the spirits guide me in my packing . . .”
From a friend: “Flower crowns and vodka”
My response to that: “They’re actually telling us not to drink (much) before the séance, but I may need wine or vodka after to sleep in the purportedly haunted Cassadaga Hotel. ☠👻”
From a fellow Florida travel writer: “Yes, it is haunted. Man wearing too much cologne—which does NOT mask the cigar smell—likes to touch your toes.”
We were already familiar with that cigar-smoking bloke. We had made the trip to Cassadaga a few years prior to have readings and a tour of the town and its Spiritualist Camp. On the tour, we learned about the aforementioned Arthur.
We did not actually see Arthur’s ghost, but my friend Colleen swears that when she went to the porch of the Cassadaga Hotel for a cigarette, the empty chair at her table started rocking. Arthur looking for a smoke?
“We get a lot of good spirits here because we welcome spirits,” said Lillian Selph, one of the living who guided our tour, which started at the Cassadaga Bookstore, across the street from the Cassadaga Hotel.
Built in the 1920s, the block-long, two-floor hotel is not your average flappers-age accommodations. Besides the fact that guests report visits from Arthur, the hotel strays from the norm with its schedule of group readings, séances, and other psychic events. Inscriptions on the wall of the lobby’s ladies rooms speak of fairies and enlightenment. The gift shop carries crystals and essential oils. Not to mention the self-propelled rocking chair on the porch.
The hotel is one place where you can arrange readings, although as far as the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is concerned, it’s on the “other side of town.”
Just across the street, the circa-1905 bookstore is the other headquarters for visitors finding their path through town. It carries much of the same metaphysical gifty stock, plus séance smudge sticks, stones, incense, and T-shirts that read “Cassadaga. Where Mayberry meets Twilight Zone.” I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.
The bookstore is headquarters for all manner of spiritualist events from bingo to transfiguration demonstrations. Its dry-erase boards hold the names and phone numbers of “on-call” mediums for the day. Here is where we signed up for our guided tour of the camp.
“The rules are different here,” Lilian started out. “Think of it like a condo association.” A condo association for mediums and healers, that would be. Within the confines of the “camp,” Cassadaga requires its professionals to undergo four to six years of training and a certification evaluation to hang a shingle. Cassadaga Hotel is outside of the confines, but asserts its own standards.
Certified mediums don’t need to use tools such as tarot cards, tea leaves, or palms, Lilian said. If you feel you’ve picked an incompatible personality, you can ask for another at no charge. They are extremely fraud-avoidant in Cassadaga.
Along the one-street tour, we learned the camp’s history. George Colby, after a near-death experience, purchased 35 acres northeast of Orlando at the end of the 19th century. It eventually became the winter camp for the Lily Dale spiritualist community in Chautauqua County, New York.
Modern Spiritualism is a science, philosophy, and religion with its own nationwide association. Cassadaga, however, operates independently. Since its birth, 20 acres have added to the real estate of the “camp,” so-named because originally people stayed in tents while communing with the spirits and those in touch with them.
Homes along Stevens Street date to the same turn-of-the-century era. The tour, which involved intel about President Lincoln’s dabbling in the spirit world, ended at the Colby Memorial Temple, where we learned more about the Spiritualist religion.
The highlight of that talk was hearing how séances are performed. We were privy to look into the séance room with its “tipping table,” but were not allowed into the sanctified room. The table tips, we learn, as a positive response to yes-and-no questions. We were ready to sign up for one there and then, but alas, wrong night. And our readings at the hotel awaited us.
We each had very different experiences with our readings at the hotel, except for MaryBeth and Colleen who both had Kat as a reader. She was specific in a spooky way about their husbands, kids, finances, etc.
Torre, my medium (no longer there), arrived out of breath and had to catch it for 15 minutes. She told me she had been healing all day and looked worn-out by the effort. I listened to a little commercial about her upcoming Halloween witches event at the hotel. I had read that she does events at Universal Studio, so I was expecting some drama. (Cassadaga is an easy day trip from Orlando, less than an hour away.)
Her visions and communications with those “on the other side” were general. Some I could have made fit into what has been going into my life. I did not ever feel she was not authentic, although I did at one point think I should terminate.
There was a genuine goose-bump moment when she connected with a friend, but then again she was general, and I made that connection myself. She asked if there was anything or anyone I wanted to know about, but I was more or less testing what she could tell me.
For instance, she asked me my birth date. Shouldn’t she know that, I wondered?
Her takeaway message was that I was going to have a big change within a month. And the cards (she did use cards and palms) showed a new romance. I am happily married, FYI.
Karyn had a similar experience with a woman outside of the hotel, as if the mediums were just a little too tired to focus? (Kat was younger, although heavens forbid me for seeming ageist.) I don’t know.
What I do know is that we had been trying for a couple of years to get back for a séance at the church, but they always filled up quickly. So we settled for one of the bi-monthly séances at the hotel with medium Mary Hayes. Here about 20 of us gathered in a room upstairs and one by one instructed Mary to ask questions of one dearly departed. Boxes of tissues were distributed throughout the room, and most of the participants became emotional. Call us cynical, but we remained dry-eyed. We, in fact, stifled giggles at times.
I’m told that the experiences outside the hotel, within the camp, are more authentic, but perhaps for the cynical there’s just no point. Heck, Arthur didn’t even show up during the night we spent in the hotel. The old rooms are unfussy but adequate, and our two suites were able to accommodate three to four each. Don’t expect plush or to find a lot of other accommodations nearby if you plan on spending the night. Maybe expect a toe tweak and a whiff of cigar smoke.
But even if your experience in Cassadaga doesn’t quite reach paranormal, it’s guaranteed to be well to the far side of Florida normal.
If You Go:
Where to Stay: Cassadaga Hotel, 386-228-2323, www.cassadagahotel.net. Rates range from $65 for double occupancy to $160 for up to six guests in a deluxe room.
Where to Eat: Sinatra’s Ristorante, 386-218-3806, www.sinatras.us. It serves an Italian menu daily for lunch and Monday through Saturday for dinner off the lobby at Cassadaga Hotel. This probably is the best dining in the immediate Lake Helen area. Piano bar music plays at dinner time. Entrees $8-$25.
What to Do: Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp 386-228-3171, www.cassadaga.org. Rates start at $60 for a half-hour reading. (Ten- to 25-minute mini readings are also available.) You can “shop” for a medium on the website and call or email ahead to make an appointment. Or you can wait until your arrival to arrange a reading at either the bookstore or hotel.