Tag Archives: Florida travel

A Visit to Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, the first book of the Abby Renshaw adventures, Abby is a high school student troubled by nightmares and scary hallucinations.

Trying to figure out the source of these apparitions, Abby visits her grandmother in the small town of Harmony Springs, Florida. There, Abby discovers a history of occult happenings and learns that the town was founded in the late 1800s by spiritualists, including one of her ancestors.

The idea of a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists came to me after reading about Cassadaga which is—you guessed it—a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists.

Cassadaga Today

Cassadaga is still a spiritualist center, and visitors are welcome. I toured the place with my wife a year ago, and we had a wonderful time.

The entrance to the camp is located on County Road 4139 not far from DeLand, Florida (in between Orlando and Jacksonville).

Entrance to the Camp
Entrance to the camp. Source: GoogleMaps.

The hotel and visitor center stand on one side of the street. On the other side are shops and psychics offering readings. These are “not affiliated with the spiritualist camp.” Everyone wants to be clear about this.

The Cassadaga Hotel  dates to the 1920s. In addition to hotel rooms, they offer psychic readings and healing sessions. The restaurant is called, oddly enough,“Sinatra’s.” The food on our visit was excellent and the atmosphere was atmospheric.

Sinatra's
Dining room of the Casadaga Hotel.
Lecture

The visitor center has a bookstore and a meeting hall. Here you can attend classes and schedule sessions with mediums and healers. We signed up for a introductory lecture and walking tour.

The lecture was given by a young woman who identified herself as “a first level student of the camp.” She used a slide show and talked for twenty minutes about the history of spiritualism in the 19th Century. She touched on Andrew Jackson Davis, the Fox Sisters,  and George Colby, the man responsible for founding Cassadaga. You can read about Colby and the founding of the camp on their official website, here.

Our lecturer also described the philosophy and belief system of spiritualism as it is still practiced in Cassadaga. She said there was an active portal right in the corner of the lecture hall where a boy and girl spirit came through. She had not met the girl but had met the boy many times.

Walking Tour

Following the lecture, our guide led us outside. As we walked down the road, she talked about the hotel and the different houses and their history.

House in Cassadaga
Houses in Cassadaga

This tree outside one of the houses was carved in memory of a child of one of the original families.

Tree Carving
Tree carved with angel and child

Seances, we learned, were often held in attics. There were special windows built into the houses to allow the spirits to come and go.

Spirit Window
Spirit Window in attic

The tour ended at the temple, which our guide unlocked for us. It is a large auditorium with a stage and interesting pictures along the walls. They hold services here every Sunday.

temple interior
Interior of the Spiritualist Temple
The Fairy Garden

The tour guide also pointed out the Fairy Garden, which had an entrance up the hill and borders a forest. Following the tour, my wife and I walked up there. The energy was somewhat spooky. People had left all sorts of statues, chairs, and shiny baubles.

Fairy Garden
Offerings in the Fairy Garden

We walked in a ways and then felt we should not go farther.

Edge of the Fairy Garden
As far as we went.
Conclusion

If you enjoy off-the-beaten track destinations, and are looking for a little adventure, I can definitely recommend a visit to Cassadaga, Florida.

You can learn more about the Abby Renshaw adventures here.

The Real Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

This month we’re talking a Blog break from discussing the art of the backstory. Instead, we’re visiting one of the most magical places in offbeat Florida, Weeki Wachee, home of the live mermaids.

Where it’s at

Weeki Wachee Springs, now a Florida State Park, is located on Highway 19, about an hour north of Tampa.

Entrance to the park. Photo copyright by Jack Massa.

Weeki Wachee is one of a large number of natural springs in Florida, and one of the deepest.  According to the park website, each day more than 117 million gallons of water gush out of the underground aquifer and form the source of the Weeki Wachee river, which flows 12 miles to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the park, you can take a boat ride on the river, and you can also rent kayaks nearby.

View from the river cruise. Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa
History

The real attraction, of course, is the mermaids.

In all began in 1946 with a man named Newton Perry. Perry had trained Navy frogmen during World War II, and also invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose. At the time, the area was pretty much a wilderness and “the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.”

Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)

Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.

Source: https://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.

During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”

Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Souce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7lmxhIKd2o

I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Mermaids Today

Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.

Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa

So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.

Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.

A Visit to Harmony Springs 2 – Downtown

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Harmony Springs is a small town in Florida with an occult history dating back to the late 1800s. This idea was based on several places in Florida, which were actually founded as spiritual or Utopian communities— including Ruskin, Estero, and Cassadaga.

But the inspiration for how downtown Harmony Springs looks came from visiting another old Florida town, Micanopy. This post has some pictures taken in Micanopy, to give you the flavor.

Early in the book, Abby describes looking at the town on Google Earth.

…The historic downtown looks exactly the same, and it’s amazing—a few blocks of old shops and commercial buildings, the streets lined with huge, twisted oak trees draped in moss. And Victorian houses with wraparound porches and pointed turrets. The street-level pictures make me all warm and nostalgic. I feel this ridiculous yearning to be there.

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In a later chapter, Abby is walking downtown on her first morning in Harmony Springs.

While yesterday was overcast and humid, today is hot and dry. Sunlight filters through the oak leaves and casts wavy shadows on the ancient, broken sidewalks. The buildings and overgrown yards all look like they haven’t changed in a hundred years—not since the time of Annie Renshaw. But the modern world is also right in my face: cars and pickup trucks driving by, advertisements in the shop windows for the theme parks in Orlando…

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This, by the way, is the Herlong Mansion in Micanopy, now a bed and breakfast. Some sources claim it is haunted.

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Late in the story, Abby and her friend Molly sneak into the town’s historic cemetery at midnight.

We cruise down a winding path of hard-packed sand and crushed dead leaves, past gravestones and monuments, some well-tended, some overgrown. Black branches reach over us like twisted fingers. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can sense all the spirits sleeping around us.

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