My trips sometimes don’t have objectives. I hear or read about a place and curiosity pushes me there. That’s how I got to Lily Dale, the Spiritualist Camp, in western New York State which was founded in 1848. I treated the experience with a lot skepticism and wandered through the little colony of houses with an air of amusement. I went to the shops that sold incense, books, and new age paraphilia. I went to The Stump, a outdoor gathering place with its tall, tall trees and long benches where mediums would make connections between people in the audience and their love ones who had died. I even had a reading. I sat in a plastic chair in front of a small cottage until the medium summoned me in. She was nice but her vision of my grandmother as a tea drinker was all wrong. Coffee was definitely the drink of choice in my family. The medium, however, gave me excellent advice about letting go of some things in my life. Something I already knew but her pronouncement of it out loud was just the affirmation I needed.
During my winter in St. Augustine, the library system chose the book, Dead Wake, by Erik Larson as a community shared reading. It was about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Since there was a reference in the book about a séance, the library invited two guest speakers to give a talk about the Spiritualist Movement. They mentioned a village in Cassadaga, Florida established in 1899. Like a child who one day realizes the random people in his or her life have deep relational connections, I was startled that this village in Florida was an off shoot of Lily Dale.
I decided to visit the town. This trip had a definite purpose, it was a fact finding mission. I made a two night reservation at the Cassadaga Hotel. It’s original structure burned down and it was rebuilt in 1927. My room had two doors, one in the hall and one opening onto a long southern style veranda.
Being an early riser, I could sit on this wonderful porch and read undisturbed. I wanted to know why this strange place existed. I had found a book at the St. Augustine library about Cassadaga published by The University Press of Florida. The first chapter was a great historical overview of the era in which Lily Dale came about. It was founded during a time in history known as the antebellum period, the years before the Civil War. I hadn’t really learned much about this in high school. Maybe because when I was a teenager I didn’t think people in strange clothes who were recorded in spooky brown tainted pictures were of any of significance in my life.
But I realized that earlier in retirement, I had stumbled upon this time in history in other places. I had visited the Women’s Right Museum in Seneca Fall where suffergettes rallied in 1848. I had sat in silence on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s porch and thought about her courage. Many of the suffragettes worked with abolitionists who felt “injustice to one, is injustice to all.”
National Park Service photograph of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s House
I had once journeyed to Concord, Massachusetts and learned about the lives of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, and Hawthorne who were great writers and thinkers during the antebellum era. I visited Thoreau’s Walden Pond where he wrote the book, Walden, or Life in The Woods in 1854.
As I walked around Cassadaga, I thought about how the first half of the 1800’s was a time of great change in our still new United States. The people of that era were innovative and inventive as they faced many social conflicts, new technologies and the ever expanding boundaries of our county. And I think most of those people, like people today, sincerely wanted to make the world a better place.
At the edge of the village of Cassadaga was a little lake. I sat there on a bench and was enveloped in the silence. It gave me a sense of peace as it took me back in time, no sounds of cars or planes or lawn mowers or air conditioners. Did this kind of constant stillness allow the people of long ago to more easily contemplate what was important in life? Are we missing something in our noisy, somewhat staged existence? I wonder.
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