During a séance in 1875, a 27-year-old New York man named George Colby said a friendly spirit told him to go to Florida and establish a spiritualist camp. Colby dutifully boarded a train to Jacksonville, then a boat down the St. Johns River to Blue Springs. From there, he wandered on foot through the wilds of what’s now western Volusia County, looking for the spot that matched the vision he experienced during the séance.
He found it amid the woods and rolling hills between Orlando and Daytona Beach, near the town of Orange City.
The camp Colby founded still exists.
The 57-acre Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, known as the “psychic capital of the world,” encompasses a neighborhood of historic homes, about 100 permanent residents and three dozen psychic mediums, who, like Colby, practice spiritualism as a religion and claim to have the ability to communicate with spirits.
“This is a small town, but it’s a community of acceptance, where we can fit in,” says Rev. Judy Cooper, a medium who lives in the camp and conducts psychic readings in her 100-year-old bungalow. “The common core is we’re like-minded people. We believe in the continuity of life and the ability to communicate with spirits. That’s what holds this community together.”
An estimated 20,000 people visit the camp annually to do business with its mediums, attend a church service at the Colby Memorial Temple, shop in the metaphysical/spiritualist bookstore or just look around between dawn and dusk, when the community opens its gates to visitors. The streets are lined with colorful homes and other structures, including a spiritualist church.
The residents struggle to balance the town’s status as a gawk-worthy tourist attraction with the their intention simply to practice their religion.
Sometimes, Cooper says, she’ll look out a window and see tourists having a picnic lunch in her backyard patio. “We’re so close to Disney,” she says. “Some people think we’re an amusement park.”
The Rev. Janie Owens, a medium and the pastor of the camp’s church, says when she speaks to outsiders about Cassadaga she usually spends most of the conversation trying to dispel misconceptions.
“Some of it is so ludicrous,” Owens says. “They talk about black magic, of us being witches, of worshipping the devil. Well, guess what? We don’t even believe in the devil. How wrong can they be? I would like to see people have an open mind about all religions, not just spiritualism, before they start criticizing. Come to our church. Ask questions. Talk to us.”
Contributing to misperceptions, the mediums say, are a number of psychic-oriented businesses that have sprouted up in the town of Cassadaga, outside the camp’s property, that aren’t affiliated with the camp. Some of those businesses — palm readers, crystal ball readers and tarot card readers — are located right across the entrance to the camp.
The mediums who practice within the camp’s grounds are trained and accredited by the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Association in a process that can require four or more years of course work and practical experience.
“Within the spiritualist community, we practice spiritualism as our religion, so when we give a reading, we are practicing our religion,” Owens says. “To do that, we don’t need cards. We don’t need crystal balls. Those are tools — and we’re not allowed to use tools.”
Most of the camp’s residents are not mediums. Rather, they live in Cassadaga to be around other spiritualists — or, in the case of Ray Carroll, because living there “feels right.”
Five years ago, the retired federal law enforcement officer left his home in Philadelphia after his wife of 42 years died. He was in grief and couldn’t stay in his house any longer.
“I got in my car and just started driving south,” he says. “I ran away from home.” He ended up in Florida.
“I had heard about Cassadaga but didn’t know much about it,” he says. “My wife was probably more attuned to spiritualism than me. I came here and started walking around. I don’t know what it was. I just had this sense of peace. I can’t explain it. The energy. It felt good.”
Carroll is a permanent resident now and, two years ago, he married for a second time to a woman he met at the camp.
“Before I came here, I was a skeptic — and I consider myself still a healthy skeptic,” he says. “Even though I grew up Catholic, the focus here really fits me. I came here probably like a lot of people do. You’re in grief and you’re looking for some kind of comfort. I found it.”