My friends and I sat in a coffee shop debating where we should spend our long weekend together. “What about Lily Dale, New York? It’s a rural town of spiritualist mediums. And only a three hour drive from here.”
All three of us are fascinated by alternative lifestyles, beliefs, and ideas. A town of Spiritualist mediums, we were sure, would satisfy our collective curiosity. We pictured mediums as they are shown in the media: fun, insightful, sometimes gimmicky, occasionally phoney.
We interviewed Gretchen Clark, a 5th generational Spiritualist and longtime resident of Lily Dale to learn what the mediumship entails in practise, specifically in the context of Spiritualism. She invited us into her beautiful, cozy home, and answered all our burning questions - some silly, some serious. Read on to find out why exploring Lily Dale, NY should be on your summer bucket list.
The History of Lily Dale
The very small town of Lily Dale has a surprisingly long history. It’s claimed that it all began in 1844, when a mesmerist was invited to New York State to lecture. Following his visit, locals began to experiment with Spiritualist techniques, and in 1855, the First Spiritualist Society of Laona was created and known as a “camp,” a retreat for spiritualists to escape to in the summer.
In 1881 a Lyceum for Spiritualism was formed, and a permanent auditorium was built in 1883 for services. Over the years, the Spiritualist camp went through name changes, until in 1906 it was settled: The Lily Dale Assembly was named for the abundance of lilies on the adjacent lake.
While exploring Lily Dale, we learned that the history of Lily Dale is closely connected to the history of women’s suffrage in America. Marion Skidmore, one of the founders of Lily Dale, was an ardent advocate for women’s rights, a liberal thinker, and a friend of Susan B. Anthony. Skidmore’s collection of books formed the basis for the Marion Skidmore Library in Lily Dale.
Today, Lily Dale is a community of over 160 residences, a couple hotels and guest houses, bookstores, cafes, and a museum. Throughout the summer, visitors can attend events ranging from medium demonstrations to religious services and workshops. The town, with a population of around just 275, is home to around 50 registered mediums, hence it being known as “the town of Spiritualist mediums.”
An Interview With a Medium
The majority of visitors to Lily Dale come for one reason: to visit one of Lily Dale’s registered mediums for a reading. As our trip to the Spiritualist town approached, my companions and I debated whether or not we would have a reading done. The “phoney” stereotypes and gimmicks made us doubt whether or not a reading would be worth it. And if it turned out that a reading wasn’t a gimmick, well, we were concerned that it would make us uncomfortable to communicate with our loved ones who have passed on.
But we were curious about Spiritualist mediums, and wondered if one of Lily Dale’s mediums would be willing to talk with us and answer our questions. We scoured the list of registered mediums, browsed some sites, and landed on Gretchen Clark. The choice was made based on a feeling: we felt like she would be receptive. And she was. After some brief emailing, we’d arranged to meet with her in her home in Lily Dale, NY.
“Should we take our shoes off?” We asked, as Gretchen welcomed us into the beautiful, 100 year old house that she calls home. “Uhhh, no. I’ve never been able to train the children and grandchildren to take their shoes off. And of course our dogs and cats never took their shoes off, either!” We giggled, appreciating Gretchen’s easy-going nature and humour.
Gretchen has known Lily Dale all her life. From Pennsylvania originally, she spent some summers working in the town’s shops. In 1967, she moved to Lily Dale to register as a medium, and she’s never left. She tells us that she’s seen the town change over the decades. It used to be a place that Spiritualists came to in the summer to practise, and now it is a hot spot for folks who wish to start their medium practise. In the time that Gretchen has lived in Lily Dale, the amount of registered mediums in the town has doubled.
A modern religious movement, Spiritualism has rituals, doctrinal components, and a belief in a transcendent realm, all elements that other religions have. And, Spiritualists do in some cases read the Bible and practise values associated with Christianity.
Spiritualism’s defining practise is communication with the spirits. Gretchen explains, “there are many spirits around Lily Dale because they know that communication is possible here.” She describes this as a light in the spiritual universe that tells the spirits - the phone lines are up, over here! Gretchen described many of her communications with the spirits, sharing some of her most memorable. There was the time a spirit urged her to tell her client that their murder was being planned, and there was the time a young teenager asked to communicate with their dog, who’d recently passed on.
Gretchen described to us the different services held in Lily Dale. Throughout the summer, visitors often come for “healings.” Held in public, healing sessions are meant to channel positive energy into the body to counter pain and discomfort. “Here, let me show you,” she said to us while getting up to bring forth a wooden chair. My companion, Sennah, nervously stepped up and took a seat. Gretchen closed her eyes in focus and hovered her hands over Sennah’s shoulders. “Did you injure your left shoulder, recently?” Sennah looked up at me, her face in disbelief. She had.
Later, Gretchen led us into her sunroom, and after shuffling some furniture around, she procured an old spirit trumpet and spirit slates, passed down to her through her family and the Lily Dale community. She showed us cursive messages written on the slates, messages from the spirits. The trumpets and slates are not used in modern Spiritualist practise, but they represent the roots of the religion, and how it has evolved over the years.
Our visit ended in the kitchen, where Gretchen shared some dark chocolate with us, made in a local shop. She gave us each a departing hug, sending us on our way with a sense of warmth and comfort, something that defines Lily Dale. The Lily Dale that Gretchen shared with us is one of deep-rooted community and faith. The residents of Lily Dale collectively believe in the afterlife as a continuum of our earthly lives. For Spiritualists, our loved ones are never gone, they are simply living on in Spirit.
“What happens when you die depends on what you expect” Gretchen says. “If you expect to go to heaven, the heaven your mind imagines is where you’ll go. And if you expect to go to hell, well, you’ll find yourself in hell.”
What to Do in Lily Dale
Lily Dale may be small, but there is tons to do that will keep you busy. The town itself is only a couple streets, but it is surrounded by woods, hiking trails, and alongside a lake that offers many activities. Here’s what to do in Lily Dale:
Lily Dale Museum - 16-18 Library Street
The Lily Dale Museum is found in a historic one-room schoolhouse in town, offering visitors a chance to learn about the town’s history while seeing a building that dates back to 1890. The museum is run by Ron Nagy, a historian and museum curator, who kindly welcomes you into the space which is filled with photos, artifacts, documents, and memorabilia from the early days of the Spiritualist movement in Lily Dale. It is free to visit, with option to make a donation in support of the museum’s upkeep.
Highlights of the museum included a section dedicated to Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement, the precipitated spirit paintings, spirit trumpets, and collection of signs which belonged to the mediums of Lily Dale who have passed on.
Explore The Bargain Shoppe - 14 East St.
This shop sells everything: snacks, gifts, clothing, books, and items related to Spiritualism (think tarot cards, star charts, and incense). If you aren’t shopping for anything specific, it is worth dropping by for a browse and a quick chat with the locals who will inevitably be hanging around.
Visit the Forest Temple
The Forest Temple is on the outskirts of town, an outdoor area dedicated to spiritual, mental, and emotional uplift. During the summer months, services are held there daily (except Sundays). Each service is led by a local, registered medium (or student) who delivers messages from the Spirits to those in attendance. Whether or not there is a service happening, the Forest Temple is a peaceful place to stop by and sit a while.
Walk the trail to the Inspiration Stump and Pet Cemetary
The Inspiration Stump is within walking distance (10 minutes) from the town of Lily Dale. It is found within the Leolyn Woods, surrounded by peaceful trees and foliage. According to locals,it is not unusual to become more aware of spiritual energies while in an open, receptive state nearby the Inspiration Stump. The walk to the site is scenic and relaxing, and it takes you through Lily Dale’s pet cemetery, which since 1900 has served as a resting place for the beloved pets of Lily Dale residents.
During the summer, the grove surrounding the Inspiration Stump is used as a site for services twice a day. Local mediums host the services, providing short messages from the spirits to those seated in the audience. A full schedule of services can be found, here.
Visit a medium in Lily Dale
Most of the 20,000+ visitors a year come for one of Lily Dale’s psychic readings. And finding a medium to provide you a reading isn’t hard: all registered mediums are listed on the Lily Dale Assembly website directory. It is recommended to browse some websites before deciding on your medium, and contact them in advance to book your consultation. Typically, mediums will meet with you in their own home within the town of Lily Dale.
Take a swim in Cassadaga Lake
If you’re looking to incorporate a relaxing beach day into your visit to Lily Dale, you’re in luck. The town is situated alongside Cassadaga Lake, a peaceful lake that is perfect for swimming in. within Lily Dale town is a beach and park area which is accessible by foot and by car. A small dock and ladder make access to the lake simple. Besides Lily Dale Beach, there is Cassadaga Village Beach only a short drive away.
Combine hiking with your weekend in Lily Dale
Upstate New York is filled with serene, natural beauty. State Parks are all over, providing access to the lakes and forests. Your visit to Lily Dale is the perfect opportunity to combine some exploration of New York’s wildlife.
Accessible from the town of Lily Dale is the Fairy Trail, which takes you on a leisurely stroll through the surrounding woods. Visitors and residents alike build and contribute creations to decorate the trail, from tiny gnome houses to fairies.
If you’d like to venture outside of Lily Dale, an 18 minute drive to Mayville, NY will bring you to the Alison Wells Ney Trail. At 8.1 miles long, the trail makes for a great day trip. For those willing to drive a little further, Allegany State Park is about 45 minutes away. The park has plenty of options for hiking, swimming, picnicking, and camping.
Where to eat in Lily Dale
This grocery store is about a 5 minute drive from Lily Dale and sells everything you could possibly need, including camping supplies, toiletries, wine, and beer. Nestled towards the back of Cassadaga Shur Fine is a food counter that serves a range of hot and cold meals for takeaway or eat-in, at a reasonable price.
This is the closest bar to Lily Dale (5 minute drive) and is a local favourite for drinks as well as food. Swing by to enjoy classic comfort and pub food, or just stop by for a local beer or cocktail. On weekends, breakfast is served from 8:00am to 12:00pm.
This little shop serves delicious coffee and baked goods, all made in house, from scratch, and with natural ingredients. During the Lily Dale season, it is open daily and serves breakfast items as well as sandwiches for lunch. Lucy’s is in the town of Lily Dale, making it very convenient. But beware, during the off-season, Lucy’s is closed.
This seasonal lunch and dinner spot is found in Lily Dale’s old pagoda. It’s a fantastic place to find a meal that is on the healthy side, offering items like curries and salads. It is a little on the expensive side, but worth it for the fresh meals.
Another in-town restaurant that is open during the Lily Dale season, Bough House serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant has a large menu that includes vegetarian and vegan items for a range of prices.
Where to Stay in Lily Dale
Whether you’re aiming to spend a week or just a weekend in Lily Dale, there are plenty of places to stay within the town as well as in the surrounding area.
Input “Lily Dale” into Airbnb and you’ll be presented with options, ranging in budget and proximity to the town. If you’d like to stay in Lily Dale for the weekend, it is possible to rent a room. Outside of town, it is possible to rent anything from a lakeside cottage to a trailer. Prices range from 40.00 to 200.00 USD per night.
Lily Dale has its own campground and RV park with very affordable rates (22.00 USD per tent, per night). Bookings are done by phone, see here for more information. The next closest campgrounds are Woodside Campground and Arkwright Hills Campground, both are a 15 minute drive from the town.
Although Lily Dale has only two hotels, there are many guest homes available to visitors. Most guest homes are within the town, making them convenient to your stay. For the full list of guest homes, see the Lily Dale Assembly website.
Lily Dale in the off-season
Lily Dale’s official season runs from June 21st to September 1st. During this period, the town experiences a large influx of tourists who come for the workshops, services, and to visit a Lily Dale medium.
We visited Lily Dale in the spring, right before its official opening weekend, and it was therefore the off-season. Although coming in May meant there were no events for us to attend, there were definite advantages to coming before the busy summer months. We experienced Lily Dale as a sleepy, quiet town, and this made for a relaxing visit with lots of time to meet one-on-one with local residents, and observe the town in a state of normalcy.
Deciding whether to visit during the season or off-season will depend on what you’d like to do in Lily Dale. If attending services and events is not at the top of your bucket list, then an off-season visit might suit you well. During the spring and fall, moderate temperatures make Lily Dale a fantastic destination for a mixture of exploring the town and nature.
Why you should road trip to Lily Dale, NY
A weekend in Lily Dale is an opportunity to learn fascinating history, learn about the Spiritualist practise, and relax. Lily Dale is worth exploring, but it is more than just a town of Spiritualist mediums. Surrounded by beautiful lakes, wildlife, and nature, the town is emblematic of western, upstate New York.
The only way to reach Lily Dale is by car, and it therefore makes for a perfect road trip opportunity. The town is within 5 hours driving from Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Columbus. So add a road trip to Lily Dale, NY to your summer bucket list! It won’t disappoint.