Lessons From the Other Side

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2014

A Father's Day Recollection

Essay by Thomas B. Jones, Illustration by John Reinfurt

Should I hit now?”

“If the spirit moves you, son.”

My father got a kick out of saying things like that, especially since our golf outings took place near a village where—it’s true—people talked to the dead.

A few times every summer in the mid-1950s, my father hauled out a mismatched set of wooden shafted irons, dropped them into a floppy carry bag, and indulged an intermittent passion for golf. He’d invite me along, and didn’t have to ask twice. I’d grab my cut-off Mashie and ancient putter, scramble into the car, and off we’d head from the cottage on Lake Erie to the Cassadaga Golf Club.

My father grew up in Gowanda, a rural village in western New York, perhaps then best known for hosting a glue factory. He knew the surrounding back roads, hamlets, and quirky places beyond Gowanda’s borders in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties from years of experience and hell raising. He loved to revisit the scenes of his youth. So, our hour’s ride to the golf course rarely followed a direct route, and on the way, we might search for ancient Indian arrowheads in a farmer’s field, buy fresh peaches and tomatoes at Mrs. Garfallo’s farm, cruise past spiffy horse and buggy rigs rolling along the roadside in Amish country, and coast down the hills around Forestville, windows open, shouting at the breeze.

Not far from the golf course, across Cassadaga Lake, lay the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale. This historic gathering spot emanated, shall we say, as a summer camp for those who rejected the idea of a clear dividing line between the living and the dead. Founded in 1879, Lily Dale’s grounds, cottages, hotels, and lecture forums served as an intriguing gathering place for generations of believers, skeptics, mediums, and curious sightseers. And, of course, don’t forget the spirits.

In deeper historical context, Lily Dale traces back to the shenanigans of two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox, ages 12 and 15, who lived in Hydesville, New York (a tiny hamlet that, appropriately, no longer officially exists). In 1848, the Fox sisters claimed contact with a ghostly entity haunting their parents’ home. As it happened, Kate and Maggie had developed considerable finesse cracking their toes and ankle joints to simulate rapping noises from the spirits. The sisters’ under-the-table mischief—fabricated in a locale “burnt over” with religious revivals and societal reforms—found a willing constituency, achieved immediate notoriety, and helped launch the spiritualist movement.

Every summer during the late 1920s and early years of the Great Depression, my father played trombone and string bass in a dance band at Lily Dale. The money came in handy to help pay for his undergraduate and Ph.D. studies at the University of Michigan. During the day, the band would perform for scores of vacationers arriving at the railroad station from cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo; at night, the musicians would tune it up for guests at the Maplewood Hotel.

By the time my father played for dances at Lily Dale (perhaps grooving on songs like “After You’ve Gone” or “Someone to Watch Over Me”), spiritualist movement believers numbered in the hundred of thousands. But three decades later, Lily Dale was past its prime. The buildings and grounds seemed tatty and ancient, the residents old and timeworn, despite their seamless connection to the past and future. Treasured memories of his band days notwithstanding, only once did father and son venture to the village for a look-see. That visit took on a mystical aura, especially for a 12-year-old with a big imagination. Of course, any possible adventure across the lake had to wait for something far more tangible—nine holes of golf.

A par 3 over a scrub-filled gully ranked as a favorite hole for father and son. After my father hooked his shot, careening it into an extended jumble of vines and bushes by the green, I took my turn. Catching it flush with a mighty home-run swing, my golf ball flew in a graceful arc towards the green. Up it bounced, high in the air, landing within inches of the cup. “Hell of a shot,” my father said. “Maybe we’ll get you some real clubs.”

On the way to the green, my father didn’t find his ball but uncovered a treasure trove of plump, juicy red raspberries. For the next five minutes, we scrounged through the raspberry bushes, harvesting handfuls, and storing what we didn’t eat in a pocket of the golf bag.

“Come over here, young man,” my father beckoned from up the hill on the seventh tee. A finger to his lips, he pointed at the Lily Dale Assembly grounds. “Can you hear them?”

“The dead people?”

“Exactly.” My father raised an eyebrow and cocked his head toward Lily Dale. “They saw you birdie that hole. What do you think they’re saying?”

I had no snappy answer at the ready, so I watched my father tee up his ball and again hook it into the rough. He sighed, shouldered his golf bag, and trudged down the hill. I kept waiting for a punch line about dead people discussing my golf game. Nothing.

After our round and hot dogs at the golf club grill, Dad turned left out of the parking lot, not right. We drove to Lily Dale. “It’s time you had a chance to glimpse the other side,” my father said, followed by a ghostly “Woooooo.”

That afternoon, we walked narrow streets past small cottages, most with signs indicating spirit mediums lived within. My father said hello to a couple sitting on their porch. After passing by, I asked why he greeted the pair. “Can’t they read your mind?”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” my father said, not doing a very good job hiding his amusement.

A little further on, my father pointed at one of the many cottages encased in gingerbread scrollwork. “That’s where my favorite trumpet medium lived.”

I played such a horn, and the idea of someone from the world beyond communicating through a musical instrument like mine seemed pretty neat. As I learned, the trumpets were megaphones that supposedly levitated. “Pretty silly stuff,” my father added, and told me what else the Lily Dale mediums could do—things like slate writing, faith healing, and other “cockamamie parlor tricks.”

We ended our splendid tour at the aging Maplewood Hotel. My father led me past an odd group of paintings and portraits (one looked like Abe Lincoln) until we stood before a mysterious tapestry. “It’s a spirit painting. They say the woman who made this thing didn’t eat a thing for nine years.” My father let forth another funny, ghostly sound—exactly the right footnote, it seemed, for a day of lasting memories.

My father and I would not play golf again after our visit to Lily Dale until my sophomore year in high school. By that time, my parents had separated and were well on their way to an acrimonious divorce. So, early on a June morning, I smuggled my golf clubs out of the house and stole away to where my father waited in a rusty, battered 1948 Dodge. The ride to the golf course and the game itself proved forced and awkward. After a somber nine holes, we made excuses and called it quits. I returned home, minus the explanations and reassurances I longed to hear.

That evening I sat on the porch steps of our St. Paul home—the same spot where, as a kid, I’d wait for my father to arrive home from the University of Minnesota, where he taught ancient history. He’d change into an old pair of khakis and a T-shirt, then meet me in the backyard to hit plastic golf balls at a make-believe green mowed tight in the grass. Sometimes we’d play catch to practice my pitching, followed by a continuation of a season’s long Wiffle ball rivalry. Of course, those were a kid’s memories; they didn’t mix at all with new experiences in a grown-up world that allowed little room for innocence and easy answers. I didn’t want my memories to turn bitter and best forgotten, but now I knew that fathers who could do no wrong were something for the storybooks. Unspoiled connections to the past?

Perhaps only the spiritualists could conjure those.

Thomas B. Jones (B.A.’ 64) is a retired professor of history and director of faculty development now living in Kansas City. His historical mystery novel, Bad Lies, is scheduled for publication this year.

First Person essays may be written by University of Minnesota alumni, students, faculty, and staff.



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