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By Wicker, Christine
Lily Dale: How It Began
Lily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them. So many cats sun themselves about town that squirrels are said to be fearful of touching ground.
Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembles nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters. They laze about in the hotel parlor and fan themselves in white rockers that line the veranda. They sweep down the streets in flowing dresses. Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns.
I was a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News when I first drove a rental car past the filigree sign that proclaims Lily Dale to be the world's largest community of Spiritualists. The entrance shack where attendants take seven dollars from visitors during what the community calls camp season is white with bright blue trim and the walls and roof seem slightly out of plumb. Many things in Lily Dale are not quite square. For more than a hundred years, people of the Dale have believed they can talk with the dead. They think anybody can. Call them demented, sneer at their gullibility, suspect them of trickery -- catch them in it even, lots of people have -- but they won't give up what they believe.
I first read about Lily Dale in the New York Times in a little story that told everything except what I wanted to know. The reporter mentioned Lily Dale's 1879 founding, which makes it the oldest Spiritualist community in America and probably the world. He described the community's beginning as a summer camp for well-to-do freethinkers and Spiritualists, and he related stories its residents had told him. His skepticism was not quite hidden between carefully noncommittal lines, and that is a fine way for a reporter to behave in the face of such absurdity as Lily Dale presents -- the only way really. He wrote like a good fact-based reporter living in a scientific age in which provable facts are the only allowable reality. He had no reason to write anything more and all the reason in the world not to. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why this strange little outpost clings to such absurd ideas. I wanted to know who these people are and what makes them tick.
When they remember that New York Times reporter in Lily Dale, they mention how much the community's tatty look dismayed him and what he said to Hilda Wilkinson after she fed him tea and lunch. According to the story, he told Hilda, who first came to the Dale seventy-five years ago, he didn't believe a thing he'd heard. He said he didn't know how anyone could believe such nonsense. And Hilda said, "Well, young man, you just hold on to your beliefs." She paused.
"You just hold on, young man. Until you wake up."
I put the story in a file where it sat for a year. In June, when Dallas temperatures were climbing toward 100 and every reporter in Texas was looking for a story in a cool climate, I showed it to my editors. Within two weeks, I was on a flight to Buffalo.
Covering the God beat, I've met lots of people who believe strange things. I've talked with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. I've interviewed a man walking across America pulling a big wooden cross because Jesus told him to. I've spent all night in Garland, Texas, with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on television and announce the end of the world. They lived in Garland because their leader thought "Garland" was "God-land."
Weird never puts me off. I like it, and usually I understand it. In Lily Dale, some people were nervous about talking to me, but I told them straight out that I had not come to ridicule.
"You're afraid I'm going to write something that will make you seem crazy. Don't worry about that," I told them. "Everybody thinks you're nuts already. So there's no story there."
With regard to talking dead people, I considered myself ambivalent. Compared to most people in Lily Dale, I was a raging skeptic. Compared to most of my colleagues, I was a soft-headed sap. I didn't believe Lily Dale's people could chat with the dead, but I was willing to concede that I didn't know much about cosmic workings. I might be wrong.
And more to the point for a reporter, the Spiritualists were making the biggest brag in modern-day religion. Desperate for civic respectability in the face of science, most religions have pushed far away from the miracles on which they were founded. Not Spiritualism. Believers in this faith hold tight to their miracles, which they don't even think of as miracles actually, but as ordinary, accessible experience. I admired their pluck.
My first night was spent in a room above the old Assembly Hall. The ground floor is a dusty, wood-planked meeting room lined with grim-faced portraits of important Spiritualists from the 1800s and early 1900s. A private bedroom upstairs, with a shared bath, cost twenty-five dollars ...Continues...
Excerpted from Lily Dale by Wicker, Christine Excerpted by permission.
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