Photo by Terry Ward
Photo by Terry Ward
Seeking direction? Cassadaga, Florida, may have some messages for you.
A skeptic visits a Spiritualist camp that’s been peddling communication with the other side for more than 100 years.
Off in a Florida wilderness of scrub palms and dense oak trees draped with Spanish moss—about 50 miles northeast of Orlando’s theme park corridor, and even closer to the busy beaches of Daytona—is Cassadaga, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exit off Interstate 4.
You wouldn’t happen upon it; you wouldn’t even make a Waffle House pit stop here. But you might seek out the place “Where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.”
“Let it be magical,” a woman with silvery hair cooed to a group of septuagenarians, ushering them from the visitor center at the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.
The group, mostly women, chatted excitedly while filing out into the dappled October sunlight, bound for one-on-one consultations with spiritual mediums in this central Florida town, known as the psychic capital of the world.
Spiritualism, a religion that formed in New York State in the mid-19th century, is based on a belief in the “continuity of life”—that while the body may die, the spirit carries on. That it’s possible for the living to communicate with the dead. Cassadaga is the largest community of Spiritualists (the name for devotees of Spiritualism) in the southeast. About 100 people live in the camp, with roughly half of them working as certified mediums. Camp founder George P. Colby wasn’t so different from other Florida inhabitants, though: He was a snowbird.
As the origin story goes, traveling medium Colby was part of the Lily Dale spiritualist camp near Cassadaga Lake in New York. During a seance, he received a message from beyond that he would establish a wintertime Spiritualist outpost in the south. He was then led to the Florida site by a vision of a Native American guide, and so, in 1894, Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp was born.
As a decades-long resident of Florida, I’d heard of Cassadaga for years but never popped in. I’d imagined it—perhaps unsympathetically—as a community of carnies sitting in front of crystal balls with gypsy wagons parked in their yards. So when I arrived, I was surprised to find it was little more than a bend in the road lined with cute houses and old-growth trees.
The camp’s tiny historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is home to century-old Victorian buildings. Many are painted in cheery shades of lilac and turquoise and decorated with sunflowers, the official symbol of Spiritualism.
I parked near the “Fairy Trail,” one of several private parks within the 57-acre Spiritualist camp, and stepped out to explore. Living up to its name, the sandy path was strung with Mardi Gras–style beads, upcycled holiday ornaments, and other oddities (to wit: a bobblehead statue of Obama and a Willie Nelson CD). I finally spotted a Spiritualist—an attractive 60-something woman who was clipping tall sunflowers in her yard. Could she point me in the direction of a medium, I asked? How would I know who to work with?
“I know who I like but that doesn’t apply to you,” she said, suggesting I head to the camp’s visitor center in the Andrew Davis Jackson Building—which also doubles as a gift shop—and the booking desk for mediums. Once there, I should allow my intuition to be my guide.
While the sunflower tender was a member of the camp, she wasn’t a medium herself. “I’m a Spiritualist, which means I believe in the continuity of life. Our bodies die but our spirit continues,” she said.
“I studied here to see if the whole medium thing was a gimmick, thinking surely they’d teach me the trick if it was part of the course,” she said. “But there was no gimmick.”
Over at the gift shop/visitor center on Cassadaga’s main drag, my pursuit of a gimmick-free medium was sidetracked by reiki-charged candles and incense, vegan leather purses from Nepal, dream catchers authenticated by Native Americans.
A dry-erase board listed the names of two mediums available for consultations that day along with their phone numbers. A panel of business cards—most decorated with doves, winged unicorns, and the like—advertised other certified mediums in the camp. I asked a woman behind the counter why there were so few options for available mediums that day, and she nodded to the septuagenarians and their charter bus.
“Many of our mediums are doing five consultations already today, and you know how that is energetically,” she said with a knowing glance. I told her no, I didn’t know, to which she patiently replied, “It’s like if you clean five houses, then you really don’t want to have to clean a sixth.”
I went back to the dry-erase board, summoned my eeny-meeny-miney-mo intuition, then called the winner, Reverend Ed Conklin. I inquired about his availability and the cost ($70 for 30 minutes, cash only) as he explained his services.
“Spirits may come in and they may have some advice and comment on relationships and finances and spiritual development. I like to see what comes through,” Conklin said. We agreed to meet at his little white house across from the 1923 Colby Memorial Temple where weekly Spiritualist services are held.
As I settled into a green velvet chair in the small room where Conklin holds his sessions, I silently hoped my grandmother, gone for more than a decade, would come through. I surveyed a Buddha statue, a bronze set of balances, and Conklin’s framed certifications as I tried to “relax and be open,” as the sunflower lady had advised, and waited for Conklin to do his thing.
“Are you missing your grandmother?” he asked, as if on cue, and what followed was a half-hour of me warily watching as he closed his eyes, inhaled sharply, exhaled deeply, and fluttered his lids while channeling my dead relatives.
A few people I couldn’t help but recognize from his descriptions “came through,” including both of my grandmothers, as well as a random “Buddhist guide” who insisted I need to start meditating (yeah, yeah, it’s on my list). About half of what Conklin said made little to no sense to me (“Does your father have a concealed weapons permit?” he inquired of my fiercely anti-gun and very much alive dad), but the other half of his visions felt weirdly familiar.
After our session I told him I was a writer (one of the things he had pegged when a vision of a plumed pen appeared to him), and he told me that he used to work as a professor of philosophy and comparative religion at an Orlando university before buying a house in Cassadaga in the late ’90s to study Spirituality and become a certified medium.
“There’s some authentic stuff here. It’s like attorneys or doctors,” Conklin said as I left. “Some are better than others. There are all skill levels.”
On the way back to my car, I met Lorna Ryan and Rita Sweeney, two ladies from the charter bus group who were debriefing on a bench across from the Cassadaga Hotel after their sessions with certified mediums.
The women, who live in Englewood, Florida, told me they were longtime friends originally from Boston, “not far from where the Salem witch trials were. We both grew up Catholic, but we’re not anymore,” said Sweeney.
“I guess we wanted to come here because we’ve suffered loss,” Ryan said. She and her friend both recently lost their sons in separate tragedies. The men were only in their 40s.
“The medium I saw, I didn’t think was any big deal,” said Sweeney, who told me she’s done a lot of reading on spirits and the afterlife after losing her son and her husband earlier in the year.
“Mine told me something that could have applied to 8 of 10 people,” Ryan lamented.
“There are a lot of charlatans and I think this place was what it really claimed to be in the beginning, but they’re cashing in on it a bit here now,” Sweeney sighed.
“There has to be something to it or people wouldn’t keep coming back, though,” she said, before boarding the bus for home.
It was time for me to head back to reality, too, so I made for the Fairy Trail and my car, passing back past the Reverend Ed Conklin’s house and remembering something he said at the end of our session.
“I can feel your relatives all warming my heart. There’s a lot of them,” he told me, with a chuckle and a grin. “You really uplifted their day—unless I’m having a heart attack.”
The memory of them had uplifted my day, I realized, and my heart felt warmed, too. Maybe I wasn’t ready to call myself a believer in Cassadaga and everything the place was selling quite yet. But I had stifled my inner skeptic for a spell and even allowed things be magical for a moment.
Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is open to the public daily, from 9 a.m. until dusk.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Florida
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