Lily Dale...Where Lines are Blurred
“I heard again and again. People say they can feel Lily Dale’s power when they enter the gates. It calms some people and revs others up.”
So I just finished reading the book about the tiny spiritualist community that resides about 60 miles south of Buffalo, Lily Dale, The Town that Talks to the Dead, by Christine Wicker. I’ve been intrigued by this community for years and finally got around to visiting, thus this is a two part posting. It is about my thoughts of the book and also of my visit, which in many ways meld together. But before I begin I have to tell you about my journey to get there, which has been 27 years in the making.
On a beautiful day in the summer of 1990, not unlike the one when I visited Lily Dale last week or the one now as I type these words, my girlfriend and I were on our way for a day trip to Lily Dale. It was upon her insistence as I had never heard of the hamlet. We were young and had so much ahead of us. We would later marry, have a child, who is now a beautiful young man not much younger than we were when this story began, and then later we would separate but remain friends. Anyhow, for some reason I can remember the day but not what the argument was about. As we drove down Interstate 90 we got into such an argument that we actually halted the trip and turned around. In retrospect I wonder if something was keeping us from our visit. Over the years I thought of visiting many times but never did, until last week, but again it was a struggle to get there.
As many of you know I do not own a car but am a member of Zip Car, so a week ahead of my planned trip I reserved a vehicle. The evening before my trip I received a phone call telling me there was a problem with the vehicle and they had to cancel my reservation, and sorry but there are no more vehicles available. What, I thought to myself? I decided to check their website and there was a vehicle available but it was about 4 miles away; I booked it anyhow as I had planned other errands prior to driving to Lily Dale. So the morning of the reservation I rode my trusty little folding bike to the car and put it in the back. Noticing it had only a half-tank of gas I stopped to fill it. For those that don’t know, gas is free with a car-share; the cost is worked into your membership. So I stopped at a gas station and attempted to put gas in the vehicle using the Zip Car credit card and my membership number. It wouldn’t work so I went inside the store to ask the clerk for help. She ran the card, then looked up at me awkwardly and says, “It says you’re an invalid driver.” What?
So I call the company, and yes, they say there is a problem with my card, you’ll be issued a new one but in the meantime use your own card and you will be reimbursed. Ugh, okay, so I used my own card. I then drove out to the suburbs, at Empire State College, to meet with my mentor. I get there and he wasn’t. Really? We had made a change in our plans and he didn’t make the change in his calendar. My blood pressure was slowly rising.
Okay, I thought, I’ll stop at a diner for lunch before the ride. After lunch I get in the vehicle and it won’t start. Nothing. Nada. Are you freaking kidding me? Blood pressure continues to rise. So I call the company again, they agree that it is a “weird occurrence,” but they are able to diagnose the problem and start the vehicle remotely. After the vehicle was started I sat for a minute to collect myself and I spoke aloud to the Universe, “Look, I’m not sure what the deal is, but I am going to make it to Lily Dale today, with or without your help or permission,” and then I drove off. The remainder of the ride was uneventful other than the front end of the vehicle needed a wheel alignment (I’m assuming) and felt at times that someone was pulling the wheel from the left and then to the right. Nonetheless, I did make it, and the minute I entered the gates I felt peaceful and calm.
Christine Wicker first went to Lily Dale about 20 years ago as a reporter from a large Texas newspaper. She had gone with an open mind; not necessarily a believer but not there to debunk either. What was supposed to be a short stint ended up being multiple visits spanning a couple years. In this same way, I approached Lily Dale as both a believer and a skeptic. In short, I am open to most things until proven false. I also believe in mind power and that there is far more to this existence that our puny human senses can perceive.
What would later be called spiritualism, began in 1848 in a small cottage in Hydesville, NY, which was owned by the Fox family. They began hearing “knocks” at night, and could communicate with the knocks by offering variable knocks in return. It was deduced that the knocks came from the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the cottage. Feeling as though the spirit was speaking directly to them, two of the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, eventually went on to speak in front of large audiences. Thus was the very beginning of spiritualists offering “messages” from the spirit world.
According to Wicker, during the 1800’s Western and Central New York became so known for the “mighty works of the spirit” that the region became known as the “burned over district,” because of the fires of Christian revivals that swept through the area. Another example of this “fire” can be seen with Joseph Smith, who in 1823 claims to have received golden plates from an angel, which happened just outside Rochester, NY. Smith, of course, went on to found Mormonism and the plates were translated into the Book of Mormon.
Lily Dale was originally founded as a sort of revivalist tent camp, eventually buildings were added and it became the quaint Victorian town that it is today. Interestingly, the town is still referred to as a camp by it’s residents and summer is called camping season. The Fox cottage was moved to Lily Dale in 1916 but burned to the ground in 1955. Today, the patch of ground on which the cottage sat is considered a sort of holy ground by spiritualists.
In her interesting and highly entertaining book, Christine Wicker profiles many of the towns eclectic residents, those that currently reside there and those that have crossed over to the spirit world (as they are not referred to as dead in Lily Dale). One of the residents that I would loved to have met is Lynne Mahaffey. According to Wicker, Lynne first came to Lily Dale in the 1940s, and when arriving she felt the urge to immediately remove her shoes because she knew she was on holy ground. At the time of writing the book, Lynne is described as an elderly grandmother who rides around Lily Dale each morning on an old Schwinn bicycle. She does it for her heart and the world, the author states. She would ride for the physical exercise but also would pray for all of humanity as she rode. I’m assuming, given her age at the time and the time lapsed since the book was written, that Lynne has crossed over to the spirit world. She did not communicate with me on my visit.
I have to admit that there is something to Lily Dale; there is a certain feel to the place. After my frustrating morning I did feel a sense of calm the minute I arrived. Maybe it’s the throwback feel of the village...the unpaved roads and quaint Victorian buildings transported me to another time. Or maybe it was just all in my head. Nonetheless, it was real to me at the time. I felt at peace.
One of the things I noticed right away were all the figurines. They were everywhere. Small statues of angels, elves, fairies, gnomes, cats, dogs, you name it, they were everywhere. In windows, front lawns, and in the woods, one could not escape the tiny statues. It was while I was squatting down to take a photo of some figurines in a front lawn that a golf cart rode up behind me. “Are you interested in fairies,” the person questioned? Somewhat startled, I turned, “What,” was all I said. “Well, I see you’re taking photos of fairies, have you been to the Fairy Trail?” When I told the cheerful and welcoming woman that I hadn’t, she told me it was on the opposite end of the camp, and then said, “Hop in, I’ll take you there.” Under “normal circumstances” I would not have gotten into the golf cart of someone I didn’t know, but I surprised myself when I did.
As we rode I received a sort of impromptu tour of the camp. My guide asked if it was my first time there. Yes, I told her, and that I was reading a book about Lily Dale and wanted to visit. The Town that Talks to the Dead book, she questioned? I told her it was. She simply smiled and told me she was in the book. Her name is Shelly, she told me after I asked. I’ll remember her name, I said, because I have a sister by the same name. She has summered at Lily Dale for 40 years, she also told me.
After arriving home that evening I flipped through the book. It turns out there are large portions of the book devoted to Shelly. She is a retired psychologist who, at the time of the writing of the book, lived at Lily Dale with Frank, her husband and retired philosophy professor. On our tour Shelly did not speak of Frank but she did talk about her children and grandchildren. She drove me past Mother’s Garden, where here children had just planted flowers.
Shelly founded the esoteric group, Lower Archy of the Pink Sisterhood of the Metafuzzies and Blissninnies, whose motto is “We don’t know jack shit, but we care.” A no-nonsense type of a person, regarding her thoughts on the secrets of the mediums she is quoted in the book, “Either they’re crazy or I’m stupid.” In the short time I was in Shelly’s golf cart she pointed me in the directions of the Fairy Trail, the Pet Cemetery, the museum, and the Buddhist Monks who were preparing a sand mandala in the fire hall. Before parting I asked if I could take a selfie of us, she readily obliged.
After visiting all of the said places, I meandered over to Inspiration Stump, which resides in Leolyn Woods and is considered the holiest place in Lily Dale. It is here that people gather twice daily and mediums offer free messages to a few people. I was surprised at how beautiful it was, I felt as if I were in a sort of outdoor cathedral, and in some ways I suppose I was. The person introducing the mediums claimed that the area was a vortex or portal to the spirit world. I’m not sure how I felt about that, but it was very pleasant. Unfortunately, I found the message service uninspiring. I stayed to listen to three mediums which all followed the same format. They would choose a person from the audience and ask if they could “come to them,” or “enter their energy.” They would then say what they were “getting,” which to me seemed pretty vague, such as an aunt or grandmother from the spirit world wanted to let the person know that they were doing well and that they were proud of them. Maybe it would have been different if a medium entered my energy where specifics meant something, but these messages just seemed vague. The thing is, I really do believe that there are people that can channel energies or make connections to something unexplainable, but on this day I don’t believe I witnessed it.
I also went to a service at the open-aired auditorium, which are conducted free twice daily. This, to me, resembled more of a church service. People gathered, sung hymns, and a medium spoke. They refer to their talks as messages and not sermons. I enjoyed the daily message, which like most of the messages at Lily Dale, fortified being a good person, believing in yourself, and believing in others. The speaker quoted from Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dryer, and other New Thought authors. She also spoke of the power of personal affirmations, and recited a couple of the principles of Spiritualism which were posted in large letters next to the stage. The fifth principle is the only one that I personally have difficulty with, and that seems to be a main focus at Lily Dale. Honestly, I went away feeling positive and feeling good about myself and the world. The message did it’s job.
Principles of Spiritualism
1 We believe in God.
2 We believe that God is expressed through all Nature.
3 True religion is living in obedience to Nature's Laws.
4 We never die.
5 Spiritualism proves that we can talk with people in the Spirit World.
6 Be kind, do good, and others will do likewise.
7 We bring unhappiness to ourselves by the errors we make and we will be happy if we obey the laws of life.
8 Everyday is a new beginning.
9 Prophecy and healing are expressions of God.
Throughout it’s history many famous people have been drawn to Lily Dale. Susan B Anthony was a regular, for example. While I was in the museum the attendant showed me a photo of Susan B. Anthony at the camp and flanked by bodyguards because, according to the attendant, her life was in danger. May West was also a regular at the camp and had a personal medium, Jack Kelly, who was a celebrity himself among the mediums. Harry Houdini also visited the camp on several occasions and was able to debunk many of the fraudulent activities. He was so feared by the mediums that it is said they would lock their doors when there was news of him at the camp.
In her book, Christine Wicker discusses the many classes she took and messages that were given by countless mediums, and it seems she wanted to believe so badly but flip-flopped between belief and unbelief. She doesn’t speaks disparagingly about the mediums or their practices, and in the end she seems to have come to terms with what she felt the camp is really about, a sort of transformation, “It’s as though we live inside a big egg, whose shell is made up of a million perceptions, comments, and occurrences that have hardened around us and blocked our view of anything else. All we see are the calcified remains of our experience, and everyday the shell gets thicker. Lily Dale’s spirits tap, tap, tap away until they break a tiny pinhole in the shell. A strange light comes through. And some of us start to kick our way out.”
In the beginning of reading this book a problem I had with it—and I don’t mean this to sound snarky—is that I felt like this movement was a bit self-centered in that it focused on the individual rather than others. Mostly I felt like it was about trying to speak with the dearly departed. What I’ve come to think is that it is more about healing and transformation. Many people go to Lily Dale to be healed, physically or emotionally, which in turn can transform them. And like any transformation they then can then offer love to others, such as Lynne when she rode her bike and prayed for the world as a whole, but also on a smaller more individual level, to help a person feel good about themselves and those around them. Because if a person feels good about themselves they can spread good. A person first has to love themselves before they can love another.
So at the end of the day and the end of the book what do I think or believe? Well, as aforementioned, I do believe there is more than we can see, and I do believe that there are mysteries in this world. Like many, I myself have had mystical experiences, but at the same time I feel they sound trite when verbalized. Are there people—mediums—who can communicate with those “on the other side?” Yes, likely. Can everyone at Lily Dale do it (or are all of us capable of doing it as they claim)? Also, was there “something” keeping me from making my visit to the camp as outlined in the beginning of this writing? Maybe, I don’t know, but doubtful. I don’t mean for that to sound skeptical even though it likely does.
It’s interesting though how many people began going to this small hamlet with a visit and became entranced, many stayed for the rest of their lives. I have to admit, that on driving through the gates I felt good, and even though I have only spent one day there I seem to be thinking about it a lot over this past week. But why, I wonder. Maybe there is something to the place that is unexplainable. Maybe I need to visit again, and I will. Soon. Very soon.