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The spirit of Cassadaga

The air of the town smells like stale incense and there is an unsettling quiet at the “downtown” intersection of Stevens Street and County Road 4139. The hotel parking lot is only half-full and the garage-like post office has been locked up for the weekend.

On the front porch of the bookstore, a local man leans against the railing and faces a visiting couple relaxing on a bench.

“You’ve got to stay here for two or three days,” he tells them, breaking the silence. “After that, you just start to lose the tension and you can really begin to feel the spirit.”

Welcome to Cassadaga.

Located approximately 45 miles outside Orlando, the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association covers 57 acres of land, all dedicated to the expression and progression of Spiritualism. As defined by the Spiritualists of America, Spiritualism is “the science, philosophy and religion based upon the principle of continuous life, demonstrated through mediumship.”

Spiritualists do not believe in right or wrong, but rather spiritual progression. The religion follows the teachings of the Bible and believes in God, but only as an “Infinite Intelligence.” There are no stipulations of the “Infinite Intelligence,” except that it can be reached directly through its followers for a personal and spiritual experience.

What really sets the religion apart from all others is the belief that spirits roam the Earth right along with the living. It is also a belief that anyone can be trained to contact them.

Cassadaga, which comes from the Seneca Indian word meaning “rocks beneath the water,” was declared a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. There are currently 55 residences in the camp housing 25 spiritual mediums and healers. While the residents may own their houses, the camp owns the land and each homeowner is required to pay the Association a yearly rental and maintenance fee.

Anyone can live in the town of Cassadaga, but only Spiritualists are permitted to reside on the 57 acres of actual campground. There are three stores and a one-room post office in the town, but no schools, McDonald’s or ATMs. The closest sign of anything corporate is a Citgo gas station three miles up the road in the town of Lake Helen.

Visitors will also find that there aren’t many children around. With approximately 400 residents, there are not many kids in the area, and according to Don Zanghi, a resident and former president of the camp, no children live within the camp’s boundaries.

The official camp bookstore, which sells tarot cards, astrological materials, potions and spiritually affiliated CDs, is one of the camp’s main sources of revenue. The building looks like an old house, complete with wrap-around front porch. There is a Pepsi vending machine that sits on the left side of the porch, its bright blue color disturbing the flow of natural-colored scenery. The bookstore also houses the welcome center, where working mediums post their availability each day.

Across the street is The Cassadaga Hotel, which is privately owned and not associated with the Spiritualist camp. The hotel contains the area’s only restaurant, the Lost in Time Café, and also offers the services of psychic mediums. There is a gift shop, much like that of the bookstore, as well as an eerie lobby with antique furniture and a big-screen TV.

On the opposite side of the road, outside the camp’s perimeter, is a post office and general store. There is also the Purple Rose, a “Native American and Metaphysical Stuff Store.” Down the road is Colby Park, complete with boat ramp and playground.

Most visitors are those vacationing in nearby Orlando or Daytona Beach, both known for souvenir shops, restaurants and various forms of entertainment. Cassadaga easily disappears from the tourist’s map, as it has no rodent mascot or beach full of half-naked college kids. What it does have, and what people who visit come for, is a feeling. The town has an undeniable energy, be it real or merely what visitors bring with them.

Some people visit to investigate the rumors of “witches” and the “devil’s chair,” an area in the cemetery that is rumored to be haunted. They are disappointed when no one in the town dresses like a witch or practices black magic. The “devil’s chair” rumor is put to rest quickly, as the residents of the town only learned of it after visitors came up with the story; there is no cemetery in Cassadaga. Nearby Lake Helen has one, which may be where the rumor stemmed from, but that town is not associated with Spiritualism.

Other visitors come for the spirit seminars and tours offered by the Cassadaga Hotel. For $20, one can take an hour-long tour led by a hotel psychic and learn about the spirits that inhabit the hotel and why they have stayed.

What most people come for, though, is to try to find a sense of peace. Many seek the answers about what they should do or an insight as to what is going to happen. Spirits are summoned every day in this town to help an outsider with a question — for a price. Psychic mediums charge anywhere from $35 to $50 for a half-hour session. Many will record the session and most are happy to answer any specific questions you have, although you may not get the answers you want to hear.

Other folks search for someone to put them at ease about the loss of a loved one, hoping for proof that he or she is fairing well in the afterlife. Spirits can be summoned in private on a one-on-one basis with a medium. Another (more expensive) option is a séance, which can summon multiple spirits and can involve many people. Some come to find peace with themselves, searching for the answers through their past lives. A “past-life drawing” can reveal who you were and possibly why you are who you are today for around $200.

Spiritual healing is another major draw to the camp, as most of its residents are healers. A “healing” is basically a call to the “Spirit” to help one heal a physical or emotional pain. The religion does not denounce modern medicinal practices, but feels that the healing process is much more complete with the help of a spirit. A person can ask to be healed prior to or during a church service or during a private session with a healer. Healings can also be sought for someone who is not present.

The camp offers classes and seminars throughout the year that are open to the public. Most deal either with learning about Spiritualism and the history of it or how to become a medium. Many are drawn to the religion and want to learn about it and the possibilities it may hold for them. Some see this as a possible way of life.

Over 270,000 visitors have journeyed to Cassadaga in the past four years. Some have converted, some found what they were searching for, and others consider themselves gypped out of $50. Whatever brings people to this village, lost off the highway between the meccas of central Florida, makes no difference; the experience is all about belief. In a town built on the faith of alternate plane, visitors must truly believe there is a special something in the air of Cassadaga, even if only for the time they breathe it in.

Information from these sources was used in this article:
“Cassadaga, Florida: Yesterday and Today,” by Elizabeth Owens
Donald J. Zanghi, Spiritual Medium & Counselor, camp resident (386) 228-3156
“Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp 2002/2003 Annual Program”

Directions to Cassadaga:

Take I-4 east toward Orlando for approximately 105 miles.  Exit on SR-472 west, exit No. 114.