CASSADAGA — Sunflowers, the universal symbol of those who believe that life continues after death and some people have the ability to communicate with the deceased, are sprinkled throughout this tiny hamlet.
The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a home to mediums and healers about 35 miles north of Orlando, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, marking the evolution of a community on a “vortex of psychic energy” where the gifts of spiritualists can thrive and believers can worship in peace.
On Saturday, the camp will kick off a monthly series of celebrations, culminating with a masquerade ball in December, at the sanctuary for 78 residents immersed in the metaphysical world that draws curious visitors from around the world.
“Karma and destiny” brought Reverend Don Zanghi from Buffalo, N.Y., to the camp 28 years ago. He teaches a Sunday morning service, Lyceum, for anyone who wishes to learn about spiritualism.
“The whole idea of having a camp is because the energy is here, you’re surrounded by it all the time — you’re breathing it, you’re living it, you’re feeling it — it’s like going to school,” said Zanghi, a 70-year-old medium and healer.
The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association began as a 35-acre winter haven in 1894 founded by George Colby, a trance medium from New York who was guided by a Native American spirit named “Seneca” to Central Florida.
It was designated as a historic district in 1991 and operates as a nonprofit organization under a board of trustees.
Dawn Medley, camp activity director, said visitors are welcome from sunup to sundown — even skeptics — and that spiritualism isn’t an evangelical religion.
“We demonstrate. We don’t go out and feel the need to have people come here and believe what we believe,” Medley said. “We really encourage free thinking — we want people to come to their own conclusion.”
Many residents offer services in their homes and apartments at an independently determined rate. Mediums and healers advertised on signs around the camp are labeled as “certified,” a distinction that applies only to members who have undergone training and a verification of experience and skills.
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp
It’s been 125 years since George P. Colby, a trance medium from New York, traveled to Central Florida and set up camp in what later became known as the spiritualist community of Cassadaga, unofficially dubbed as the “psychic capitol of the world.” May 2, 2019.
Camp guidelines discourage the use of “gimmicky” tools such as pendulums and crystal balls.
“We’re going to give you evidence of who we’re connecting with – it could be could be a physical description, could be a shared memory, could be how they passed or something about their personality … any number of things,” Medley said. “And then we’ll give you the information they wish to bring.”
The long, curved pavement of Cassadaga Road serves as a physical divide between the camp and a cluster of businesses that also offer spiritual services but have a long-standing disagreement over the tools of the trade.[
“They’re just trying to separate themselves because they feel that we’re hokey,” said Varney Pearce, store manager for Purple Rose Trading Company, a third-generation family owned shop. The 119-year-old building with an attached haunted history museum sells “esoteric accessories” — crystals, stones and astrology charts.
“As far as tools go, I know readers that prefer tarot because it’s a visual representation of what they’re telling you,” Pearce said. “People will see the devil or death card and freak out but it can actually mean change or the death of a career into something new – it’s a good thing, something new. It’s all perspective.”
Although camp members don’t use tools, they do embrace technology such as cameras and voice recorders that document physical phenomenon.
Medley gives a nighttime tour of the camp — often accompanied by Gretel, one of several outdoor feline inhabitants — using flashlights, which spirits can employ to announce their presence.e
“When that light turns on, it’s something everybody sees,” she said.
Cassadaga, the camp and town immortalized in a Tom Petty song, has been known for decades as a quirky travel destination. It’s listed on RoadsideAmerica.com, dubbed as an online guide to “offbeat tourist attractions.”
Visitors are drawn to landmarks like Hotel Cassadaga, a reportedly haunted structure with “friendly spirits” that dates back to the 1920s. It was sold by the camp during the Great Depression and now operates under private ownership.
The camp recently created an elaborate outdoor fairy trail, in collaboration with the West Volusia Tourism Office, which feature 6-foot tall pastel butterfly wings that are already making the rounds on Instagram.[
At Saturday’s event, Volusia County Council member Barbara Girtman will read a proclamation and camp residents will unearth a time capsule that was buried during the 100-year mark.
The camp is also raising money for the upkeep of its seven historical buildings, including Colby Memorial Temple, to preserve its legacy into the next century.
“Death has always been scary for people and when they see proof that life continues on, it’s quite comforting and soothing,” Medley said. “There will always be generations looking for these answers.”
Lisa Maria Garza covers Winter Park, Maitland, Eatonville and east Orange County for the Orlando Sentinel. She previously reported general news for Reuters, based in Dallas, and graduated from the University of North Texas. Lisa, a San Antonio native, moved to Florida with her two cats but remains a loyal Spurs fan.