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The strange case of the two Cassadagas

I have always admired Lily Dale, the summer spiritualist community in Cassadaga. Not because I go to mediums – I don’t. But the whole situation is just so darned weird.

Where else would you find a whole village of spiritualists?

Or Inspiration Stump, where people gather to receive messages from the dead?

The place’s faded Victorian ambiance was unique to the world, I always thought. In the words of the website Weird U.S.: “To visit this hamlet is like taking a trip back in time, but what makes Cassadaga unusual, is that every resident is a medium. That’s right, they commune with dearly departed souls. Spiritualism is the main industry here, aside from a couple of New Age bookstores, a café, hotel and post office.”

Well, speaking of weird, that paragraph is not about Cassadaga, N.Y. It is describing another Cassadaga – in Florida.

I can file this in the big, bulging envelope of Everything I Know In Life I Learned From Opera. Recently, I reviewed “Call Me Debbie,” the colorful memoirs of the Wagnerian diva Deborah Voigt. Voigt startled me by revealing that while traveling from Belgium to her Florida condo, she had made a pivotal stop in Cassadaga, the Psychic Capital of the World. With a surge of local pride, I wrote triumphantly in The News that Voigt had visited Lily Dale.

Subsequently I heard from Donn Smeragliuolo, the president and CEO of Lily Dale.

“While in Florida, if Deborah found herself in a village of ‘psychics’ where the streets were crowned with overgrown weeping willows with hanging Spanish moss – and a pink bookstore – and a sign that reads, ‘Cassadaga - The Psychic Capital of the World,’ she was in Cassadaga, Fla. Not Lily Dale, N.Y.,” he wrote.

He explained: “Cassadaga, Fla., was founded by a handful of mediums from Lily Dale over 100 years ago. And yes, it is true the town has a background with Spiritualism. But it is NOT Lily Dale, New York.”

Smeragliuolo, on the phone, was gracious about my error. But I found it hard to concentrate.

I kept thinking, strike me pink, as in that bookstore.

It is amazing, the secrets in your own backyard. NPR’s “This American Life” once did a whole show on the funny things that, for whatever reason, escape you.

I knew there were bits of Buffalo in Florida. We have Bills boosters there. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has toured Florida, to great acclaim. The Anchor Bar opened a franchise in Tampa.

I have even heard that, in what now looked like an odd twist, Florida had a Chautauqua Assembly, modeled after our Chautauqua Institution.

But who knew that Lily Dale had established a Florida satellite office?

How would I ever have guessed?

“Spanish moss would never grow up here,” admonished the single other email I received on the subject. Maybe not, but I don’t write the gardening column, I don’t know what Spanish moss is. Also, Voigt wrote that you could leave a beer can in the Cassadaga cemetery, and next day the beer would be gone, but the can would be unopened. That sure sounded like Buffalo.

Having gotten over my shock, I have to say that two Cassadagas are weirder than one.

The Florida community’s official name has the musty whiff of old Americana. It is the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association. It was founded in 1875 by a trance medium – there is a job description, trance medium – from Lily Dale, named George Colby. A spirit guide named Seneca is said to have guided Colby to the site, which is in Volusia County, on the eastern coast of Florida.

Colby intended the southern Cassadaga to be a winter retreat for snowbird spiritualists from Lily Dale. A century later, though, the two Cassadagas are not tight.

“There’s not as much of a connection as there used to be,” Smeragliuolo said. “Some of them (the Lily Dale mediums) used to go down there to give workshops. Now there’s no connection, other than that they’re two spiritualist camps. They’re psychics, from what I hear,” he added. “We are mediums.”

Smeragliuolo is protective of Lily Dale’s reputation as a home to spiritualist mediums who take their religion seriously and have completed years of study. He has not been to the Florida Cassadaga, and does not sound interested in going.

Cassadaga, Fla., seems to share Lily Dale’s sleepy vibe. Its website welcomes media inquiries, but says you might wait weeks for an answer. The Cassadaga Hotel is hiring. Its notice reads: “We are actively seeking an experienced, caring and insightful Psychic/Medium to work five days per week. Palmistry, Numerology, Astrology or any other Spiritual Gifts are highly recommended. Must be bilingual in Spanish.”

Calling the camp, I was told by a woman with a soft Southern drawl that any media inquiries had to be approved – in other words, there was no getting around that wait. But she let slip that the Florida Cassadaga does get visitors from Lily Dale.

“It’s our sister camp,” she said.

Our sister camp! Well, we’re the big sister.

As a Western New Yorker with various chips on my shoulder, I share Smeragliuolo’s competitive spirit.

I just might send opera diva Deborah Voigt a note. She should know that our Cassadaga – like our Anchor Bar, like our Chautauqua – is the original. Ours is the one that welcomed such oddballs as Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Todd Lincoln.

As a matter of fact, Miss Voigt, you’re wanted at Inspiration Stump. We’ve got Caruso on the phone.