Nation’s oldest continuously existing spiritualist community marks 150 years in Lake Pleasant

The upstairs level of the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple where The National Spiritual Alliance holds Sunday services when the weather is warm (in the colder months, they hold services downstairs). The temple, built in 1920, is named for the reverend and medium who founded The National Spiritual Alliance in 1913.

The upstairs level of the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple where The National Spiritual Alliance holds Sunday services when the weather is warm (in the colder months, they hold services downstairs). The temple, built in 1920, is named for the reverend and medium who founded The National Spiritual Alliance in 1913. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

An historical image depicting Montague Street in Lake Pleasant.

An historical image depicting Montague Street in Lake Pleasant. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

A postcard depicting the junction of Adams Street and the county highway in Lake Pleasant.

A postcard depicting the junction of Adams Street and the county highway in Lake Pleasant. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

A postcard depicting the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple in Lake Pleasant.

A postcard depicting the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple in Lake Pleasant. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

An historical image depicting the dance pavilion in Lake Pleasant, which burned down in 1907.

An historical image depicting the dance pavilion in Lake Pleasant, which burned down in 1907. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

The Grove, an outdoor amphitheater for orchestras, bands and speakers, in Lake Pleasant.

The Grove, an outdoor amphitheater for orchestras, bands and speakers, in Lake Pleasant. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

An historical image depicting the railway station in Lake Pleasant, which burned down in 1907.

An historical image depicting the railway station in Lake Pleasant, which burned down in 1907. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

A postcard depicting the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple in Lake Pleasant.

A postcard depicting the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple in Lake Pleasant. IMAGE CONTRIBUTED BY DAVID JAMES

The site of the Fitchburg Railroad Co. railway station, built in 1872. After a 1907 fire, the railway station moved to The Bluffs section of Lake Pleasant and became part of the relocated Lake Pleasant Inn.

The site of the Fitchburg Railroad Co. railway station, built in 1872. After a 1907 fire, the railway station moved to The Bluffs section of Lake Pleasant and became part of the relocated Lake Pleasant Inn. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

These steps lead to the Lake Pleasant dance pavilion built in the 1880s. It burned down in the 1907 fire.

These steps lead to the Lake Pleasant dance pavilion built in the 1880s. It burned down in the 1907 fire. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

The Grove, the outdoor amphitheater where speakers and musicians performed in Lake Pleasant’s heyday between 1880 and 1920.

The Grove, the outdoor amphitheater where speakers and musicians performed in Lake Pleasant’s heyday between 1880 and 1920. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

David James and Kara Kharmah on the Bridge of Names in Lake Pleasant.

David James and Kara Kharmah on the Bridge of Names in Lake Pleasant. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

Kara Kharmah and David James on the Bridge of Names in Lake Pleasant.

Kara Kharmah and David James on the Bridge of Names in Lake Pleasant. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

Lake Pleasant, as seen from the Bridge of Names.

Lake Pleasant, as seen from the Bridge of Names. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

Lake Pleasant, as seen from the Bridge of Names.

Lake Pleasant, as seen from the Bridge of Names. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

The Bridge of Names, built in 1975 after a storm knocked down the original bridge built in 1888 by Frank Bickford to connect the two halves of Lake Pleasant, “the Highlands” and “the Bluffs.”

The Bridge of Names, built in 1975 after a storm knocked down the original bridge built in 1888 by Frank Bickford to connect the two halves of Lake Pleasant, “the Highlands” and “the Bluffs.” FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

The Bridge of Names, built in 1975 after a storm knocked down the original bridge built in 1888 by Frank Bickford to connect the two halves of Lake Pleasant, “the Highlands” and “the Bluffs.”

The Bridge of Names, built in 1975 after a storm knocked down the original bridge built in 1888 by Frank Bickford to connect the two halves of Lake Pleasant, “the Highlands” and “the Bluffs.” FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

By AALIANNA MARIETTA

For the Recorder

Published: 03-07-2024 11:47 AM

One hundred and fifty years ago in Lake Pleasant, horse-drawn wagons shuffled along dirt roads lined in tents, cottages and boathouses. Steamboats raced along the lake while swimmers played water games, hot air balloons flying over their heads. Visitors picnicked on Dry Hill, picked blueberries and scooped ice cream at Gussie’s Tea Room. In their tents, mediums and psychics held séances and tarot card readings before joining thousands of spectators in “The Grove,” an outdoor amphitheater for orchestras, bands and speakers like spiritualist pioneer Molly Hardinge Britten and Ulysses S. Grant.

Between 1880 and 1920, Lake Pleasant was a summer resort escape for visitors across the country and the largest gathering place for spiritualists in the United States. Now, The National Spiritual Alliance and Lake Pleasant Village Association plan to celebrate the 150th anniversary of spiritualism’s arrival and the founding of Lake Pleasant in 1874.

According to “Spirit and Spa,” a 2003 book that tracks the history of Lake Pleasant, the Montague village is perhaps “the oldest continuously existing spiritualist community in the United States.” Two years after George Potter of Greenfield purchased the land at the southern tip of Lake Pleasant in 1870, local spiritualists convinced Col. Jonah Allen Crocker, owner of Fitchburg Railroad Co., to develop Lake Pleasant into a summer resort to attract other spiritualists from across the country. After Crocker built a railway station and bandstands and started advertising, Lake Pleasant bloomed as a summer attraction and spiritualists flocked to the site, forming the New England Spiritualist Campmeeting Association in 1874.

“It was spiritualists having their summer meetings here that ended up establishing the village of Lake Pleasant,” explained David James, co-author of “Spirit and Spa” and Lake Pleasant resident.

After living in Greenfield for 23 years, James joined The National Spiritualist Alliance, or TNSA, in the summer of 2000 and the Lake Pleasant Village Association in October of 2005. An offshoot of the New England Spiritualist Campmeeting Association, TNSA incorporated after a disagreement over reincarnation split the association in 1913.

Both James and the president of TNSA, medium Alicia Parrish from Keene, New Hampshire, describe spiritualism as an umbrella term for ideas and practices charged with a belief in “the two worlds” — as James described, the material world of living human beings and the “spirit world” of the “dearly departed.” Parrish clarified, “We believe that communication with the so-called dead is a fact proven through the phenomenon of mediumship.”

According to “Spirit and Spa,” spiritualism rose in 1848 when sisters Margaretta and Catherine Fox claimed they spoke to the spirit of a murdered peddler through “rappings” on their bedroom walls in Hydesville, New York. As curiosity spread, spiritualism spread, sweeping the nation and Lake Pleasant. Between 1880 and 1920, mediums promised to deliver messages from the dead to summer visitors, psychics read tarot cards, and visitors filled vases with flowers in memory of “souls which had left the Earth plane and their human form” at Lake Pleasant, reads “Spirit and Spa.”

The popularity of Lake Pleasant declined in the 1920s and 1930s due to the fall in spiritualism’s following; a 1907 fire that swallowed the railway station, dance pavilion and countless cottages; the closing of the lake for recreational use; and spiritualist residents selling property to those outside the community during the Great Depression.

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Still, the heart of spiritualism lives on in The National Spiritual Alliance’s Sunday services. On Sundays at 10:30 a.m., about 14 to 25 people from all over New England gather in the Tabor Thompson Memorial Temple to hear messages from mediums.

“We try to get as many messages out as time allows,” Parrish explained. As a medium, she described her mission as “facilitating a conversation” between the sitter and the “dearly departed.”

First, she soothes the sitter with “what they want to hear,” or details about the dead person the sitter hopes to reach. Parrish wraps the sitter in sensory details, like the scent of cherry-blend tobacco, a flannel shirt or other traces of their personality.

“That’s what the sitter wants,” Parrish explained. “If you want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt I have Aunt Suzie here, you need to hear that information to establish that she’s not a fraud. … Once that has been established, then I can throw that out the window and give you what you really need to hear.”

To Parrish, what the sitter needs to hear is wisdom from a late loved one capable of providing the sitter with “solace.”

Parrish said she never charges for readings at TNSA’s Sunday services because “you have to give back what was given to you.”

“What was given to me was a gift — it was a gift by the universe literally to be able to talk to people, to make them feel that spirit energy,” she continued. “For me to say, ‘It’s mine, mine, mine, it’s all mine,’ would be doing myself a disservice, actually. I couldn’t do that.”

Lake Pleasant resident Kara Kharmah joined The National Spiritual Alliance two and a half years ago after several “confirmational” medium readings that softened her skepticism toward spiritualism into trust.

“I think there’s a trust that’s established through the process that you really have to have,” Kharmah said.

During Sunday services, TNSA also offers “hands-on healing.” Three to four visitors sit at the front of the temple while healers either touch their shoulders and heads or hover their hands.

“The idea is as a healing channeler, there’s transmission flowing through you from the spirit source to the human being sitting in the healing chair,” explained James, who has served as a TNSA healer since 2000, although he does not describe himself that way. “The healing channeler is not being a healer; it’s being a vessel and allowing the healing to come from the spirit world to the human world.”

“It’s our connection to spirit as a beacon and then to give from us,” added Keene, New Hampshire resident Brooke Adams, who also practices healing in Lake Pleasant. Adams describes healing as “gifting forward.”

Mediumship and healing at TNSA stem from the same belief that united spiritualists in 1874: the “spirit world” holds wisdom and peace for individuals in this life. The impact of this idea pushed Kharmah away from her doubts.

“Spiritualism, to me, is not just about getting mediums and getting messages,” Kharmah explained. “It’s about growth and love and all the things that religions are about, but accessing that through advice from spirits. … That’s why I’m a spiritualist.”

As members of a TNSA and Lake Pleasant Village Association joint committee, Kharmah, Parrish and James plan to celebrate the long life of spiritualism at Lake Pleasant. According to James, the committee plans to organize multiple 150th anniversary celebrations this year from May to November. In the upcoming meetings, the committee will finalize the events and activities.