If road trips should have an element of the weird or offbeat, then my travel companion and I made the perfect decision to visit Cassadaga this past April. As the self-proclaimed “Psychic Capital of the World,” this tiny town about 45 minutes north of Orlando also proudly boasts on its website that it’s the oldest continuously active religious community in the Southeastern United States. For a town of fewer than 100 inhabitants, they also might have the most superlatives per capita.
Seeing how there aren’t any peer-reviewed studies that support the claims of psychics and mediums, I was making this trek up north purely for entertainment purposes. Heck, there might indeed be ghosts (and living people who can speak to them), but until someone proves that to me through empirical, peer-reviewed research, I’m going to approach any paranormal-related experience with a dumptruck of salt.
A Brief History of Cassadaga
The first event on our agenda was a town tour, which was led by a guide dressed only slightly more modernly than Laura Ingalls Wilder. There were three of us in total on the tour, so when Pixie and I arrived a few minutes late, the guide just went back a few slides and recounted what we’d missed.
We learned that the town’s origins date back to 1875, smack dab in the heyday of spiritualism, when James Colby heeded the words of his “spirit advisor,” Seneca, to form a southern community for all of the spiritualist New Yorkers freezing their butts off in the Cassadaga of the north, just east of Lake Erie. Seneca instructed Colby to find a place of “interlocking lakes and rolling hills,” which our tour guide informed us, are two features rare in Florida, whose highest point is probably one of the landfills Pixie and I had passed while driving up I-95 from Miami. But, our guide assured us, Cassadaga has both, then she invited us to take a stroll around town to see for ourselves.
Soon after Colby’s “camp,” as it’s still referred to, set up shop, it began attracting well-heeled hordes in search of enlightenment and a chat with their dearly departeds. In the 1920s, the Cassadaga Hotel was built to accommodate the many out-of-towners seeking insight from in-of-towners. During my visit, several residents mentioned (with more than a little pride) that the town has hardly changed in the past 100 years, which is probably one of the main reasons it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, in 1991. When I glanced at a few turn-of-the-century photos, about the only difference was the presence of horse-drawn carriages versus the horseless carriages of today.
On our tour, which comprised four of the town’s five blocks, we had an impromptu tag-a-long, a braless resident who padded barefoot behind us while smoking a cigarette and adding the occasional commentary. We soon learned the woman was a Cassadaga neophyte who had hopes of one day leading tours herself. “Just along to see how it’s done,” she said, as she stubbed out her butt. I refrained from providing any advice, although a few tips regarding the wearing of undergarments did flash through my mind.
Pixie and I had booked lodging at the 1920s-era Hotel Cassadaga, with the hopes of seeing one of the building’s reported ghosts. Unfortunately, the only knocking I experienced was my travel companion testing the sound-proofing of the rooms (non-existent), but the vintage decor and advantage of being in the same building as the only restaurant in town more than made up for the lack of spectral apparitions.
We’d also reserved seats for the seance Saturday night, not knowing anything about what this event entailed. I envisioned us sitting around a candlelit table, holding hands, and asking questions to the Other Side. But there was none of that malarkey — instead, there was a whole other flavor of malarkey.
We 15 or so guests sat around the perimeter of a dimly lit room, along with four or five Cassadagan residents/psychics/mediums. The first ten minutes or so were spent doing breathing exercises to prime us for the events ahead. Then the head seancerist (yes, I made that up), who goes by the title of reverend, began going around the room, calling on visitors whose loved ones were trying to communicate to them through him. I was the second person he turned to.
He asked for my name, and I gave him only my first one (which I thought was enough to test his psychic mettle since I’d legally changed my first name more than two decades ago). He then said that he was being contacted by a fatherly spirit, stating early on that it could be a grandfather but that he was leaning towards father. Given that I’m only 45 (and look a few years younger, especially in such dim lighting), I thought it was rather bold for him to be so certain that my father was dead.
Pixie and I had practiced our stone faces, so as not to give away when a medium was on the right track. But when I was told that the fatherly figure was surrounded by flowers and holding a rose, I had to answer honestly when asked if that meant anything to me. “My father was a florist and my middle name is Rose,” I said, to the collective gasp of the other attendees.
The reverend then went on to say a lot of other trite phrases you might expect a deceased parent to say to their living child: He’s very proud of me, I’ve been very successful, etc. But then he stopped and told me that my father wanted me to know, although this was all well and good, “You can do better.”
(When I relayed this to my sister a few hours later, she shrieked, “That was Daddy!”)
But then the good reverend lost his way — or at least the psychic connection had lost all its bars. He began describing a gold necklace, saying it must have meant something significant. I couldn’t for the life (or afterlife) of me think of anything that met that description. I knew my dad had hung up the call when the reverend declared that the necklace had a gold cross on it. Not my dad, I thought. “My dad was Jewish.”
And then the reverend was onto the next attendee. Pixie’s reading was rather vague, with no new insight gleaned. One of the other Cassadagans came back to me later with the news that a woman, possibly my grandmother, was with her, someone who liked to bake — bread especially. This was not my grandmother, who, although a baker, had never baked a loaf of bread as far as I was aware of. There was also another woman who had been close to me but had died young, “possibly in her forties,” who wanted to speak with me. I couldn’t think of anyone who fit that description and so chalked it up to a wrong number.
After the visits from the other side, the transfiguration portion of the evening commenced. This involved a Cassadagan sitting perfectly still, eyes closed and face serene, illuminated only by a red light held in a box on their lap. We were told to observe them and any changes or transformations, such as the sudden appearance of a beard or longer hair. For the next half hour or so, the audience watched, occasionally pointing out “changes” — “He’s wearing an Indian headdress!” “Look at his nose! It’s growing!” (Most of these observances were provided by the other Cassadagans and a woman who smelled faintly of gin.)
Pixie and I noticed no more change in the transfigurator (again, just made that up) than if we’d been observing them from across a dimly lit room, which we in fact were. It was less of a parlor trick than a campfire trick. I was somewhat surprised that they didn’t hold up a flashlight to their chin and start telling stories of the hook-armed man.
After the seance, Pixie retired to her room while I chose to head to the hotel restaurant, where locals and visitors were taking part in a rousing night of particularly bad karaoke. One drunken local, originally from Scotland or thereabouts, offered to sing a song just for me. Although I was outside relating the seance experience to my sister at the time, I could hear his slurred serenade reverberating out onto the porch. I think it was best that way.
The next morning, following breakfast at the same hotel restaurant (there are no other dining options within walking distance), I decided to make an appointment with another psychic. When in Cassadaga…
I left as unilluminated as I’d gone in — less, in fact, because several of the pronouncements my medium made were downright laughable. My favorite: “You’ll be pregnant by February.” All my practice with Pixie went out the window when I let out a huge guffaw at that one.
As we were about to leave, Pixie and I decided to take a photo in front of some famous (by Cassadaga standards) signs, which is when we bumped into a woman coming out of one of the nearby psychics’ shops. She told us how impressed she’d been with her reading, prompting Pixie to go in and see for herself.
When she came out, she could barely speak. The psychic had told her that Pixie had moved to Florida because her boyfriend needed to be near the water — and, in fact, his job with a cruise line was the reason for their move. The rest of her reading was so accurate, I had to try it for myself. Let’s just say I wasted another 60 smackers and leave it at that.
But if you do decide to go to Cassadaga, keep in mind that many of the psychics/mediums/Mrs. What’s-Its actually do allow you to record the sessions. I recorded both of mine, although there are several minutes mysteriously missing from one, even though the recording doesn’t miss a beat.
Our last stop before getting back on the road was to the Devil’s Chair, a stone throne in the nearby cemetery, where, legend has it, if you leave a can of beer overnight, it will be gone in the morning, which accounts for the litter around the seat. Another legend says that the devil will appear if you sit in the chair. Although it was broad daylight, neither of us opted to test that theory.
If you’re near Orlando and have a couple of hours to kill, Cassadaga (pronounced cass-uh-dahg-uh) makes for an entertaining day trip. Just go with an open mind and bring plenty of cash — ATMs are as rare as people claiming they aren’t psychic.
Click through the photos below for more Cassadaga sights and info.