SPECIAL FOCUS: CASSADAGA DURING HALLOWEEN
By MARSHALL SWANSON
Take one step into Cassadaga and you'll travel hundred years back in time. A cross between old Florida and a benign episode of the Twilight Zone, the town emits an aura of spiritual energy with a strong dose of nostalgic Florida. If you're fond of the incessant parade of Wawas, Games Stops or Dollar Stores dotting the major arteries and thoroughfares around Central Florida, then the town of Cassadaga isn't a good fit. For those with a zest for the past and a flare for the supernatural, Cassadaga may be just the right prescription. The story begins in the year 1848 when two events set the course of history: the birth of Cassagada's founder, George Colby, in Pike, New York; and, the inauguration of the spiritualist movement in the U.S.
Growing up, Colby gravitated towards spiritualism from a young age, eventually touring the United States to conduct readings and seances. On one occasion in Lake Mills, Iowa Colby entered a meditative trance when an American Indian spirit guide named Seneca gave him a prophetic message: Colby would go on a great journey, but first, visit T. D. Giddings in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Colby made his way to Wisconsin and met with Giddings who, along with Seneca, instructed him to travel to Florida and purchase land chosen by a "Congress of Spirits." Eventually that land became the Spiritualist Camp of Cassadaga that persists to this day named for lakes nearby a new New York Spiritualist camp, Lily Dale). Many friends and confidants followed the pair in the years after Colby and Giddings' family founded the camp in 1894 (though the two waited nearly twenty years before fully acting on the prophecy). In later years, a fellow New Yorker named Ann Stevens moved down to Florida via the fresh water port Blue Springs. Colby demonstrated his appreciation for her financial support by gifting a piece of property to Stevens for her homestead. Today, visitors to Cassadaga may tour and spend a night in the Stevens House, a popular attraction to spiritual pilgrims and fans of Victorian era architecture.
The house passed hands over the years in the wake of Stevens' death at the age of 83 in the early 1900s. Ultimately Shane and Emily Gerschefske bought the home when the building went into foreclosure. In the years preceding the acquisition, the couple enjoyed many vacations in the home before Shane proposed to Emily in the quaint gazebo nearby the Stevens' House. This touching tale of love only brushes the surface of the enchanting stories this town has to offer. Down the road, visitors will find the Cassadaga Hotel, rebuilt in 1928 as a result of a fire. Run by distant relatives of Frank Sinatra, you'll find Sinatra's Ristorante adjacent to the hotel's lobby (albeit a more recent addition). Owned by Scott Lewitt, the restaurant serves exceptional cocktails and mouthwatering dishes. In addition, Sinatra's Ristorante also provides entertainment in the form of pianists and a wide array of musical talent to recall the memory of the famed crooner through song and sometimes dance. Taking a stroll around Cassadaga's many gardens and natural lakeside landscapes reveals a pleasant terrain for meditation and those seeking a peaceful area to reflect. Walking around the town you'll discover a church for the religious visitor as well as a library, both dating to nearly one hundred years ago. The spiritualist searchers will be delighted to discover that the town is filled with mediums and psychics, but be sure to check the official website for approved readers.
In the earliest years of the camp, pilgrims often took the train to Cassadaga by way of the Lake Helen station, though the railroad terminated services during the early years of the Depression. Today, you'll find the easiest vein of entry to Cassadaga to be the dreaded I-4, but don't worry, your spirits will be lifted upon arrival.
Whether spiritually-minded or just curious about history, the town of Cassadaga contains the right combination of mystical charm and small town America for anyone seeking to hop off the carousel of life and take a brief respite from these turbulent and bemusing times.