Chesapeake Country House



By Robin Hill Rowan

Photography by Barbara Bose

Cassadaga, Florida exists as an entity unto itself way off Interstate 4 (you won’t find it unless you’re 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 town’s mediums can claim to be descendants of Cassadaga founders, the tiny camp (population: 100) remains largely as it did in the 1920’s. 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
Related Links
Psychic Readers
Where to Stay

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.

Quiet: Spirit Crossing
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.

That’s the way it has always been, one of the town’s residents explained to us, and to some folks, that’s one of the camp’s main attractions. According to Camp Manager Fran Ellison, Cassadaga is doing its best not to become another Florida tourist attraction. The camp’s 55 acres, which were donated by George Colby, are the extent of the original town of Cassadaga.

"We’ve 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 "$15.00—today 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 can’t have a big, flashy sign," says Ellison. "I don’t know why the law doesn’t 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 within.

Good Vibrations
The people 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 more.

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.

PSYCHIC READING: the local bookstore has hundreds of hard to find books, tapes and gifts.
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. They’re friendly, but aren’t overly outgoing. Somber, but not mysterious.

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 Not
"People who come for readings are usually having some sort of problem, or they’re seeking contact with deceased loved ones. You just get to know who’s here for real and who’s here to try to trip you up," says "Birdie," a medium who works out of the Cassadaga Hotel. "We’ll give them [non-believers] a reading, but we all know they’re wasting their money."

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 to Come
I wasn’t prepared to have a reading, and wasn’t sure if "the power" would even
BOOK TO THE FUTURE: this bookstore and giftshop has resident psychics, but book early!
work for me. But since my friends were off having their readings, and since there’s really nothing else to do in Cassadaga, I decided to go looking for someone myself.

Wandering the shady, narrow streets, I looked at each home and each medium’s 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.

RESIDENT ALIEN: greeting you at the entrance of one psychic's cottage.
After knocking only twice, I started to feel a bit sheepish, bothering this person in her home and asking for I don’t know what. How does one ask for a reading? "Please, ma’am, I’d 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?"

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."

HAPPY MEDIUMS: the Reverends Nick and Jean Sourant of Chauncy Street.
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.

"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 hands?"

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. She’d hardly heard me utter a word, yet she was about to reveal things to me through a spirit. My spirit? Hers? It didn’t 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 one hand.

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
All mediums work differently. This one saw people’s lives through symbols: A boot, a window, a
CASA CASSADAGA: your past and future may be present in this funky hotel.
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).

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 didn’t make me a believer, it at least lifted my spirits.

Robin Rowan has been adventuring through and writing about Florida travel since 1985.