The Religious Society of “Free Thinkers,” originally based in Laona, New York, came to the shores of Cassadaga Lake in 1871 to hold picnics in a place called Alden’s Grove. Alden’s Grove has now been renamed Leolyn Woods, a protected woodland on the grounds of the Lily Dale Assembly.
Through a progression of events, which only God and Spirit could provide, summer meetings, and eventually an entire camp season, were held on the shores of the lake. Finally, in 1879, “The Cassadaga Lake Free Association” negotiated a purchase of land on the lake, preparations began, and the first official season at the new site ran for a few weeks in 1880. By 1893 a hotel, auditorium, library, school, post office, and assembly hall were in place along with over 200 cottages; 40 families resided on the grounds year round. During that time of growth, such notables as Susan B. Anthony began to make regular visits to the grounds. Anthony came to Lily Dale to speak when difficulties arose with her appearance at Chautauqua, and she was so pleased she returned time and again.
A century has come and gone, and there have been some changes in the village. The name was changed to “City of Light Assembly,” and then, in 1906, to the Lily Dale Assembly. Fire destroyed buildings; people rebuilt them. The remarkable days of physical mediumship have gently moved into the Past, and mental mediumship has taken predominance. The activities have grown, the program has grown, and Lily Dale has remained a quietly unique retreat from the day-to-day blasts of the world.
To walk the streets of Lily Dale in the quiet of fall and winter is to walk in peaceful silence. There are few people out and about; many homes are closed for the winter and there are about 100 year round residents. There are two Churches on the grounds, an Auditorium, Assembly hall, the Marian Skidmore Library with a Spiritualist Museum sitting at the end of Library Street. A pavilion rests on the edge of the lake, a quiet spot anytime of the year, Squirrels are in obvious presence, and those with strong memories of the active times of summer have no hesitation in challenging for a peanut, which folks familiar with the customs of the place have nestled in their pockets as part of the rite of passage. People are not as commonly found as squirrels during this resting season, but behind the scenes, things are beginning to gear up.
By April when hopefully the last blast of winter sweeps off the lake, people begin moving around. Projects on the grounds begin in earnest. Yards are cleared, last year’s stubborn leaves are finally cleared completely, and the program for the summer makes its first public appearance. The ground crew swings into the repairs held off by winter… residents pick up the slack, and all eyes are set on the opening of camp, the Friday before the 4th of July.
Visitors begin to arrive early, and it is not uncommon for them to wander the grounds, enjoying the serenity of it all. The Fairies return from Florida-a warmer climate for their delicate forms. The residents who have left for the winter begin to return, and houses left dark all winter show their lights once again.
Every year, the Assembly will have over 100 workshops during the season, which extends until Labor Day. Always rooted in the religion upon which the camp was founded, the Assembly calls upon those with expertise in the areas of the scientific, philosophic and religious aspects of human development…reaching the potential, recognizing each person’ divinity.
In addition to the workshops, there is a regular schedule of events daily. Outdoor services are the mainstay of the days’ activities. The Inspiration Stump, a clearing in the Leolyn Woods which is found by wandering down a forest path through a protected woodland, past the pet cemetery, and toward the light that flickers through the branches ahead, is the site of two services daily. Mediums registered to work privately on the grounds, visiting mediums, and student mediums gather at the Stump at 1:00 and at 5:30 pm daily to provide a message service to the visitors who sit on the benches in the clearing. At 4:00 a similar service is held at the Forest Temple, on the other end of the grounds. The Healing Temple is open twice daily for healing and meditation. Healers stand ready to serve God, Spirit, and Man as the soothing music drifts out the door and through the quiet streets. Our Museum is open daily from 11am-4pm a must stop for any serious investigation.
The platform in the Auditorium could tell its own stories. Over the years, notable names attached to the evolution of Spiritualism have spoken and/or given messages from the stage. At 2:30 every afternoon a lecturer and a clairvoyant take their places for the service, and when the bell tolls, the paths to the auditorium fill with people making their way for that experience.
The days and evenings are also full. A walk in the night, a stop for a special coffee and enriching conversation either there or the Maplewood porch. Thought Exchanges, book reviews, concerts, dances, evening message services, bands in the park, and gatherings also at the cafeteria where talking often takes precedence over eating. It’s a busy and exciting time.
The Maplewood Hotel porch, right in the heart of Lily Dale, is a favorite gathering place for late night chats. The other hotel, the Leolyn, sits just outside the gates, and it is there also that fine music is presented in the Garden Room or the floating dock–solitary times can find late night quiet on the very edge of the lake.
The Religion of Spiritualism is alive and well in Lily Dale. For 133 years the Camp has opened, and for 133 years the people have come from all over North America and the World. The largest camp in the world of its kind, Lily Dale has become the gathering place and destination of seekers of knowledge and Spiritualism; the plans are; that mentality will continue. There are always things to be done, avenues to be explored, and people looking for answers. Lily Dale’s role in the search is its purpose for being-answers. Residents along with spiritual counselors and mediums can assist you on your spiritual journey.
The Lily Dale Assembly is governed by its by-laws; it is led by a group of seven volunteers who are elected by its membership at a meeting held every August to discuss the year past and the year upcoming, to address problems, and to present dreams. Lily Dale’s roots are set firmly in the past, it stands firmly on the Spiritualist philosophies, and it keeps its eye on positive future growth…Lily Dale is a place for each individual to discover himself and to join with others who are on the same path.
As the season closes, and fall approaches, quiet will return to the streets. Houses will become dark, fewer and fewer visitors will wander the paths, and another period of rest will fall…but be assured, behind the scenes, it is not so quiet…there are people making plans for the coming years activities–for there is always next year, there are always new seekers, and there will always be Lily Dale.
So for this season I say well-done volunteers and thank you for your patience and perseverance. Thank you to all our many guests and visitors and I hope to see all of you this coming year…. Many Blessings to each and every one of you. MJL/RN