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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Getting Into The Spirit Of Things
By Mitch Traphagen
Aug 31, 2006, 23:50

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Stepping past the cement posts marking the entrance to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is a bit like stepping into another time. With 1920s style homes, quiet streets and approximately 25 full-time mediums, it is a place like no other in Florida. Photo Illustration by Mitch Traphagen
– There was a weird vibe to the place. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t anything that put out warm, fuzzies, either. Unsettling, perhaps, is the word to describe it.

Cassadaga is a tiny community that lies just 30 miles east of Orlando, just off heavily traveled Interstate 4. But it is a galaxy away from the hustle and bustle overly well lit artificial reality theme park atmosphere of the city.

It is probably safe to say there is no place like it in Florida. There are probably few places like it on Earth. There are, almost inexplicably, hills and ravines in the tiny hamlet. And even more inexplicable for Florida, there are no ‘for sale’ signs up anywhere inside the community. Cassadaga is on the far opposite end of the spectrum from a theme park. And that, apparently, is by design.

It is a far cry from "normal" Florida. Walking past two cement posts proclaiming the entrance to the "Cassadaga Spiritual Camp" is somewhat like entering a different time.

There are narrow streets with 1920s style homes – all with front porches. There is the Cassadaga Hotel - another relic from the 20s - that is said by some to be haunted. There are a handful of small shops catering to the esoteric and a few small bookstores. Some homes have signs out front offering their service – basically as communications companies connecting to the "Other-World."

But for the average tourist, there is nothing. Rooms in the Cassadaga Hotel are said to be spartan, lacking even televisions. There is the Lost In Time Café, but you may well be on your own for dinner – and you may well be driving into nearby DeLand to satisfy that earthly need. The streets are quiet and there is no neon lighting. But there is, to me at least, a weird sort of energy there.

As I sat on the porch of a small bookstore across the street from the Cassadaga Hotel, I tried to determine why I felt slightly unnerved. Perhaps it was the mysterious psychic energy of the 25 or so Mediums who call the small town home. Perhaps it was the fact that I was waiting for my own appointment with a psychic – a first for this Midwestern, small-town boy.

Fidgeting, I got up to scan a community bulletin board. In someway, it was like any found at a neighborhood grocery with hand written notices and advertisements. The advertisements, however, were of a far more metaphysical nature than those that might be found at the Sav-A-Lot in Sun City Center. And in amongst the ads for psychic services was a more common bulletin board sight – a notice for a lost cat.

I returned to the wooden bench on the charming porch of the bookstore and said to my wife, "I wonder why I feel uncomfortable? And I wonder how in a town full of psychics there could be a lost cat?"

I am a skeptic. I have always maintained a rather rational, Einstein-ian view of the world and the future: Basically, no one can see it because it hasn’t happened yet. I did not exactly believe in mediums and psychics and the like.

But that view was about to be significantly challenged.

According to the legend, a New Yorker named George Colby was told during a séance that he would one day be instrumental in founding a spiritualist community in the South. In 1875, he fulfilled that prediction by purchasing land with "uncommon hills" in the wilderness of central Florida.

In 1894, that land became the home of the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association. The camp consisted of 57 acres and today has 55 residences. In 1991, it was designated a Historic District on the National Register Of Historic Places.

The front porch of a bookstore in Cassadaga offers a quiet respite, wooden benches and advertising for spiritual healers and mediums. Mitch Traphagen Photo
According to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Website, it is a community of like-minded people who live, worship and work in harmony with their beliefs. And while the residents may own their homes, the founding church has retained ownership of the land. According to community literature, the residents actively avoid creating a theme park and/or tourist atmosphere but they welcome believers, the curious and the skeptical equally.

Albert Bowes lives on one of the original streets in the community. I called him on the recommendation of one of his previous clients and we scheduled an appointment for the next day. He requested that I bring up to 10 photographs or other artifacts on subjects that I would like to ask about. He also requested that I not tell him anything about myself other than my first name.

But I held no such restrictions for myself – I wanted to know about his background. It turns out that Bowes is, apparently, an ordained minister who had, in the past, taught a parapsychology class at the University of Florida. According to the information I gathered, he has provided his service to missing person cases, to archeological expeditions and even to local television programs.

I arrived at his office – a small house in Cassadaga that was filled to the rafters with all sorts of stuff (he was preparing to leave for a video safari in Montana) and we sat down in a cluttered room with books and photographs and a thousand other things. Again, Bowes requested that I not tell him anything about myself. I was careful not to – with one exception: I told him that I was skeptical.

"You should be skeptical," was his response.

At the end of this part of my session, he stood up, told me to place my photographs face down upon the desk and then walked out the door. He returned a few minutes later - the room, of course, was the same but the atmosphere was suddenly entirely different.

He abruptly began by uttering a short prayer. He ended by saying, "Amen," and then sat in silence with his eyes closed. I don’t know how long the silence lasted but when he began to speak, my down to earth view of things took a bit of a jolt.

If you were a ghost, the Cassadaga Hotel would likely be as good a place as any to haunt. With narrow hallways and good “creak potential” in the wooden floors, some guests have proclaimed other-worldly contact. Others, however, have claimed that what some see as evidence of hauntings is nothing more than overly rambunctious children slamming doors a bit too loudly. It does, however, have a certain creepy factor as part of its charm. Mitch Traphagen Photo
With his eyes still closed, Bowes began to describe my childhood and career in a way that even my closest friends could not. During the first half of my session he told me that things come to him almost like a memory. In other words, it wasn’t like my whole life in detail was flooding upon him – but it was very much like describing what he had once seen.

When he finished, he paused briefly and then said, "Questions?"

I was somewhat taken aback but managed to ask a few things about what he said. Over the course of the next hour or so, Bowes accurately described my wife, her mother, my mother, my father and my career. He described other people in my life and also the problems and dilemmas that I am currently facing.

In a few instances, there was a small but significant detail mentioned – a name or description – but for the most part, it was fairly general. But not a newspaper astrology column kind of general. It was very much like someone was describing an overview that came, perhaps, as a memory.

At the end of the session, he again uttered a brief prayer and told me I could leave a donation if I felt his service was worthwhile. I left more than the suggested amount. And as I walked away from his office, I realized that somehow I felt lighter than I had in years. Somehow, someway, it seemed I wasn’t alone with the problems and concerns inside my head. I came to the conclusion that the session I had experienced was approximately 60 percent client-centered therapy and 40 percent completely beyond explanation. It was, for lack of a better word, remarkable.

My career is based on noticing detail in people and places – it is also based on fact. And despite all that, I have no explanation for what happened in that cluttered office in Cassadaga.

"Your mileage may vary," is a saying that is appropriate for a visit to Cassadaga. As such, I can’t really recommend that anyone make the journey that I recently made. It is home to an industry that likely has more than its share of charlatans. In fact, I had always assumed that it was made up entirely of charlatans. But it is an interesting place – almost a relic from another time in a state with few such interesting relics.

The streets in Cassadaga are quiet - almost like those from a quieter time in Florida. As for the Spirit Crossing Zone, that is apparently the focus of the entire community. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Perhaps I heard what I wanted to hear. Perhaps Albert Bowes is an incredibly perceptive man who accurately reads non-verbal clues. Or, perhaps, he has a gift that allows him to tap into some inexplicable power in the universe that somehow ties all of us together.

I don’t know the answer to that. But oddly, I left Cassadaga with more answers than questions.

And I do know what I believe.

Finding Florida is an occasional series that chronicles the people and places in the Sunshine State. For more Finding Florida stories, visit the Observer News on the Web and click on Finding Florida.

© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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