On a super sunny, perfect summer Friday morning we made our way across Western NY and then finally through the quiet winding road of Dale Dr and arrived at our destination. Lily Dale is a gated community, and to even gain entrance to the town there is a $10 per person fee. We paid up and were given tickets that we were told would have to be turned back in when we left, and in doing so we passed through a gate leaving the regular world behind and entered into a holy land of afterworld mysticism. Without much of a plan in place prior to arriving, we parked the car and got out the map and a schedule of the days events. But, before I go on about Lily Dale…
In the Spring of 1848 two young sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, discovered their ability to interact with spirits living in the afterworld in their family home in what was once called Hydesville, NY in Wayne County. Though the experiences occurred constantly for months on numerous occasions, on March 31 of that year, the girls would communicate with a spirit they referred to as ‘Mr. Splitfoot’ while curious neighbors looked on in complete awe. The girls moved to what is now the Corn Hill region of Rochester with some family friends and 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. Despite the girls’ later confessions that they made a table specifically designed to create the noises that were proof of the interaction, other Spiritualists were not to be disheartened and the movement continued to grow and attract new believers in droves.
Though many people consider March 31, 1848 to be the birth of Spiritualism, just four years previous, in Laona, NY a man with physical disabilities, Jeremiah Carter, had invited a hypnotist from Vermont who claimed the ability to heal Carter by placing him in a state of trance. The man was called away from the group for an emergency before the healing could take place, but the remaining members in the curious congregation began to experiment with the methods themselves. The group was startled by their ability to place Carter in a trance, and in doing so, 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 and in 1855 they would establish their first official group as The First Spiritualist Society of Laona. While we walked around Lily Dale on our visit, it struck me that I didn’t know the origin of the current name, so I started asking around. Two women working in the library told me the property was named because when the group arrived, there were two swans there named ‘Lily’ and Dale’, and they named the property after the swans. It’s good for a chuckle, but it’s not at all true. The actual story is this: The Society began to hold camps and meetings regularly on a farm near their homes, because Carter claimed that voices had been calling to him from that area in particular. The group purchased the 20 acre parcel in 1879 and dubbed their new property the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, and then later The City Of Lights in 1903. The road leading to the property is Dale Drive, and when paired with the fact that there is a constant overabundance of water lilies that grace the surface of the bordering Cassadaga Lake, in 1906 an assembly member, Amelia Colby dubbed the camp The Lily Dale Assembly–and it’s stayed that way ever since.
Pretty much the thing to do when you’re at Lily Dale is to sit with a medium and receive a private consultation in whatever your chosen medium’s talents lie. To do so, you can go to the official website for the Assembly and peruse their list of official registered mediums and then 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, so we hoped to happen across someone who would be available while we were there. We were thinking it would be easy to get an appointment, but since I won’t be mentioning that experience, I wanted to let you know that it wasn’t for lack of our trying. Not to be discouraged, we knew we’d enjoy anything else we came across.
We decided the first stop on our tour would be the Fairy Village, which is 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 and 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. This was actually a really, really cool place to walk and someone, whether it be sprites or Spiritualists, took a ton of time and careful effort to construct a walking path that easily would be imagined to be the village from any childhood fairy tale. We walked through and snagged a bunch of photos careful not to trample anyone who might be walking underfoot, and 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 to not only ban candles, but also to form its own Fire Dept. On the day we were there, the Fire Hall was actually filled with onlookers watching a group of Tibetan monks put the finishing touches on a sand mandala. We stopped in to take a look around but were careful to not be taken off our Spiritualist path for too long–there was WAY too much left to see.
We walked over by the Healing Temple and some people were milling about near the door, and as we made our way toward the entrance of the Temple, we could see that toward 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 having any idea what we almost missed, we walked up through the sanctuary and joined a group of smiling faces who broke the circle to allow Luke and I to join. As we joined back up, the woman who invited us lead the group in a few minutes of prayer and blessed the entire group. We were inside a sanctuary that had been built in 1955 as a place for peace and solitude, and where spiritual healing takes place 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.
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 intended to provide uplifting and inspirational messages from the afterworld plane. Originally, the Temple served as a meeting place twice daily to discuss all kinds of issues, and the tradition has continued. 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.
I mentioned earlier that the Fox Sisters had gotten their start just a few years after the group whose direct lineage is that of Lily Dale’s, but nearly all Spiritualists view the Fox Sisters as the ones who paved the way for their beliefs to be commonplace. The sisters had a troubled and difficult time of establishing themselves as authentic, and countless skeptics attempted to prove them wrong and slander their names. Ironically, the only ones who would ultimately be successful in their slander would be the girls themselves when they admitted to creating the rapping noises. The girls had numerous nay-sayers, but they also had numerous followers, believers and peers who laid claim to having their own ability to interact with the spirit world. 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 and placed it right next to the Forest Temple. Like so many other wood dwellings in Lily Dale, the shrine befell its final fate and burned to the ground at 3:00a 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, now owned and operated by another Spiritualist group who have turned it into somewhat of a park.
From the garden memorial, we crossed the street to the Lily Dale Museum. Located in a former one room schoolhouse that had been built in 1890, the museum has a seemingly unending collection of photographs, books, bibles, paintings and antiquities all directly related to the Spiritualism movement and the founding of Lily Dale. Also important in the museum, is 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, and 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, and by the time we had done all the above, it was time to go to the Inspiration Stump at the Southeast corner of the town. A short, easy walk down a path in the woods opens into a clearing that was 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 up 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, and became a place where their meetings were regularly held. Over time the stump itself began to give way to the weather, and the concrete stump was built around it to protect it from further environmental damage. 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 the origin, today it’s regarded as one of the more sacred places in Lily Dale, and we were about to be present for a daily service.
Services at Inspiration Stump have been held since 1898 and allow mediums to deliver messages from the spirit plane to those in attendance, and it was definitely well attended. We moved up as close as we could, but it seemed like everyone in the entire town had stopped what they were doing and were now gathered together in the woods to see if the spirit of a loved one would attempt to reach them. 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. Then one by one different registered mediums from Lily Dale were called to the front of the crowd and stood near the stump to deliver messages from the spirit world to those of us in attendance. Each medium would stand near the front and begin by telling people that they were receiving a message from a spirit. Each one 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 and then the medium would deliver a message from the spirit to the receiver. There were a few registered mediums who delivered, then a few visiting mediums from out of town, and then a few student mediums, and 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. 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 incredibly 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 hour long service wondering a million and a half 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 just in front of us, and she was telling them how wonderful it felt to hear from him, and 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 at that time trying to get in touch to tell me something, and what they would’ve wanted to say to me.
We had spent a few hours at Lily Dale so far and had only managed to see about 25% percent of the town, so we began looking at the map to determine what would be next. Where the path for Inspiration Stump meets the town road, another path leads off to another direction, and 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.
The Town of Lily Dale is essentially a circle, with residential streets cutting back and forth, and then a few other odd twists and circles thrown in. We walked up and down some of the residential streets checking out the homes and gardens of the residents of the town. Many of the homes have signs out front with the names of the resident and they would often say ‘Medium’ alongside the name. 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!
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, went in to the bookstore where an author was signing books for sale and stopped in a few of the gift shops. While walking around, we kind of marveled at the fact that this small, enclosed town had been operating since before the turn of the 20th century and many of the original buildings and homes stood steadfast and were really fantastic homes.
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 the mainstream culture and 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 other more 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 certainly causes even the strictest of 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 telling you to “Keep On Truckin'”.
Visiting Lily Dale in 2013
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