The Lily Dale Assembly in Western New York is a gated community of Spiritualists that welcomes visitors from all over
by Chris Clemens
On a super sunny, perfect summer Friday morning we made our way across Western NY. The final drive was along the quiet winding road of Dale Drive as we arrived at our destination. Lily Dale is a gated community, and to gain entrance to the town there is a $10 per person fee.
We paid and were given tickets we were told would have to be turned back in upon leaving. Then we passed through a gate leaving the regular world behind and entered into a holy land of afterworld mysticism. Without a plan we parked the car and got out the map and a schedule of the days events.
But, before I go on about Lily Dale…
The Fox Sisters And The Birth Of Spiritualism
In the Spring of 1848 two young sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, discovered their ability to interact with spirits. At the time, the Fox family lived in what was then called Hydesville in Wayne County. Their experiences occurred regularly for months on numerous occasions but on March 31 of that year, they made history. The girls would communicate with a spirit they referred to as ‘Mr. Splitfoot’ while curious neighbors looked on in complete awe.
The Fox Sisters moved to what is now the Corn Hill region of Rochester with some family friends. Soon, the Spiritualism movement quickly provided fuel for the fire that fed the moniker ‘Burned Over District’. As others began to emerge demonstrating their abilities to also communicate with spirits, the religious movement gained traction.
Despite later confessions that they fabricated their abilities, other Spiritualists weren’t disheartened. The Spiritualist movement continued to grow and attract new believers in droves.
The First Spiritualist Society Of Laona
That public display by the Fox Sisters on March 31, 1848 is considered the birth of Spiritualism. But, just four years previous, in Laona, NY a man with physical disabilities, Jeremiah Carter, invited a hypnotist from Vermont who claimed the ability to heal Carter by placing him in a state of trance.
Before Carter’s healing could happen, the hypnotist got called away on an emergency. In his absence, the community began to experiment with the methods themselves.
The group startled themselves by finding they could place Carter in a trance. In doing so, they provided him the ability to speak to the dead. The Fox Sister’s claim to fame would prove only to encourage the group in their practices. In 1855 they would officially establish their group as The First Spiritualist Society of Laona.
How Lily Dale Was Named
While we walked, it struck me that I didn’t know the origin of the name, so I started asking around. Nearly everyone gave a quizzical look while they too realized they didn’t know. Luckily, we found two women working in the library who had an answer.
They shared that the property was named because when the group arrived, they found two swans already living in the lake. According to this story, the swans were named ‘Lily’ and Dale’. This version of history would lead us to believe the town was named for the two swans.
It’s good for a chuckle, but it’s not at all true.
The real story is, The First Spiritual Society of Laona began to hold meetings on a farm near their homes. They chose this spot because Carter claimed that voices had been calling to him from that area in particular.
The Society purchased the 20 acre parcel in 1879 and dubbed their new property the Cassadaga Lake Free Association. Then later in 1903 they changed the name to The City Of Lights.
The road leading to the property is Dale Drive. When paired with the overabundance of water lilies gracing the surface of bordering Cassadaga Lake, a new name seemed natural. In 1906 assembly member, Amelia Colby came up with the name The Lily Dale Assembly–and it’s been that way ever since.
Getting A Reading From A Medium In Lily Dale
Pretty much the thing to do when you’re at Lily Dale is to sit with a medium. You can receive a private consultation in whatever your chosen medium’s talents lie.
On their website you’ll find a list of official registered mediums. Then you can contact that medium yourself to schedule an appointment.
Earlier in the week we tried to book an appointment with a couple different people and never heard back. Instead we hoped to happen across someone who would be available while we were there. We thought it would be easy to get an appointment, but since I won’t be mentioning that experience, I wanted to let you know it wasn’t for lack of trying!
Fairy Trail At Lily Dale
We decided the first stop on our tour would be the Fairy Village. It’s in a brand new area this year due to the previous Fairy Village location apparently becoming overpopulated.
A small path on the East side of the village leads back into a wooded area. From there, it makes the transition from ordinary-walk-in-the-woods to I’m-clearly-in-another-world.
The path is lined with gnome homes, fairy forts and minuscule mansions of every imaginable shape and color that the ‘tiniest residents of Lily Dale’ call home.
The Fairy Village was a really, really cool place to walk through. Someone, whether it be sprites or Spiritualists, took a ton of time and careful effort to create this walking path. We walked through and snagged a bunch of photos careful not to trample anyone who might be walking underfoot.
Afterward, we made our way back toward the human portion of the village.
The Fairy Village trailhead is located between the Fire Hall and the Healing Temple. Years and years ago it was commonplace to see candles lit around Lily Dale. But, the unfortunate fate of a fire’s wrath took one too many homes and Lily Dale Assembly decided ban candles in the town. Taking things a step further, they also formed a Fire Dept.
On the day we visited, the Fire Hall was filled with onlookers watching Tibetan monks finish up a sand mandala. We stopped in and hung out a bit but were careful not to be distracted for too long.
There was WAY too much left to see.
A Service At The Healing Temple
We walked over by the Healing Temple and some people were milling about near the door. As we made our way toward the entrance of the Temple, we could see at the front of the room was a circle of about 20 people holding hands.
A woman looked over her shoulder and saw us peeking in the door and broke her hands of the circle to wave and yell, ‘Come in! You’re just in time!!’
Not realizing what we almost missed, we walked up through the sanctuary and joined a group of smiling faces who broke the circle to allow us in. As we linked back up, the woman who invited us led the group in a few minutes of prayer.
We were inside a sanctuary that had been built in 1955 as a place for peace and solitude. Spiritual healings take place here a couple times a day in guided ceremonies. We apparently had walked in to the closing of one of those healings.
During a service, Lily Dale Assembly officially designated mediums provide Spiritual Healing to anyone wanting of such a practice. The healer uses a number of different methods including ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’ ways to channel spirit energies toward the receiver. When the prayer closed, we thanked them all for including us, and after chatting for a few minutes we went to find more things to explore.
The Forest Temple At Lily Dale
Our next stop on the map was the Forest Temple.
Built in 1894, the Temple provides an outdoor sanctuary where registered mediums lead daily services. During the services, mediums provide uplifting and inspirational messages from the afterworld plane.
Originally, the Temple served as a meeting place. Twice daily it was used to discuss all kinds of issues, and that tradition continues today. When we arrived, it was perfectly empty except for a lone girl listening to headphones and pacing back and forth in front of the altar. We chose not to interrupt.
The Hydesville Home Of The Fox Sisters
I mentioned earlier the Fox Sisters had gotten their start a few years after the folks who started Lily Dale. Nevertheless, nearly all Spiritualists consider the Fox Sisters to have paved the way for their beliefs to be commonplace.
The sisters had a troubled and difficult time establishing themselves as authentic. Countless skeptics attempted to prove them wrong and slander their names. Ironically, the only ones ultimately successful in their slander would be the girls themselves when they admitted to creating the rapping noises. The Fox Sisters had numerous nay-sayers, but the supporters outnumbered them.
After the Fox family moved from the home in Hydesville, the property lay dormant and in disrepair for decades. A Lily Dale member named B.F. Bartlett purchased the home in 1915 and moved the entire house via the canal. He had it placed right next to the Forest Temple.
Like many other wooden dwellings here, the shrine caught fire and burned to the ground on September 21, 1955. With the home went a rapping beam, the pack of the pedler who apparently was killed in Hydesville, a Bible, and numerous other original documents and historical items.
In the shrine’s place now exists a garden and memorial to the founding of Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters. The only remnant of the home where the Fox Sisters once lived is the stone foundation at the original location.
The Lily Dale Museum
From the garden memorial, we crossed the street to the Lily Dale Museum.
The building that the museum occupies was once a one room schoolhouse built in 1890. Inside, the museum has a seemingly unending collection of historical exhibits on display. They’ve got photographs, books, bibles, paintings and antiquities all directly related to the Spiritualism movement and the founding of Lily Dale.
The museum also has a collection dedicated to telling the story of the suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony, who lived just down the street from the Fox Sisters in Rochester. She reportedly regularly visited the Plymouth Spiritualist Church (back then it was in the Corn Hill neighborhood).
A number of religious movements in the mid-1800’s took on the task of fighting for the rights of slaves and women; Spiritualists were one of the groups at the forefront of that activism. If you’re at all interested in history and the developments that have taken place in Upstate NY in the last 150 years, this museum alone would be worth your $10 entrance fee.
The historian for Lily Dale is typically the person working the museum. When we were there he was busy chatting with people, but he has a pretty awesome online presence and a blog with probably the single most extensive collection of information about the history of Spiritualism and Lily Dale I have found. Check it out here.
We only had one thing all that day that was time sensitive. By the time we had done all the above, it was time to visit Inspiration Stump at the Southeast corner of town.
A short, easy walk down a wooded path opens into a clearing canopied by old, large trees that loomed overhead. Dozens of rustic wooden benches all lined up facing the same direction toward a spot at the other end of the clearing.
Once we got closer, it was easy to see that a small iron gate protects a concrete looking tree stump. We were told that back when the camps first began meeting that this particular tree stump is a place where mediums often were called to by spirits. The energy around the stump made it a natural location for their regular meetings. Over time the original stump began to decay so a concrete stump was built as a manner of preservation.
I should also throw in here though, that I’ve received two stories about the stump: 1. that mediums have always experienced a higher spirit energy here and that’s how it became ‘the spot’, and that 2. it just was a convenient meeting place in the woods, and the tradition of meeting there ultimately secured its sacred stature.
Regardless of its origin story, Inspiration Stump is one of the more sacred places in Lily Dale. We were about to sit in on one of the daily services held at Inspiration Stump.
Delivering A Message
Lily Dale has held services at Inspiration Stump since 1898. During the services, mediums deliver messages from the spirit realm to those in attendance, and it’s very well attended. It seemed like everyone in the entire town had stopped what they were doing and were now gathered here.
The service began with a chairperson explaining what would be happening, and asked that people not get up and move around or provide any other sort of distractions. One by one different registered mediums from Lily Dale were called to the front of the crowd. Each stood near the stump to deliver messages from the spirit world to those in attendance.
Each medium would stand near the front and begin by telling people that they were receiving a message from a spirit. They would gleam some relevant piece of information about the spirit such as their height, or name (i.e. “He liked to be called ‘James’, not ‘Jim’ or ‘Jimmy’, that irritated him to be called nicknames.”) or something about their personality that they would share with the crowd. A crowd member would then raise their hand and say that they could make sense of the spirit’s identity, and the medium would go on to confirm a few other details of the connection between the two. Once a connection was confirmed, the medium could deliver the spirit’s message.
There were a few registered mediums who delivered, then a few visiting mediums from out of town, and then a few student mediums. The chairperson also delivered some messages, including a drawing of the spirit whom he was interacting. Two sisters in the front row claimed to know of the spirit, but I didn’t get an opportunity to ask if the drawing was a close likeness to their loved one.
Receiving A Message
Nearly every single message that was delivered was a positive, inspirational one, and I recall the message of “He/She wants you to know they are doing great, and that they believe in you and that they want you to keep on truckin.’ being delivered at least five times by different mediums.
Responses by attendees ranged from a girl who broke into tears when she received a ‘keep on truckin’ message from her father, who was described as “Bob, or Robert, and tall and skinny” to just a simple ‘thank you’ to the medium. Before a medium delivers a message, they ask the receiver, ‘Can I come to you?’ or ‘Can I deliver a message to you?’ A medium chose a man out of the crowd behind us as a spirit wanted to deliver a message, but the man declined. In a minute’s or so time, it was determined that the spirit actually wanted to talk to the man sitting a few spots down from the one who declined, and the message was delivered successfully.
I typically find it easy to write about my experiences very matter of factly. But, Spiritualism is probably the only time I’ve witnessed the process of a human directly interacting with a speaker of another world and directly relating specific information back to the human realm.
Catholics interact with God during a service, Buddhists make an attempt to connect with Buddha, but Spiritualists actually have conversations back and forth with mediums–it seems like it’s a very different type of experience than other religions who are connecting with their gods during their services.
I’ve written and re-written the experience of the service at Inspiration Stump three times now, and I’m beginning to realize that there is no way for me to describe in words the experience of sitting in the woods with a crowd of people waiting to be given a message from a deceased loved one by a total stranger standing in front of the crowd. The experience is quite different than anything I’ve been part of.
I walked back down the path after the service wondering a million things about what was just witnessed. The crowd’s mood as we all walked back seemed to be one of happiness. The girl who cried after receiving a message from her father was walking with her friends near me, and she was telling them how wonderful it felt to hear from him. Her friends were offering positive reinforcements of how fantastic it was to experience it. I wondered if anyone that I had known who had passed away was in the woods trying to get in touch to tell me something. Would they just tell me to “keep on truckin”?
After a few hours at Lily Dale we had only managed to see about 25% percent of the town. We checked out the map to plot the rest of our course for the day.
Where the path for Inspiration Stump meets the town road, another path leads off to another direction. It turns out, that path leads you to the Pet Cemetery of Lily Dale.
Here lies each of the pets that have passed away in the town since the beginning of Lily Dale. There are cats and dogs and fish and even horses with stones dating back more than 100 years.
A Town Of Spiritualists
The Town of Lily Dale is essentially designed as a circle, with residential streets cutting back and forth. Then a few other odd twists and circles are thrown in.
We walked up and down the residential streets checking out the homes and gardens of the residents of the town. Many of the homes have signs with the names of the resident and usually indicating they were a Medium.
If you’re interested, there were a number of homes that were for sale, which got us to thinking: what’s required to live in Lily Dale? Do you have to be a medium? Do you pay town taxes to Lily Dale? An HOA to Lily Dale? Since tax exemptions are made to religious groups, is this entire town tax exempt?! Unfortunately, all of those questions remain unanswered, so if you’re reading and can shed some light that would be great!
Other Things To Do In Lily Dale
There are a couple little cafe type restaurants in the town, so we grabbed a quick bite to eat in what felt a lot like a summer camp cafeteria and continued on the road.
We visited the Community Beach, the Library, peeked into the Auditorium where a presentation was going on, and went in to the bookstore where an author was signing books and stopped in a few of the gift shops.
While walking, we marveled at the fact that this small, enclosed town had been operating since before the turn of the 20th century. Not only that, but many of the original buildings and homes stood steadfast and were really fantastic homes.
Modern Culture And Spiritualism
We were in a town that was owned, operated and lived in by folks who celebrate the way of life that is grounded in the mysticism of what most could never understand or maybe even could never believe in. TV shows like ‘The Long Island Medium’ and paranormal research groups like ‘Ghost Hunters’ (and by the way, both of these shows have been to Lily Dale to do presentations) have helped moved the world of interacting with the afterlife into mainstream culture. These shows let us gawk and marvel from the comfort of our couches and big screen tvs, but the folks at Lily Dale have been quietly committing themselves to celebrating talents and lifestyles of Spiritualism long before it was popular.
In fact, the original founding members trudged through a time when Spiritualism was very unpopular, and mainstream religions sought to debunk the belief and shut it down and sometimes even used violent means to do so. The longevity and strong following of such a belief may not be enough to prove that humans can interact with the afterworld, but it does cause even the strictest skeptics to wonder what it is truly happening within the realm of Spiritualism.
Regardless of what you believe, you should definitely take a day to explore Lily Dale and decide for yourself if someone is truly attempting to reach you from the afterlife.
How To Visit Lily Dale
The Lily Dale “In Season” ends on September 1, 2013. The cost is $10 per person to enter. During ‘Off Season’ visiting is still welcome, and there is no cost for entrance. During the ‘In Season’ there are hotels available on site, they are closed during the ‘off Season’ times.
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens