Part one of a five-part series
The winding backwoods roads of Chautauqua County, New York, are lined with churches and scrap heaps. Trailers and half-completed ranch-style homes, surrounded by skeletal cars and tire piles, fill the gaps between each Baptist ministry, farm, and family-owned garage.
It’s late February in Cassadaga and the decaying standards of the Southern Tier persist in this decrepit town. Many of the village’s half-standing houses cling to their Christmas lights to improve their image for the community breadwinners—Peck’s Sand and Gravel, May’s Place Food and Drink, and an Apple gas station. A Catholic and a Baptist church sit in the town proper, and have been since loggers established the town in pioneer times.
But there’s no hint of church activity, or logging heritage—or life—as you pass through. At noon on a Sunday no villagers walk the streets or peruse the shops. The clerks themselves stand listlessly at their charges, existing only to dispense change and watch the clock give them 11.9 cents per second. The village seems to have given up, and in surrender they’ve allowed a small green sign beneath their welcoming one:
<— Lily Dale 1
That three-foot highway sign is all that announces the world’s largest Spiritualist community: The Lily Dale Assembly.
“I passed out fliers here a few years ago,” said John. “I’ve never been so creeped out in my life. They’re nothing but a bunch of nutjobs.”
My co-adventurer, John McGrath, had turned me on to Lily Dale over a shared liter of whiskey. That same night he regaled me with stories of going door to door in the spiritual sanctum, seeing flashes of “freaky shit” just inside a villager’s door. And he went on about the weird locals like the Fairy Trails, the Inspiration Stump, and…
“Something just called ‘the Forest Temple,’ whatever happens there,” said John.
In John’s threatening stories I found the determination to explore Lily Dale.
The core of my interest stems from being an idiot. Maybe ignorant is a better term. I grew up with all the small-town stereotypes bad 90’s rock and early blues crooned about—complete with rampant amounts of classism, Christian ideals, and manure consuming the town. To escape the confinement of the backwoods mentality, I throw myself into situations I don’t understand to learn.
Experience is the best teacher, but I took precaution before venturing to Lily Dale. I enrolled in courses on reading auras (a person’s spiritual thermometer), tarot cards, speaking with the dead, and healing the human spirit…much against my hungry bank account’s wishes. I couldn’t yet do any of the above myself, but I learned enough to blend in if asked.
Learning to predict the future and talk to dead relatives would come in time.
With the foundation of spiritual tools came bits of history. With the history came a desire to know more. Head first into the books I dove.
“I don’t get it,” said John. “What makes these people so special that they get a private community? What are they?”
We stopped at a gas station next to the highway sign and I told John all I knew about Spiritualists and Lily Dale over the hum of the pump.
* * * * *
What is a Spiritualist? By picking apart the term you get “A practitioner of spirit,” in the same way a psychologist is a practitioner of psychology.
The National Spiritualist Association of Churches describes a Spiritualist as: “One who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the communication between this and the Spirit World by means of mediumship and who endeavors to mould his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teachings derived from such communication.”
In short, Spiritualists believe they can talk to dead people.
Interviewed Christian ministers quickly quoted the same Bible verse, following their passage with a colorful description on the Satanic nature of Spritualists and mediums:
“Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…”
– Deuteronomy 18:10-12
“They (shellfish) shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination.”
– Leviticus 11:11
I happen to love shellfish. Having already been condemned for seafood’s sake, visiting the community out of curiosity couldn’t hurt my blackened soul. Feeling assured in my doom, we jumped into the car, I nodded to John, and we followed the highway sign towards complete damnation.
* * * * *
The one-mile Dale Drive smelled of over-used bath water, yet the pleasant scenery made up for the stagnant stench. With Middle Lake bordering one side of the road, the houses on the other sported improvements such as full paint jobs, clear lawns, and vehicles meant for driving instead of shooting. Evenly paved roads spidered from Dale to form four-or-five-home cul-de-sacs, cutting calculated sections into the wire fence embedded into the woods. A postcard-quality image of peaceful lakeside living persisted.
Half a mile down Dale Drive an assortment of violet overhangs and signs stand out among the leafless trees. The first sign of Spiritualist life is a beautifully crafted, purple-fringed building with a carved sign reading, “The Fellowship of the Spirit.” Within the tinted windows, set into stained-wood walls, a circle of worshipers of all ages and sizes kneel in meditation. No demonic symbols adorn the outside, no hippies chanting and waltzing in flowing robes. Just a crew in their Sunday’s best, kneeling motionless in focus.
Surely the community proper would have more sites to offer.
Approaching Lily Dale’s front gate gave the impression of a third-world carnival’s ticket booth. The peeling wooden gatehouse separated the road’s lanes, prepared to bar both paths with yellow barricade arms. A wind-blasted sign listed on-season entrance fees: $10 for a day pass, $50 for a week, or $195 for the season. Placed above the gatehouse is a Community Watch eyeball sign, staring like the Eye of Sauron at all comers.
“What a ripoff,” said John.
To our fortune, we arrived during Lily Dale’s off season and drove in with our wallets unmolested.
The town’s immediate impression suggested a vacation resort in recession. Past the front gate stood the servicing essentials: a town hall, a hotel, an information center, and a certified post office. A few cafes and gift shops jutted between the village necessities—all shuttered and locked till the summer tourists arrived.
Rows of pastel-painted cottages constitute the town’s living quarters, many covered with paintings or statues of angels. The cottages each have their own sign giving the first and last name of the owner, their offered services, and if they’re in or out. As we toured, Lily Dale seemed less and less like a tight-knit community and more like a flea market for spiritual guidance.
Buildings dated back to 1879 stand sanely among the kaleidoscope of cottages. After 130 years, these structures—once homes to the spiritually sensitive outcasts—now serve as libraries, lyceums, offices, and worshiping temples. The rolling hills and pitted roads added to the community’s lived-in charm—yet I appreciated the advantage of observing through a car window. The absence of tourists gave the community a vacant look, but every street felt full.
John and I saw no one through our tour, but we could feel a stern and steady watch over us at all times.
Against Sauron’s eye from the ticket booth, warding magic, and paranoia, we carried on.
* * * * *
Between April and September Lily Dale opens up for over 20,000 visitors. Some come to experience the outdoors in a secluded, but physically safe, environment. Many others travel from all over the world to attend mediumship seminars and Spiritualist services—often renting rooms from the year-round locals.
“It’s amazing that all these freaks manage to get together,” said John. “I wonder how the hell they found each other.”
Many were psychics, but…
The Lily Dale Assembly started in the late 1800s. Free thinkers of Western New York camped once a year to share their beliefs and enjoy a sense of community. Willard Alden, a spiritually sensitive farmer, owned many acres throughout and around what’s now Cassadaga, and he offered some acreage to the spiritual pilgrims.
From 1873 to 1878 the simple yet-to-be-named assembly grew from a once-a-year meeting to a seasonal escape. But, in late 1878, Willard Alden passed away, leaving his family to quarrel over who owned the land. With their seasonal meeting place in dispute, the Spiritualists moved to an adjacent 20-acre lot along the upper portion of Lake Cassadaga.
Corintha Alden carried on with the assembly, providing the group with a series of names, from the Cassadaga Lakes Free Association, to the City of Light Assembly, and, to the Lily Dale Assembly in 1906. Through the transition of location and name, Lily Dale changed. In a not-so-public chapter of Susan B. Anthony’s life, she lived at Lily Dale and turned the community into a center for women’s suffrage. The assembly also held a nationally recognized dance academy, as well as an ice harvesting plant.
Only the ideals of mediumship and Spiritualism endured the community’s changes.
Though, the modern approach to offer their assembly as a vacation spot drowned any hint of culture and historical significance. Hourly mediumship rates and reading schedules dotted the cottage windows, along with high-tech security system stickers and satellite television dishes.
But, as times change so must we. And John and I carried on.
* * * * *
As we approached the end of the housing rows, the towering timbers of Leolyn Forest offered a backdrop of comfort to the Spiritualist mainstays.
“Here we go,” said John. “Freak row.”
The Forest Temple and Healing Temple stood out stark white against the brown backdrop of seasoned trees. Further down the road is the Bargain Shoppe, which looks like it could have been taken from any small town. The Shoppe is run by a pair of middle-aged twins who work in tandem on everything but can’t agree on how long the shoppe itself has been around.
Then there’s the playground/park next to the pet cemetery, with a woodland trail leading to the famed Inspiration Stump just beyond. And there’s the volunteer fire station, built in 1991, which comes complete with ambulances, fire trucks, and a maintenance garage. Beyond the fire hall, the meditation garden lays dormant next to the snow-concealed Fairy Trails—which, upon inspection, are just nature trails sans fairys.
No chanting or new-age music could be heard once we got the courage to stroll about. Nature’s soundtrack played steadily—giving prominence to the din of birds, the bush rustle of prowling cats, and the rattle of branches in the wind. Occasionally we’d hear the click of a door swaying in the wind or the creak of old house siding.
What the hell…this is freak row?
Shouldn’t there be a scream of a non-believer’s sacrifice?
Why aren’t there any 666s in the windows?
Aren’t these mediums supposed to be a bunch of witches and freaks?
Instead, my first impressions of Lily Dale contained nothing but a peaceful community with entertainment, enlightenment, and self-preservation in mind.
But, is that the real Lily Dale? What happens behind closed doors?
Jared VanDyke is a freelance writer and graduate of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism and Mass Communication program. He is attending Goddard College for an MFA in Creative Writing, in June of 2010, to strengthen his preferred writing style of New Journalism.