Lily Dale Part II

*  This is Part II of a series on Lily Dale, New York. You can find Part I here.

The Lily Dale Library

The Marion H. Skidmore Library is a brick building with four closely clustered columns and two smiling stone lions framing the doorway; it’s perched on a small hill. On the slope down from the entrance is a gazebo, made of interlocking branches painted white, where librarian Mandi Shepp suggests we do the interview.

Shepp’s about thirty and has chestnut bangs that fall into the shape of a widow’s peak. To one side of the bangs, her hair is cut short and dyed blond; on the other it’s orange. She wears a skull necklace and a barrette with a plastic eyeball in the knot of a black bow. She sticks out in a place where most people wear casual attire, shattering my stereotypes about mediums and psychics since she’s precisely the one person I meet who is deeply knowledgeable about Lily Dale and Spiritualism, but is not a Spiritualist. She describes herself as “more on the agnostic side of things.”

Mandi Sheep, Lily Dale Librarian
Mandi Sheep, Lily Dale Librarian © Chester Higgins Jr.

Shepp tells me she’s “never felt excluded here because I’m not a Spiritualist. I’ve never felt like I can’t do anything or they’re going to limit me, or even like they don’t listen to me.” In fact, choosing Shepp shows openness on the part of Lily Dale’s management since her previous position was with the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster a secular society.

Referring to the Lily Dale community, she explains “I do understand their plight” and “their need for someone with an objective view to look at this.” Since the 1970s, no one with library training has worked at the Marion H. Skidmore Library. There were problems with theft since there was no catalogue, and certain works contrary to Spiritualism’s narrative, including those exposing fraudulent mediums, had been marked for deaccession or removal from the collection.

For Shepp the way forward is clear. She points out that “there is a strong root in free thought in Spiritualism.” She feels that “it is my duty as the librarian here to do what I can to preserve [Lily Dale’s] history before it deteriorates.” What’s more “to have a serious academic scholarly institution you have to have the whole picture,” and she emphasizes, it’s a “beautiful picture.”

Shepp describes figures of the heyday of Spiritualism as “people with these wonderful abilities and these gifts and these talents.” The movement was full of “powerful orators that can make people feel something.” Some speculate too that the high death rates during the Civil War and World War I provided a catalyst for Spiritualism. In addition, advances in science were fast-pasted and people were rejecting Calvinistic religion. Ultimately, Spiritualism is about embracing the individual, “your journey and your development.”

Shepp has been painstakingly teasing out the history of the library and the life of its founder Marion Skidmore, for whom she displays empathy. She tells me that she doesn’t know where Skidmore went to school, but affirms, “I just know that at some point she did, otherwise she wouldn’t have been so interested in driving educational forces.”

A few years before the Fox sisters claimed to hear the rappings of a dead peddler, Marion Skidmore’s father, William Johnson, had moved to the Lily Dale area. Johnson was already involved in the mystic teachings of the day such as mesmerism whereby a patient would be settled into a trance; some call it the precursor to hypnotism. News of the Fox sisters gave momentum to the mystical teachings in the area, and only a few years later, in 1855, the Religious Society of Free Thinkers was established in Laona, New York. Spiritualists then bought what is now the Lily Dale property in 1879, and cleared it, setting up today’s grounds.

Skidmore dedicated her life to the community and particular energy to the library, which she started in 1886 in a tent outside her home. Visiting lecturers and speakers were encouraged to donate books. Therefore many are original signed copies from the authors who were friends of Skidmore. One prominent friend was Susan B. Anthony, whom the librarian invited to speak at Lily Dale. The suffragist enjoyed the experience and returned over a decade on several occasions. Lily Dale was one of few forums in the United States which embraced leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Lily Dale’s history is intimately intertwined with its library and many of its books have a homegrown flavor, particularly since there was a local printing press until about the 1950s; some books are locally published. As of July 2015, Shepp had cataloged over 2,800 unique titles. “And that’s about a third of it.” At times she can only find “like one copy on WorldCat,” a global catalogue of library collections, meanwhile she’s got six sitting on her counter.

One such book is Pen Pictures “received and edited” in 1900 by medium Mina Seymour which Shepp describes as “salacious and juicy and hilarious.” It’s a book of poetry purportedly dictated to Seymour by the spirit of then deceased poet Robert Burns whom Shepp playfully terms the “Victorian Elvis” in the sense that according to the librarian there were reports of Burns’ sightings even after he died. Messages from local spirits are also included in the book. Shepp giggles as she tells me about the “quasi-threatening” message which the medium Seymour claimed was transmitted from Skidmore to the then-librarian along the lines of “it’s always my library, it doesn’t matter how much you do there.”

As we wind up the interview, Shepp invites me behind the library’s front desk into the stacks. “Come on back.” I pause at the sight of rows of intricately patterned book spines in muted green, red and gold. “I know you’re not going to swipe things,” she teases. I hold a book entitled Startling Facts in Modern Spiritualism. It has a weathered green cover decorated with clean swoops of gold, art nouveau shapes. The oddly sweet smell of musty paper is comforting. When I consider this whole body of work to qualify and quantify mediumship, I get the sense of the investment made in Spiritualism. I understand why people who have inherited this tradition would want to take these books home and treasure them.

Library stacks © Chester Higgins Jr.

The collection reflects a golden age of Spiritualism which dovetails with key aspects of US history like the women’s suffrage movement. It’s clear that Lily Dale’s history abounds with energy and scholarship including its own printing press. I wonder if the town’s leadership has retained some of that dynamism.

Leading Lily Dale

Lily Dale’s small management team works out of one of the town’s decorative houses, which are somehow impossible to gauge the size of from the outside. As I enter the modest clapboard house, Lily Dale’s Executive Director, Susan Glasier, emerges from a back room and shakes my hand firmly. She leads me behind the welcome desk and I’m surprised to turn a corner into a room that’s big enough for a conference table.

Glasier, who is just over five feet tall, has boundless energy; she links sentences together one after another. Her face is animated when in conversation, but serious in repose. She wears glasses, dangling earrings, slacks and a striped sweater. Glasier has lived in Lily Dale since she was twenty-one years old. “I will be seventy-one this year, so that’s kind of a long time.” She started as a receptionist shortly after arriving. Since then, she’s served in many capacities including as treasurer, Vice-President and briefly as President. Only a handful of staff work in her office; much is done by volunteers.

Executive Director Susan Glasier. (c) Chester Higgins Jr.
Executive Director Susan Glasier ©Chester Higgins Jr.

Glasier tells me that there has been a great deal of interest in Lily Dale, so much so that “we have had to turn a lot of people down because of what the concept of their vision was.” She looks at me. “We are a religion. We take it seriously.” Glasier continues in a tone that feels like she’s confiding but she is clearly addressing her underlying concern that I will make fun of Spiritualism or be disrespectful. “We need to educate the public as to who we really are,” because “you get a lot of people that want tarot cards,” but “that’s not part of our religion.” She explains “we deal strictly with Spirit, some people see, some people hear, some people do psychometry where they can take a ring or a watch” and “give you a reading that way.” There are “many ways that our mediums can contact Spirit.”

One of the key misperceptions, Glasier explains, has to do with Jesus. “We do believe in God and we do believe in Jesus,” she emphasizes. “We just believe in self-responsibility” but “the Christian religion looks down on us because of course we don’t accept Jesus as our Savior.” The Director of Women’s Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Ann Braude, in her book Radical Spirits, explains how the belief in a vibrant afterlife in Spiritualism fundamentally altered Jesus’ role. She notes that

…without a ‘final change’ at death, the underpinnings of Christian theology lost their explanatory function…With no threat of judgment or punishment, humanity needed no redemption and therefore no atonement. Christ himself became logically unnecessary, as did the Gospels that announced his resurrection.

For Spiritualists, Glasier continues Jesus is “ our elder brother,” “master healer” and “master teacher.” “Of course we believe,” she adds. “We just believe we make our own happiness as we obey or disobey nature’s spiritual laws. And we make our own decisions; it’s free will.” In that vein, “we embrace all religions,” Glasier notes. “We have three Christian ministers who walk the grounds every day they can. Wonderful gentlemen. They come in, they talk to us. They love the vibration. They love the peace.” But overall, “Lily Dale is looked on as woo woo.” To counter that, several years ago Sue devised what sounded to me like a misguided strategy to appear less weird. Her idea: Christmas in July. Donations were collected and given to charities in the area in an effort to “let the outside world know we’re just like you, we care.”

Besides misconceptions about Spiritualism, some of the biggest challenges Glasier faces stem from the evolution of the camp from the tents of the 1800s into a permanent community. “You know it started out in tents and so-forth,” Glasier points out. “I don’t know if they realized, if Spirit told them just where we were going to be.” Technically Lily Dale is a Spiritualist camp chartered with the National Spiritualist Association of Churches or NSAC, but in practice it functions like a town with churches on the grounds and even a volunteer fire department. The population is about 200 people in the winter and doubles in the summer. Nevertheless, because it’s religion-based, the town is not eligible for government funding of its infrastructure. As a result, everything from the sewage system to the roads is financed by Lily Dale.

Glasier explains that Lily Dale is a 501(c) 3 organization and she opens up, “there are times when you get jaded because you see the business end of it, so I’ve had my moments when it’s how do I work this business sense with the spiritual side?” She laments that “a lot of our members don’t think of this as a business but Lily Dale is a business.” She then rattles off the laws and regulations she has to stay current with: “not-for-profit law,” “not-for-profit religious membership,” “corporation law” and so on. There are times when Spiritualist beliefs are a difficult fit with the intricacies of modern-day living. Glasier points out that a museum is interested in borrowing paintings owned by Lily Dale purported to be done by spirits, but of the insurance evaluation required, she asks, “how can you value something that can’t be reproduced and is done by Spirit?”

Lily Dale generates income from various sources including its registered mediums and the leasing of land. Only mediums tested by Lily Dale are allowed to perform readings for monetary compensation on the grounds and these mediums are charged a fee to do so. “The bad thing with Spiritualism,” says Glasier, qualifying “if there is a bad thing,” is that “it’s very easy to fake.” And “that breaks your heart because we are real.” She emphasizes to me that Lily Dale’s administrators can revoke a medium’s license and retest him or her because “this is serious, you are dealing with people’s lives.” Other revenue includes a village tax. In addition, in order to own a home, land is leased for ninety-nine years, and there is a fee attached to purchasing a house. Businesses like The Sunflower Cafe and Monika’s Delites are charged a fee to operate in Lily Dale.

Lily Dale Entrance © Chester Higgins Jr.

But the bulk of Lily Dale’s income, according to Glasier, is made during the summer season, which runs for ten weeks from late June to early September. There is the gate entrance fee and income from the hotels run by the town itself. There are workshops and speaking events. “Any income that we lose really hurts us,” says Glasier, “any gate income, if somebody cancels a big workshop, you know, that hurts.” According to the Lily Dale Assembly, which overseas the town, some 25,000 visitors come through each season.

With so much at stake, Glasier tells me she works hard to bring top names to Lily Dale. Some are paid a fee and others 50% of what the workshop brings in. Lily Dale provides accommodations and, depending on a speaker’s clout, airfare. She chuckles about the first time Deepak Chopra came to Lily Dale. “He was so lovely,” she gushes as she tells me that he asked “‘Please tell me where I’m at, they just put me on a plane.’” When I ask if he still comes, she graciously notes “he’s on a different path right now.” This year medium James Van Praagh is returning. “He’s been coming for years,” says Glasier before describing Lily Dale’s symbiotic relationship with its invited authors and speakers. “They are our guests and if they weren’t here helping us sustain who we are, then we wouldn’t be able to have them.”

I have tickets to the upcoming Van Praagh event around which there seems to be a serious buzz. Lily Dale’s hotels and guesthouses have been booked that weekend for months in advance and I’m staying in a neighboring town to be able to attend the event.

* You’ve reached the end of Part II. Part III in which I interview mediums about their work will be published next week. You can check back then or sign up here to have Part III and IV delivered right to your inbox.

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