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Cassadaga: Florida’s Most Spirited Town

The quaint town of Cassadaga sits just off bustling Interstate-four in Volusia County, yet it is one of the most peaceful places in Central Florida. To visit this hamlet is like taking a trip back in time, but what makes Cassadaga unusual, is that every resident is a medium, that’s right, they commune with dearly departed souls. Spiritualism is the main industry here, aside from a couple of New Age bookstores, a café, hotel, and post office. Cassadaga’s history actually began in 1875, during a late summer séance in Lake Mills, Iowa. It was here that George Colby, a 27-year old medium, received a message from an Indian spirit named Seneca. Colby said that his spirit guide, Seneca, instructed him to immediately leave Iowa and make contact with T. D. Giddings, a medium in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The two men, according to Colby’s account, were to conduct another séance through which Seneca would spiritually commune with them. The two mediums complied with their spiritual orders and while in a trance-like state, were told by Seneca that, “A congress of spirits had selected Florida for the establishment of a great spiritualist center, and that Colby had been chosen to lead in its creation.”

In a series of spiritual sessions that followed, Colby continued receiving directions from his spirit guide, Seneca. He was told that the proposed location of this new spiritual center would be “…near Blue Springs, Florida, on high pine hills overlooking a chain of silvery lakes.” It wasn’t long before Colby, and the entire Giddings family, were moving to Florida. They boarded a steamboat in Jacksonville and, on the night of November 1, 1875, landed at Blue Springs, then a remote settlement of a couple of clapboard structures on the St. Johns River. Because of limited accommodations at Blue Springs, the Colby party resided temporarily in a make-shift, palmetto hut to await further instructions from Seneca. Then, late one night in the faint light of a kerosene lamp, they were contacted by Seneca with orders to “Go east, to the outskirts of the village and find the seven hills, this will be the place.”

The next morning they packed-up and with a mule and wagon left Blue Springs on a rutted sand road that cut eastward through a thick scrub of palmettos and pines. Near the town of present day Lake Helen, they found seven pine-covered hills, and saw the silvery lakes mentioned by Seneca. Both Colby and Giddings agreed that this was the spot where they were to build a new spiritual center. For many years, the Colby and Giddings’ homesteads were frequented by mediums from the Cassadaga Free Lakes Association, of Cassadaga, New York. In October, 1894, a group of these mediums established the charter for the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association.

By 1895, Cassadaga was already turning into a winter retreat for spiritualists. In the early 1900s, advertisements in northern newspapers invited mediums to permanently relocate to the great spiritualist center. By the 1920s, Cassadaga had become a regular settlement and the nation’s main center of spiritualism. In 1922, the historic Cassadaga Hotel was built to accommodate the increasing number of visitors and mediums. George Colby died on July 27, 1933 and was buried in the nearby Lake Helen cemetery. A few stories say his grave is empty and that he died a pauper in New Smyrna where he was buried in an unmarked grave. Another rumor has him being cremated and his ashes sent to New York. Most historians support the idea that he is really in the Lake Helen cemetery.

The first spiritual meetings attracted many local folks from Deland and Enterprise, however, being unfamiliar with Spiritualism, Cassadaga was soon looked upon as a strange place, “where the devil’s work is done.” Backwoods preachers warned their congregations to “stay away from Cassadaga, less ye be damned.” It’s easy to say this attitude was generated by rural ignorance, but this same prejudice against Spiritualism still exists today within some local religious circles. I was able to talk with Louis Gates, a certified medium and healer, about the history and rumors surrounding Cassadaga and found that residents still have a few problems with outsiders.

One group of religious fanatics marched to Cassadaga’s Temple during services and stood outside protesting Spiritualism. On another occasion, some guy came dragging a cross down the street. “We’ve always had problems at Halloween,” remarked Gates who grew up in the area. “They come here thinking they’re going to see ghosts, they believe that something evil is going on. One time they started a rumor that the devil was in the temple because they could see a glowing, red candle in the window. What they were talking about was the red exit lights inside the church. Then there are the stories about how we’ve dumped bodies into Spirit Pond or why there are no children in Cassadaga.” Gates says that all these stories originate from people’s ignorance about Spiritualism, “If they understood it, or could see it, they wouldn’t fear it…there’s nothing evil about it.”

Weird Florida

 

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