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On spiritual grounds

Cassadaga is a sleepy Old Florida town, hidden beneath the branches of ancient oaks. It is drowsing, silent, tranquil . . . serene. It is also Florida's sanctuary for spiritualists, clairvoyants, seers and mediums.

To reach Cassadaga, less than a 45-minute drive from Orlando, head north on Interstate 4 toward DeLand, then follow the winding roads into Florida's past.

The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is the creation of George P. Colby. He said that in 1875 he was instructed by Seneca, a spirit guide, to establish a Spiritualist camp somewhere in the South.

Colby reported that he followed other suggestions by the mystic guide and arrived in Blue Springs Landing, then a wilderness of scrub pine. By 1894, Blue Springs Landing had a new name and a new purpose: the 57-acre camp was a winter haven for Spiritualist snowbirds.

The village is now a year-round home for about 400 practitioners of Spiritualism, a religion based on the principle that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, through people known as mediums.

The 1890s Spiritualism merged with the 1990s New Age practices. A glance at the commemorative Annual Program is filled with an explanation of Spiritualism (yes, they do believe in God) and like-minded people offering services ranging from astrological readings to spiritual healings to equine communications. You say people can'ttalk to a horse? Some folks here offer animal readings at your barn or home.

Cassadaga seems unaffected by the surrounding world. Folks live in clapboard homes with wraparound porches, on quiet lanes bordered by high weeds. There is no city council or mayor, not even stoplights. There are no chain stores, boutiques, sidewalk cafes or movie theaters. What there is, is a prevailing sense of quiet.

For some, the lack of activity can only be taken in small doses. Many visitors drop by the Camp for a few hours before taking a short drive down U.S. 17/92 to reach the antique and restaurant-rich main street of DeLand.

But if you have had your fill of the outside world, then you'll savor Cassadaga's character. Because it is not like everyplace else, its solitude is stimulating. Because it is different, it is intriguing.

In the Camp bookstore, shelves are stacked with biographies of mystics, how-to tarot guides and epics on angels. There are crystals and unicorn bookmarks and soothing CDs.

On a message board, visitors can find out which mediums are open for business and then roam the district. They step into private homes for palm readings or past-life regressions or predictions about their futures.

Some visitors are content to relax on benches hidden within tiny, unkempt gardens.

On most days, the center of outward activity is at the Cassadaga Hotel. Visitors and locals relax over a meal in the dining room or peruse metaphysical merchandise in the hotel gift shop.

Although Saturday draws more visitors, Sunday morning is when you feel the strongest sense of Cassadaga. As elsewhere in much of the world, this is when the townspeople turn out for church. Dads and moms arrive with their kids, wives show up dragging their husbands, and the curious drop by the Colby Memorial Temple to see if the Spiritualists will summon ghosts or levitate pews.

For anyone expecting something out of the ordinary . . . sorry. The service is uncommonly common.

Prior to the service, many worshipers step into the cool and quiet Caesar Forman Healing Center, for the benefit of hands-free energy healing. For several minutes, you can sit as spiritual-energy healers seek to replace what they term negative energy through their gestures. The result can be as calming as years of tai chi training.

At 10:30 a.m., hymns and prayers mark the start of the service, and the parishioners are reminded to be tolerant of all faiths, since "God is too big to fit inside just one religion."

From here, the proceedings are similar to those found in nearly any other church, save for one difference:

The Spiritualist reverend (as well as several members of the congregation) has the ability to sense and deliver messages from spirit friends. And to make good on this unusual ability, he tunes into the transcendental.

If you expect to pick up inside intelligence on future NASDAQ closings, you'll be disappointed. One recent Sunday morning the predictions could have applied to anyone within earshot or willing to give the prediction some positive reinforcement.

"Someone feels sad," the reverend surmised. "Someone feels sad when someone passes away..."

Well, it's a start.

There was a continuity in the clairvoyance, as the preacher tied together a string of prognostications courtesy of "Roberto from the spirit world." The preacher stated (to no one in particular) that "You're on the right path, sometimes you don't think you are, but you are," and then, "You have freedom of choice to express yourself, to develop new talents."

To cover his (and Roberto's) bases, the preacher added this disclaimer: "Does any of this make sense to you? Don't worry, it will..."

Following the morning service, most of the congregation gathers at noon _ this time at the Andrew Jackson Davis Building for coffee and fellowship. Inside the meeting hall, it's time for socializing and another round of soothsaying. For an hour starting at 12:30 p.m., camp mediums conduct the Grove Service, providing free predictions for those at the coffee klatch.

It is worth noting that a personalized prediction made for us turned out to be fairly close to actual events, although it was tagged with the familiar disclaimer, "Does any of this make sense to you? Don't worry, it will . . ."

In retrospect, that phrase may describe your day in this enigmatic village.

Nancy Howell and Gary McKechnie are freelance writers living in Mount Dora.

If you go

GETTING THERE: To reach Cassadaga from the bay area, take Interstate 4 east to exit 54. At the first light, turn right onto Martin Luther King Jr. Beltway. A quarter-mile later, watch for County Road 4139/Cassadaga Road; turn right and follow it roughly 1.7 miles to the Camp.

STAYING THERE: There is the Cassadaga Hotel (904) 228-2323; it has 30 rooms, starting at about $75. Six blocks away in Lake Helen, there is Clauser's Bed & Breakfast, toll-free 1-800-220-0310, It has eight rooms, rates from $95 to $140 and includes a complimentary breakfast.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Camp Office at (386) 228-3171 or the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Bookstore & Information center at (386) 228-2880.