Just when you think you finally know Florida, it goes ahead and throws a town full of mediums into the mix.
Roughly 50 miles from Orlando’s theme parks, Cassadaga is a bucolic Central Florida enclave where the streets are tunneled with oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and brightly-painted Victorian-style homes are decorated with stained glass sunflowers, peace signs and statues of angels.
And an outsized share of the residents are mediums who claim they can communicate with the dead.
An unincorporated area of Volusia County, Cassadaga is home to the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a community founded around the religious movement Spiritualism that is “based upon the principle of continuous life demonstrated through Mediumship,” according to the camp’s official press kit.
Who are Spiritualists and what is Spiritualism?
The fundamental belief of Spiritualism revolves around the “continuity of life,” or the belief that the body may die but the spirit continues to exist – and that it’s possible for the living (mediums) to communicate with the dead, who Spiritualists often refer to as “spirit” or the “other side of life.”
The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp believes in God, Jesus and the Bible, according to its fact sheet, but does not embrace a “Savior-God philosophy” that involves the devil or “falling from grace.”
The modern spiritualist movement traces its roots to New York in 1848, when two sisters are said to have started communicating with a spirit making knocking sounds in their home.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the new movement was met with opposition and condemnation from church leaders, who equated the attempts of mediums to communicate with spirits with witchcraft. Some mediums who used magicians to “prove” their clairvoyance were exposed as swindlers, with none other than Harry Houdini among those jumping in to expose fraudulent practices.
Florida’s Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp dates back to 1894 after its founder, a New York Spiritualist named George Colby, is said to have been led to the location by a spirit guide named “Seneca” after being told during a seance that he would found a southern Spiritualist community. Colby had been part of the Lily Dale Camp in New York, which still exists today as the Lily Dale Assembly and claims to be the largest community of Spiritualists in the world.
Cassadaga Spiritualists maintain that Spiritualism is a religion, a philosophy, as well as a science. It’s a science “because it investigates, analyzes, and classifies facts and manifestations of Spirit,” according to the camp’s published definitions. These manifestations can occur during medium sessions, which can involve a medium working with a group or an individual, or seances, when groups sitting in a darkened room seek contact with the spirit world.
If that sounds like a lot of history and lore to digest, visiting Cassadaga to see for yourself what Spiritualism and Spiritualists are about might give you a better understanding.
Getting the lay of the land while visiting Cassadaga
Drive about 50 miles northeast of Orlando’s theme parks, duck off the Interstate and down a few country roads and you’ll arrive in a 57-acre historic district, the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to mediums, healers and members of Spiritualism, who live in roughly 44 homes on land leased to them by the camp. Some offer their services to the public.
Just outside the official camp (marked by two white pillars at the top of Stevens Street), C. Green’s Haunted History House & Museum and the Purple Rose Trading Co. are among a handful of businesses that are not affiliated with the camp and trade in things like tarot readings, numerology sessions and copious crystals. It’s worth noting that camp mediums do not use tools such as tarot cards or crystals in their readings, which involve mental communication.
At the 10-room Ann Stevens House, a historic bed and breakfast that dates to 1895 and was built by one of the camp’s first Spiritualists, the grounds include two alleged vortexes, spots on the earth considered by some to be energy centers.
And back on camp grounds, the Hotel Cassadaga, built in 1927 and said to be haunted, once belonged to the Spiritualist community but now operates independently, housing a cast of tarot card readers, reiki masters, seance-givers and even a haunted house attraction during Halloween season. There’s also a surprisingly good Italian restaurant, Sinatra’s, offering dueling piano two Fridays a month and karaoke every Saturday evening alongside platters of burrata and calamari. And it wouldn’t be a haunted hotel without a gift shop stocked with more crystals, palo santo clearing spray, dream catchers and the like.
If you’ve come to Cassadaga for the official Spiritualist deal, however, your first stop should be the camp’s Andrew Jackson Davis Educational Building/Bookstore, a circa 1905 building named for a Spiritualist pioneer and the official welcome center. A sign outside claims “Home of Certified Mediums Est. 1894” and Cassadaga T-shirts for sale inside say “Where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.”
On any given day, busloads of tourists from retirement communities like The Villages, mingle with visitors from around the world.
The bookstore brims with the catchall commodities of new age spirituality and mysticism – books about miracles, billowy elephant-emblazoned pants that look ready for a full moon party, bundles of sage and packets of gemstones that claim to assuage everything from bad dreams and addictions to menopause.
In a room at the back, a cork bulletin board covered with flyers advertises ongoing events that range from Native American Talking Stick Circles, Reiki Healing Circles, Encounter the Spirits Night Tours ($30) and even a crochet circle. This is also where you’ll find a thick white binder holding the bios of the camp’s roughly 35 working mediums and a white board with the names of those currently available for walk-in sessions, which range in price from $50 to $200 per hour. Conveniently, there’s an ATM nearby as cash, paid directly to your medium of choice, is generally preferred. Clients can also contact the camp’s mediums and healers to book in advance.
“Look at the bios and select the person that you feel as though you’re gravitating to,” said Deb Jordan, 66, a certified medium and healer who sits on the camp’s board of trustees. “We prefer people select a medium based on the person aligning with who you are.”
The souls you meet in Cassadaga
Who you are when you arrive in Cassadaga may or may not be who you are when you leave, said Jordan.
While there’s no official camp count, she said an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 people visit Cassadaga every year – and they come from all over the world.
“Often people come looking for guidance and healing and looking for closure to tragic situations,” she said. “I find that as we are able to share information about their loved ones, which we call evidential – which is to say enough information for them to say ‘that is my loved one’ – it’s truly amazing because they understand their loved ones are truly around them in spirit.”
Whether to believe in what the Spiritualists are offering has been met with a range of responses since the movement took hold. The practices have been soundly rejected, wholeheartedly embraced and everything in between. And the present-day is no different.
Felicitas Schroeder, a massage therapist from Lingen, Germany, is strolling along the Fairy Trail – one of a handful of pretty parks that’s lined with items people have left as offerings, ranging from statues of gnomes and butterflies to a couple of worse-for-the-weather My Little Ponies, a Barbie Dream House and a bottle of tea tree cleansing lotion.
Schroeder’s on her second visit to Cassadaga with her 14-year-old daughter.
“It’s a good feeling here, you must love it or not,” Schroeder said, adding that she doesn’t plan to visit a medium or have a tarot reading in the hotel. “If I was alone here, I would just sit and stay for hours.”
A range of perceptions
At the site of a new stone waterfall under construction near the lakeshore in Seneca Park (a donation from a friend of the camp), three workers arranging Tennessee fieldstone note that the town has a peaceful feeling they didn’t expect. One said he often spots deer in the mornings.
Lloyd Lightsey, 66, of The Pond Monster, the company building the water feature, said he’s lived in Florida since he was six and had always heard of Cassadaga – but only visited for the first time once the project got underway.
A born-again Christian, he’d recently attended a service at Colby Memorial Temple, which dates to 1923 and where weekly Spiritualist services are held, and said it was like no spiritual experience he’d had before. “You’re not judged, it’s just an easy relaxed feeling,” he said.
“I went in kind of like, ‘okay prove to me what you’re doing,’ ” Lightsey said about a Sunday afternoon Grove Service he later attended where mediums connect with people they choose from the crowd for an impromptu reading.
“My son and I did the readings and we both had somebody come through,” he said, recognizing his deceased father in the medium’s detailed description.
For all the believers, of course, there are plenty of skeptics.
At Colby-Alderman Park, an official county park just outside the camp’s borders, where signage tells the story of Spiritualism’s links to the area, a county worker who lives in nearby Lake Helen said she “thinks they do horoscopes” in Cassadaga but has never been and doesn’t plan to.
Back along Stevens Street at the camp, 93-year-old Jerusalen Morales has brought her son and a family friend to visit the camp for their first time on what she said was probably her 50th visit to Cassadaga.
Morales said she worked as a medium in Puerto Rico and New York before retiring to Florida and finds Cassadaga to be “a very spiritual and angelical place.”
“People come here for the benefit of what they feel in the place,” she said.
Her son, Ricardo Morales, visiting from New York, said there are certain places in the world where he’s felt his mind is open to things, mentioning Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
“When you walk around Cassadaga there’s a sense of safety, healing and good,” he said.
Messages from mediums
Sitting on a yellow swinging bench on the screened front porch of his 1906 home in the camp, Richard Russell — one of the camp’s mediums and healers — considers Cassadaga today.
Russell, 79, first arrived in the camp in 1997 from New York after his life was up-ended during a stressful corporate career in the real estate industry.
“This wasn’t my picture of spending my elderly years,” he said. His dog and cat, Harley and Leala, were at his side and a bumper sticker on the window behind him read, “If you lived in your heart you’d be home by now.”
The RV he bought a few years back to explore Florida’s beauty sits parked outside and isn’t getting the miles he’d hoped because work and life have been too busy.
“The public is still coming to Cassadaga, but we don’t have the supply of medium and healers to meet the demand,” Russell said.
To become a certified medium and healer in the camp requires taking in-person courses in Cassadaga for between four and six years, with public demonstrations of your “gifts” as part of the requirements.
“We get a lot of people interested but they don’t want to make the commitment,” Russell said.
“For people who are really serious about serving the public they can make this their career,” he added, before answering a phone call from a regular client requesting a session.
“Most of my business is referrals. If you don’t have the gift, people won’t come to you,” he said. “The camp takes it very seriously to weed out people who do not have any spiritual gifts.”
Russell’s partner, the board of trustees member Deb Jordan, has been in Cassadaga since 2006 and said there’s a big misconception about the town and camp.
“People think of Cassadaga as a spooky place or ghost town,” she said. “My experience as someone who works as a medium and with spirit, is that I find it to be a very sacred and beautiful place and experience here.”
“Some people are afraid to come down the street; they think some spook is going to come out and grab them,” Russell said.
The evenings leading up to Halloween each year fill with revelers by the hundreds, drawn mostly by the haunted attraction Hotel Cassadaga puts on (through Oct. 31 this year) and the outdoor tents that pop up to sell beer and food.
But for the rest of the year, Cassadaga is quiet and peaceful, Russell said.
“Most people don’t know the camp and Cassadaga even exist,” he said. “The people that speak the worst about us have never been here.”
Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer and freelance journalist in Tampa who has visited Cassadaga several times.
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