F L O R I D A
C I T Y S
C A P E
By Robin Hill Rowan
Cassadaga, Florida exists as an entity unto itself way off Interstate
4 (you wont find it unless youre looking for it) between Orlando
and Daytona Beach. Its founder, George Colby, was led through the wilderness
by three spirit guides to what is now the site of the Cassadaga Spiritualist
Camp. On that site, the guides instructed him to organize a psychic center,
which was completed in 1898. It is a place like no other, where mediums,
psychics, astrologers and spiritualists can live in peace without interference
from the world outside their gates.
Although only two of the towns mediums can claim to be descendants
of Cassadaga founders, the tiny camp (population: 100) remains largely
as it did in the 1920s. The Spanish Mission-style Cassadaga Hotel,
which is not an official part of the camp, dominates the landscape at
the camp entrance. Modest two-story cottages line the dozen or so paved
streets and dirt roads. There is no grocery store, no pharmacy, gas station,
bank, or dry cleaners. The
shoebox-sized post office sits across the street from the camp gates.
IT'S A SIGN: start
at the bookstore in the center of town to find your medium.
Other than the light-topped gateposts gracing the main entry and the Colby
Memorial Temple, site of meditation meetings, public readings, church
services and healings), there is nothing to distinguish Cassadaga from
any other small Southern town.
We parked in
front of the hotel and ventured into the streets. It was Saturday afternoon,
and the streets were empty. Perhaps what struck all of us first was the
silence. It is always quiet in Cassadaga, eerily so. There are no children
playing ball or riding bikes, no couples out strolling, no screen doors
slamming on warm summer nights, no laughter echoing out into the streets.
Thats the way it has always been, one of the towns residents
explained to us, and to some folks, thats one of the camps
main attractions. According to Camp Manager Fran Ellison, Cassadaga is
doing its best not to become another Florida tourist attraction. The camps
55 acres, which were donated by George Colby, are the extent of the original
town of Cassadaga.
"Weve had some people move in across the street, trying to
turn this place into Disneyland," Ellison remarks, motioning to one
house directly across from the camp boundaries. Signs are splashed across
the house and fence proclaiming the inhabitants as "psychic readers"
and the house the "Cassadaga Spiritualist Church." The "outsiders"
offer their readings for "$15.00today only." Camp mediums
charge between $40 and $65, and if you like what you hear, tips are appreciated.
Since it is their only source of income, they are understandably dismayed
by the competition.
SRO: spirit guides
packed into the local park waiting to assist.
"We have a strict sign ordinance in Cassadaga which says you cant
have a big, flashy sign," says Ellison. "I dont know why
the law doesnt extend to those people [across the street], too."
Inside the camp, stuck out on lush green lawns or hanging from mossy oaks,
unpretentious homemade shingles advertise that "Certified Mediums,"
"Psychic Healers," or "Spiritual Counselors" reside
of Cassadaga firmly believe that everyone is at least a little psychic.
Certified mediums in the camp spend between two and ten years developing
that sixth sense; becoming a minister of the church takes a few years
Of the hundred or so adult residents of the camp, about 40 are certified
mediums. They offer spiritual readings and psychic counseling to the troubled
souls who wander into the camp searching for answers. Many mediums are
available to walk-in customers, but for those most in demand, there is
up to a two month wait for an appointment.
Every medium has his or her own style, but Spiritualists shudder when
they hear themselves referred to as "fortune tellers." Cassadaga
psychics are indistinguishable from the folks who come for readings. They
are dressed casually, and most have at least a little gray in their hair.
Theyre friendly, but arent overly outgoing. Somber, but not
PSYCHIC READING: the
local bookstore has hundreds of hard to find books, tapes and
According to the Spiritualists own definition, Spiritualism is the
"science, philosophy, and religion of continuous life, based upon
the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those
who live in the Spirit World."
Vince Owens is a dedicated Spiritualist from Port Orange, Florida and
a self-proclaimed Cassadaga historian. He says that Cassadaga began as
an actual camp. For the first year of its existence, visitors attended
open-air message services and pitched tents within the camp boundaries.
Around the turn of the century, a special train from Cincinnati and a
steamship from Boston made regular sojourns to towns near Cassadaga, where
visitors were met by camp residents and escorted by carriage into Cassadaga.
HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS:
a typical cottage in Cassadaga.
In the years that followed, Owens says, tents gave way to small cottages,
which, at the time, could be built for around $400 each. As the camp acquired
electricity, a sewer system, and paved roads, the word on Cassadaga spread;
if you lived in the north and were looking for spiritual guidance and
enlightenment, Cassadaga was the place to winter.
Believe It Or
who come for readings are usually having some sort of problem, or theyre
seeking contact with deceased loved ones. You just get to know whos
here for real and whos here to try to trip you up," says "Birdie,"
a medium who works out of the Cassadaga Hotel. "Well give them
[non-believers] a reading, but we all know theyre wasting their
Prisms and crystals are prevalent during readings; some mediums will ask
you to show them your hands (palmistry), others to remove an article of
jewelry so that they may "read" it and garner knowledge about
you through the object (psychometry).
The Shape of Things
prepared to have a reading, and wasnt sure if "the power"
work for me. But since my friends were off having their readings, and
since theres really nothing else to do in Cassadaga, I decided to
go looking for someone myself.
BOOK TO THE FUTURE:
this bookstore and giftshop has resident psychics, but book early!
Wandering the shady, narrow streets, I looked at each home and each mediums
shingle, waiting to see if I felt anything. Maybe I was supposed to feel
a vibration, or see an aura around one of the houses. There was nothing.
I passed in front of a particularly well-kept garden with a comfortable-looking
cottage beyond. Warily, I opened the gate and stepped onto the porch.
After knocking only twice, I started to feel a bit sheepish, bothering
this person in her home and asking for I dont know what. How does
one ask for a reading? "Please, maam, Id like you to
tell me a little about myself." Or, "Excuse me, I was wondering
if you could tell me who I was in my past lives?"
RESIDENT ALIEN: greeting
you at the entrance of one psychic's cottage.
The door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman in a housecoat, no shoes,
no makeup. Did I wake her up?
"Please come in," she said, opening the door wide, "and
have a seat here at the table."
Good. She already knew what I wanted. Of course she knew. She went into
the house and returned with a small boom box and a crystal prism. She
set up the boom box to record, then told me the procedure.
HAPPY MEDIUMS: the
Reverends Nick and Jean Sourant of Chauncy Street.
"I will try to give you as long a reading as possible, but when spirit
is gone, I will stop. I ask you not to say anything during the session;
neither confirm nor deny anything spirit may say. You may ask me questions
as the end of the session and I will try to answer them. May I take your
I gave them to her. I could feel myself getting drawn in, and it felt
okay. This woman knew virtually nothing about me except the way I was
dressed. Shed hardly heard me utter a word, yet she was about to
reveal things to me through a spirit. My spirit? Hers? It didnt
matter. I was intrigued.
She took my hands in hers loosely, closed her eyes, and we sat there for
what seemed to be a very long time. I watched her face: calm, serene.
Was she asleep? She crinkled her brow as if in deep thought, released
my hands and picked up the crystal prism, turning it over and over in
She reached over to hit the "record" button on the tape player,
and began to speak, stopping only once to turn the tape over. When she
finished, nearly an hour had elapsed.
A Spirited Presence
work differently. This one saw peoples lives through symbols: A
boot, a window, a
quill pen. The pen, she said, speaking through the spirit, meant that
I was either a writer or a teacher (I have been both); the boot, that
I traveled as part of my job (I write about traveling).
CASA CASSADAGA: your
past and future may be present in this funky hotel.
She gave me first initials of those who would have an influence over my
life, timetables for major changes (career, children, relocation), even
what type of work I would pursue. Many I knew to be true; others have
now come to pass.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is something to it. Some parts
of the reading could have fit just about anybody; others were deeply personal
and uncannily accurate.
Visitors have flocked to Cassadaga for a hundred years to gain insight,
understanding, and guidance from the spirit world. They will probably
come for a hundred more. My friends were convinced that the trip changed
their lives. And me? If the trip didnt make me a believer, it at
least lifted my spirits.
has been adventuring through and writing about Florida travel since 1985.