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Disagreement Stirs Negative Energy In Spiritualist Enclave

April 28, 1989 GMT

CASSADAGA, Fla. (AP) _ In a tiny eight-sided hut, spiritual healer Gladys Reid turns on a cassette of soothing melodies. With a brush of her hand, she claims to whisk away tension and negative energy.

It won’t be so easy to rid Cassadaga of its woes, say many residents of the backwoods enclave of more than 100 Spiritualists who attest to psychic or prophetic powers and the ability to communicate with the deceased.

The friction of controversy and fear of change cling to this 95-year-old community like the Spanish moss draping from the tree limbs. In the ephemeral realm of Spiritualism, very material issues such as politics, stock ownership and lawsuits jangle the village’s almost surreal tranquillity.

″If you look close you can feel the tension in the air,″ said Ron E. Heriff, a professional medium who was among a five-candidate slate that lost a bitter campaign March 25 to control the non-profit board that runs Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, which governs most psychic practitioners in town.

At least three of the five have been threatened with loss of their single share of camp stock for their alleged dissident acts, and a legal challenge in Volusia Circuit Court is expected to be heard sometime this spring on a plan that turned the camp from a shareholder to membership group.

Leaders say the move was to protect against unqualified psychics using the camp’s name. Others claim it was an attempt to stifle new ideas and force non- conformists from low-cost camp homes.

Meanwhile, at the newly reopened Cassadaga Hotel - a musty, quaint 62-year- old structure - owner Joseph Stupar has filed suit against the camp board alleging harassment because he rents space to some of the two dozen Spiritualists who operate outside the camp’s sanction.

″All this bickering and lawsuits have drained the positive energy from this place,″ said Marilyn Awtry-Smith, who lost her camp stock in December for forming a rival group in 1986.

″The tension is very, very high,″ Heriff said. ″I’m not joking, we may be witnessing the undoing of Cassadaga.″

Premonitions are just one ingredient in the metaphysical montage of Cassadaga. There are those who acknowledge the healing powers of certain stones and crystals. Others comb the Zodiac for insights and guidance. Auras are read and past lives are examined.

But the basic tenet of Spiritualism remains the ability to speak with the ″so-called dead.″ The contact with the spirit side is critical to demonstrate that death is not the end; the messages from the afterlife can be anything from a subtle feeling to words scripted through the air by light- emitting trumpets.

″Look at it this way,″ said medium and board member Darleen Misskelley. ″You can’t see television or radio waves in the air, but you see an image or hear a voice on the radio. Well, a medium is just like a television or radio. We pick up the higher vibrations from the spirit side and translate it back to something we can understand.″

Cassadaga is a mecca for mediums. Signs hang from most of the wood-frame houses offering different doors into the spirit world: Psychic Counselors, Past-life Regressions, Astral Therapy. On Gala Days and Medium’s Nights during the year, the compound is abuzz with visitors seeking 15-minute seances.

Yet not all in the village are believers. One camp shareholder rents to her sons, who playfully erected a ″Ghostbusters″ movie logo.

″We’re not a circus or a sideshow,″ said Misskelley, the daughter of a Presbyterian deacon. ″But some people can’t appreciate that. Everyone mocked Nancy Reagan for seeking the advice of an astrologer when they know nothing about it.″

The foundations of Spiritualism in America began after the Revolution, when metaphysics and superstition often intertwined with everyday life. One of the largest communities, now known as Lily Dale, was established in southwestern New York in 1879. At the same time, George Colby was homesteading here to establish a winter retreat for the northern Cassadaga village.

None of Colby’s descendants are alive and vandals have burned and damaged his cabin. Yet his portrait is displayed like an icon. There are also numerous pictures of Jesus, whom Spiritualists regard as just one of the great healers and mediums. Followers are hunting for suitable pictures of other prophets, including Mohammed and Buddha.

Today, all members of the camp compound must be approved by the board. About a third of the 300 shareholders live in Cassadaga, where home prices are kept low - most are less than $50,000 - and some of the long-time residents pay only $5 a year for a lease. Most make their living off readings, averaging about $35 per session.

But in a community of avowed free-thinkers, it’s different ideas and approaches that have caused the rifts.

Camp leaders are worried that non-affilated readers and mediums operating at the hotel and on county land across the street will turn the town into a carnival and soil its repuation. The outsiders say there should be no constraints on what is practiced in town.

″It’s just growing pains,″ said Bonnie Bemis, who holds weekly services at the Universal Spiritualist Center across the street. ″It’s like a pot- bound plant straining to grow and flourish. Put us all in the same room and we believe the same thing.

″There are just some people who are resistant to change.″

Astrologist Hanan Leeds, who carries a 50-year-old hand-painted Zodiac wheel in the rear of his car, said, ″There’s no reason to fight. There’s enough energy here to go around.″