The Americans - Lily Dale
As I drove back to Vermont from my nearly-93-year-old grandmother’s funeral, I reminisced about childhood summers in Pittsburgh, camping on grandma’s back porch, joining her on the porch swing without “messing up” the swing’s flow, and drinking coffee out of Limoges china tea cups. I also remember grandma shooting squirrels with her BB gun, laughing hysterically when we fell down or got hurt (as long as it wasn’t “too” bad), and—upon seeing us at the start of summer each year—telling us if we’d gotten chubby or developed acne. She was a tough woman. Not particularly “warm and fuzzy,” but she had her own brand of nurturing and love that worked for my brother and me. We loved going to grandma’s house.
Grandma was also a Rosie the Riveter during WWII—working in factories in Connecticut to fill in for the men who’d gone off to war. As my mom said in her eulogy, grandma “was one of the original feminists.” So it’s even more curious that about four hours into the 11-hour drive from Pittsburgh to my home in Vermont, I noticed a sign for the Lily Dale Assemblage and decided to pull into a Home Depot parking lot and call the main office. Turns out that in addition to being a community of mediums and spiritualists, Lily Dale is also hailed as the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. Grandma would be proud.
I first heard of Lily Dale about 10 years ago when a Buddhist minister in Harrisburg, PA told our sangha about his recent visit to this self-contained community of Spiritualists. Ever intrigued by the unknown, I developed a slight fascination with the place, planning a trip to this upstate New York tourist attraction, but feeling rather certain that said plan would end up—along with many other good intentions—in my personal NGO (never gonna happen) file.
But here I was! I googled the place and called the main office, but Lily Dale wasn’t set to open to the public for another two weeks (it’s generally a summer destination). Further research told me, however, that some Lily Dale residents live there year-round, so I figured I could reach someone. I found a page with bed & breakfast options and called the first one, Angel House B&B. A man with an accent answered.
I wasn’t really sure of what to say. Having just started interviewing people for my blog series, The Americans, I thought maybe someone would agree to be interviewed. The gentleman on the other line sounded a bit confused by my admittedly-confusing and terribly-unprepared explanation, but his gut must have told him to trust me, because he invited me to their home and said, “We’ll figure it out when you get here.”
About 20 minutes later, my nine-year-old son and I were pulling into the gated community of Lily Dale. It was a bit eerie to be there during the off-season, kind of like visiting an amusement park in winter. Don’t get me wrong, Lily Dale is a charming little town, with Victorian houses of all shapes, sizes and colors, and everything from Tibetan prayer flags and dream catchers to angels and fairies adorning the quaint front porches lining the quiet streets. Shops and restaurants were still closed, awaiting the tens-of-thousands of tourists and seekers who would soon descend upon this Mecca for global spiritualists.
The History of Lily Dale
In 1871, a group of Spiritualists formed the beginnings of the Lily Dale Assembly, eventually building more than 200 cottages, a hotel, and multiple pavilions and auditoriums—all still in use today. Situated next to the town of Chautauqua, Lily Dale was part of the Chautauqua circuit, an adult education movement popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Daughter Chautauquas” operated across North America, hosting lecturers, performers, and all varieties of free-thinkers. Lectures often focused on social issues, such as women’s suffrage, temperance, and child labor laws. As a result, Susan B. Anthony made the very first of many public appearances as part of the women’s suffrage movement at Lily Dale in 1891. She spoke to 3,000 people that day, causing many to call Lily Dale the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. Today, you are just as likely to run into a feminist or PhD as a crystal baller or medium; often, they are one in the same.
It was raining the day my son and I arrived in Lily Dale, and the thick fog and gray sky added to the town’s otherworldly feel. I pulled up to the Angel House B&B and an Asian man with an umbrella waved me in. We followed him onto the back porch, where my son and I removed our muddy shoes and heeded instructions not to let the energetic puppy run out the open door. Two middle-aged women were sitting at the back of the porch, smiling broadly amidst a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. They exuded the kind of friendly, reassuring spirit that immediately disarms a person and makes her feel welcome. Shelley and Phyllis introduced themselves as sisters, quickly telling me that they had just realized their familial ties last year. Apparently, Phyllis had done some digging and discovered that her dad had fathered at least two more daughters, Shelley and Danielle, both residents of Lily Dale. For a moment I worried I was intruding on a very special reunion, but the women quickly reassured me. No, no, no, please, come sit down. My son and I were welcome. The man with the umbrella was Shelley’s husband Frank Takei. Both are retired college professors.
Shelley has a PhD in women’s studies and transpersonal psych. “When I was studying, the feminists were like, there is no difference between men and women, let us in, we’ll play according to your rules. To me, that is what is wrong…we still have nothing but masculine values. Lily Dale is a feminine place. When I was getting my doctorate, the only person I found that I could identify with was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who got written out of history because she wrote the women’s bible. She knew that the bible held much of this crap in place, you know, blaming women, making them less than. So I always identified with her. But I never knew, until about three years ago, that she was the architect of the women’s movement…she wrote most of what Susan B. Anthony said. And she was not only in Lily Dale every year, she was in this house. And I’ve had some very cool, interesting past-life associations with her. She was in this room!” In fact, the long list of well-known visitors to Lily Dale includes Houdini, Deepak Chopra, Lisa Ling, and the Dalai Lama’s monks.
When people are engaged in a social or cultural “connector”—such as eating, smoking, or drinking alcohol, coffee or tea—I like to join them in an effort to deepen that connection, and thus the level of trust. So, I joined the women in smoking cigarette after Native American cigarette (the Seneca Nation reservation is only about 15 minutes from Lily Dale). About an hour into our fascinating conversation, Shelley and Phyllis (who everyone calls Pink) invited me to not only stay for lunch and dinner, but also to stay the night in one of the open guest rooms. I was thrilled by the offer, and—while I hadn’t expected the invitation, I had secretly hoped for the chance to spend some more time at Lily Dale—so I feigned surprise in that polite way that we humans do. Oh…really?? Are you sure?? I mean, wow, that would be amazing. To which my 9-year-old son replied, “Why are you surprised, mom? You said in the car you hoped they would invite us to sleep over.” That little…
Anyhow, embarrassing moment over, we accepted the kind invitation and were treated to the ultimate guided tour (via Shelley’s golf cart) of Lily Dale and its rich history. We cruised down each winding road, as Shelley pointed out famous houses, signs for tarot readings and mediums, the fairy forest, a pet cemetery, the tiny post office, forest temple, and the famous “inspiration stump.” After our tour, we drove the cart to her sister Danielle’s house, where we ate egg salad sandwiches, chili and potato chips and continued to get to know each other better.
Danielle and her husband, who live part-time in Lily Dale and part-time outside of Pittsburgh, made a fortune with the Dad’s dog food company. Sadly, Danielle also happens to be suffering from a debilitating lung disease that requires near-constant use of oxygen and severely limits her ability to leave the house. Despite her poor health, Danielle—a talented artist—still finds the energy to create beautiful, mystical paintings and mixed-media pieces…and she loves to entertain guests. After lunch, she invited us to come back for dinner and wine that evening.
There is a vibe in Lily Dale unlike anything I’ve felt in a place before. When it comes to the mystical, I’m an admitted skeptic…but there’s no denying that something just feels different when you’re in Lily Dale. I don’t really know how to explain what I mean by different. Maybe it’s just the knowledge of everything that’s happened there. So much history. Maybe it’s the old, Victorian houses and fairy gardens. Maybe it was the weather. All I know is that I felt different as I entered the gates of Lily Dale, and that feeling stayed with me until I drove out the next day. My son said the same thing.
Whether or not Lily Dale’s residents—both past and present—can really convene with spirits remains a mystery, at least to me. What I do know, however, is that kindness and openness and trust among our human counterparts are more readily available than we often believe. I could have driven past the Lily Dale sign that day, thinking to myself—I’ll set up an appointment in a few months and come back when it’s more appropriate. But I chose to take a risk, to be vulnerable. I walked into someone’s home with nothing to say but, “hello, you don’t know me, but I’d love to know more about you and this place,” and they chose to trust me and welcome me. They also took a risk, they were also vulnerable.
Humans love to connect, we need to connect. But society dictates how, where, and to whom we should connect. As a result, we stick to what is safe. Remember how, as children, we would go up to anyone, say what was on our mind, tell them we liked their shoes, and ask if they wanted to play?
We can still do that.