The True Spirit of Cassadaga
While sitting on the long porch that runs the length of the Cassadaga Hotel, I have a good view of Stevens Street and Harmony Hall in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. Rows of rusty tin roof homes and ancient trees draped with Spanish moss line the street. It’s the kind of old Florida snapshot that is quickly fading with each new Dollar General or RaceTrac.
Progress hasn’t managed to trample through these old streets yet, but then again Cassadaga is no ordinary place. You wouldn’t know it from its quiet streets this morning, but this small community attracts thousands of visitors a year and has been dubbed, “The Psychic Capital of the World.”
The story of Cassadaga is strange and shrouded in mystery. Its unusual beginnings all started with a small boy, baptized in the frigid waters of Minnesota, and a rather pushy Indian spirit guide named Seneca.
The Peculiar Life of George P. Colby
George P. Colby was born in Pike, New York in 1848 to James L. Colby and his wife Elminia A. (Lewis) Colby. When George was little, the Colby’s settled on 160 acres of land in Forestville Township, Minnesota. The area would later become known as Cherry Grove in honor of George’s father and his orchard of cherry trees.
George lived on the farm with his two brothers and two sisters. Unfortunately, both sisters died at a young age.
During the winter of 1860, when George was twelve years old, he was baptized in a nearby lake so frozen over that a hole needed to be cut in the ice. Although no substantial connection can be drawn between the two events, shortly after George claimed to be visited by the spirit of his uncle who told him he was a great psychic and would later found a great spiritual center in the south.
During his teens George’s mediumship further developed and included clairvoyance, spiritual readings, and healing. He was said to be frequently drawn into trances by personal spirit guides. As many could imagine, this did not please George’s devout Baptist parents, and George was regularly punished and beaten.
In 1867 George broke from the church and began his life as a medium, traveling from state to state performing private readings and parlor séances. During his travels George would accept whatever payment his clients thought was fair, and at times he was forced to take on side jobs in order to survive.
Eventually word traveled of George’s talent and he began to gain some fame as a test medium. It was reported that George would often speak with the deceased relatives of his clients and recall facts with amazing accuracy.
George is said to have communed with several spirit guides: his most prominent was a Native American named Seneca, who he claimed spoke to him during a seance in Lake Mills, Iowa. Seneca told him he was to go on a great journey, but first he must visit the home of T. D. Giddings in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin George met a Spiritualist named Theodore Giddings and received further instructions. Seneca instructed him to travel again, this time to Florida with the Giddings Family to obtain land selected by the “Congress of Spirits” as a spiritualist center.
So George and the Giddings family went to Jacksonville and later to Blue Springs Landing. From there George left on foot into the piney woods of Volusia County. Just north of modern day Deltona he found the place that would later become the home of the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association.
Colby was instrumental in acquiring the land for the camp and built a house there, but he did not live there full time. By that time George suffered from very poor health, but the Florida climate renewed him enough that he began touring the country again as a test medium, lecturer and spiritualist leader.
It wasn’t until December 18, 1894 that a charter was formed for the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. Two people were vital in forming the association: E.W Bond and Marion Skidmore. Bond supplied materials to build many of the original structures in the camp. Meanwhile, Skidmore was known as “Mother of the Camp.”
Both came from the Lily Dale Assembly, a spiritual camp in New York whom many original Cassadaga Camp members hailed from. In fact, it was Skidmore’s idea to name the camp after the Cassadaga Lakes near the Lily Dale camp. The word Cassadaga comes from the Seneca Indians, meaning: “rocks beneath the water.”
George visited the camp on and off for the rest of his life. He served as the camp’s spiritual leader and lecturer. He put on plays, grew citrus in the area, and he adopted and educated several children during his lifetime.
Colby returned to Cassadaga for the last time in 1933 when his health began to fail. He was provided with a place to live, and the camp members saw to his needs. He died on July, 27, 1933.
Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association
Today, the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is the largest spiritualist community in the southern United States and registered as a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees. Their web site explains that although the term “camp” is used there are no camping facilities on the property.
The association describes itself as community consisting of “approximately 57 acres with 55 residences.” Those who live in the town have chosen “to share in a community of like-minded people where they can live, worship and work in harmony with their beliefs.”
The camp’s mediums, healers and members are all required to follow the association’s by-laws, rules and regulations. Although people can purchase homes within the camp, the association maintains ownership of the land and homeowners are generally camp members. The camp was designated a historic district on the National Register Of Historic Places in 1991.
The community offers a number of activities including church services, classes on meditation and instruction on spiritualism, spiritual counseling, historic tours, and psychic readings.
The camp’s main building is the Andrew Jackson Davis Building, which at one time served as the camp’s recreation hall and now the camp’s bookstore and information center. Other buildings of the association include Harmony Hall, Brigham Hall, the Caesar Forman Healing Center, the Colby Memorial Temple, and the Summerland House (which houses the camp’s offices).
The Cassadaga Hotel
It is important to note that the Cassadaga hotel is no longer associated with the Spiritualist Camp. The hotel we see today — although historic in its own right — is also not the original hotel.
The first hotel, owned by an Emma J. Huff, burned to the ground on Christmas Night 1926. The camp began reconstruction of the hotel the following year, and it was completed in 1928.
However, during the Great Depression the camp lost ownership of the hotel, and it was sold to private owners. During the 1990s it was sold again and renovated. The hotel now includes Sinatra’s Restaurant and a coffee bar. Psychic readings, seances and meditation areas are provided in house. The hotel also claims to be haunted by “friendly spirits,” and advertises a “truly unique experience.”
One of the most popular ghost stories is the hotel’s resident ghost, Arthur. The cheery ghost of Irish descent is said to have resided in the hotel during his life. He was known to drag a chair to the end of the hall to look out the window. Hotel guests have claimed to have seen brief glimpses of Arthur at the end of the hall or caught a lingering smell of gin and cigars, of which they say he was fond.
The Ann Stevens House
The Ann Stevens House is a historical home, located just down the street from the Cassadaga Hotel. It has a long history of housing camp visitors. The house was built in 1895 by Ann Stevens, a wealthy winter camp visitor. She acquired the property directly from George Colby and helped fund his lecture tours.
Stevens also served as director of the camp association for several years and ran a boarding house for visitors. Today the house is a popular 10-room bed and breakfast. Stevens Street, one of the main roads passing through the heart of the Cassadaga, is named after Ann.
Spirits of Cassadaga
Some believe that Cassadaga exists within a kind of “spiritual vortex,” where the veil between our world and spirit world is thin and ragged. With a neighborhood that boasts so many psychics, seers and ghosts, you may be inclined to cast off this supernatural Mayberry as another cheap Florida attraction. But I urge you to take another look before you go as you may catch a glimpse of something much more significant.
This timeless place is home to many serious spiritualists, who welcome visitors, but at the same time demand their religious beliefs be respected. It’s a community that refuses to allow their home to fade away as so many others have before it. And it’s that perseverance that makes Cassadaga a truly remarkable place.
If you are looking for a unique Florida experience, rich with mystery and historic wealth, stop by! You will find the true spirits of Cassadaga are not the dead but a thriving community of people, fiercely dedicated to each other, their religion and historical identity.
For information on local Cassadaga events or about the Spiritualist Camp, please visit the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Official Website: http://www.cassadaga.org/
For information or to book a room at the Cassadaga Hotel visit their website at: http://www.cassadagahotel.net/ both include calendars of local events.
For information or to book a room at the Ann Stevens House please visit their website at: http://annstevenshouse.com/
Cassadaga, Florida: Yesterday and Today (5th Edition, Revised) By Elizabeth Owens, 2015
The Ann Stevens House Official Website: http://annstevenshouse.com/
Haunted Places — The Cassadaga Hotel Cassadaga, Florida: http://joelmandre.com/haunted-places-the-cassadaga-hotel-cassadaga-florida/
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Official Website: http://www.cassadaga.org/
Cassadaga Hotel Official Website: http://www.cassadagahotel.net/