Wonewoc, Wisconsin, June 1, 2007: The opening ceremonies for the summer season at the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp are as American as apple pie.
The mediums gather around a flagpole in the center of camp. As Old Glory is raised, the assembled recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The crowd is small - four mediums, the camp office manager, two women who've arrived for readings, and me.
Unless there are others there who I can't see. Which could very well be the case.
We sing "God Bless America," and someone says "We do ask for world peace." Then the Rev. Barbara Picha recites the Declaration of Principles from the National Spiritualist Association of Churches: "We believe in Infinite Intelligence. We believe that the phenomena of Nature, both physical and spiritual, are the expression of Infinite Intelligence." So far, so good.
Then there's numbers four and five: "We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death. We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism."
Whoa. "We see dead people - and talk to them," medium Judy Ulch admits cheerfully.
Seventy miles northwest of Madison, the 106-year-old camp hosts a series of mediums, healers and clairvoyants throughout the summer, some in residence for the whole season, others for brief periods. Workshops and classes cover such topics as past life regressions, pain relief, word association, mediumship development, automatic writing, spirit drawing and auras.
The National Spiritualist Association of Churches, based in Lily Dale, N.Y., is strict about what is allowed as a Spiritualist practice or offered as a class: No cards or crystals, no herbs, no iridology. The camp lacks the sheen, and maybe some of the allure, of New Age practices.
Still, Barbara Picha, who was ordained as a Spiritualist minister in 1999, sees a resurgence of interest in her faith. "More and more people are opening up to the spirit world. When people lose that loved one, they look at us differently."
When spirits make the transition from this world to the next, says Picha, "some may not know they can communicate" with us; others "may not be ready." This helps explain the different ways spirits get in touch with the living, through symbols, taps on tables or other messages through mediums.
"It is interesting work," says Picha, who has a disconcerting habit of looking past me as she speaks, as if she's trying to catch sight of someone over my shoulder.
The Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp sits perched on a wooded bluff looming over the town of Wonewoc, population 834. A state bicycle trail runs parallel to the main street, state Highway 33, generating some tourism. It's the kind of town where the small grocery store still has a screen door. A few taverns and a bakery round out the main drag.
From Highway 33, you can't even tell there's anything up on what the locals call "Spook Hill." Mary Witz, who maintains the local history collection at the Wonewoc Public Library, says the town has changed so much in recent years, with an influx of new residents, that "I don't think most folks know the camp is there anymore." An old shortcut through the woods from camp to town is badly overgrown.
If Wonewoc seems to linger in the 20th century, the camp itself seems to exist in the 19th. Thirty simple white cottages circle a large grassy area with a chapel, dining hall, children's playground and bathrooms in the center. The chapel, damaged in a storm some years back, is no longer used, replaced by the old dining hall. Members and friends of the camp put in 500 volunteer hours in May, cleaning cabins, putting in new floors and washing dishes and linens.
Meals are no longer served at the camp due to state regulations on food service, although until at least 1979, breakfast, lunch and dinner were dished up "at reasonable prices," according to old camp schedules. Church bells from Wonewoc proper drift through the camp on the hour and half-hour, but the sound could well be coming from a different world.
The Spiritualist Camp has been meeting summers on this site since the Joint Stock Spiritualist Association bought this land in 1893. (A legal wrangle over ownership of the camp's land in 2000 has been settled.) It's one of 12 summer Spiritualist camps in the U.S. Originally, visitors came and stayed in tents; the cottages were built in a haphazard fashion in the early decades of the 20th century.
Some of the cottages are one-room; others have multiple rooms and screened porches. Some bear dedications to those who have passed on. The largest, the two-story Andrew Jackson Davis house, named after the founder of spiritualism, has guest rooms upstairs and a larger meeting space to host workshops.
It would be fair to say that the camp could use a few more bodies. Over the years, membership has dwindled. Camp president Hilda First has pondered how to attract visitors from the nearby Dells. This year, there's a Red Hat day, ice cream socials two times a month, and discounts on readings for anyone with a Wonewoc address.
You don't need to be looking to communicate with dead people to be welcomed. The camp is available for weddings, memorial services, family reunions or just getting away from it all. The cabins are rustic, but the price is right, just $15-$40 a night.
There is something seductive about the Wonewoc camp. It's rare, and for me somewhat magical, to find a remnant of the late 19th century that remains, not as a re-created historical tourist site, but in a way far more timeless - as it always was, uninterrupted, otherworldly, full of potential.
"I want a reading with somebody who can look into the past and the future," says a woman to the group's office manager, Donna, who schedules the 30-minute sessions with the resident mediums.
The woman attends every summer. ("You can't say where I'm from," she tells me huskily.) She credits the healing tree in the center of camp with stemming her stage three ovarian cancer, and Spiritualism with turning around her life and ways of thinking. The readings have helped her cope with the death of her husband.
"These people explain what to look for and how to understand it," she says, indicating that she's received signs. She perceives the many butterflies and hummingbirds coming to her home since her husband died as a message from him, and his face has shown up ghost-fashion behind their dog in a photograph.
Hilda First agrees you have to be on the lookout for signs. Now 78, she grew up Catholic and discovered her psychic and channeling abilities after being involved in a car crash in 1979. She channels a spirit guide she calls Fairchild who speaks in "Shakespearean language," sometimes using words she has to look up. Everyone has spirit guides, says First. But some may not know it.
"People come here looking for answers," she says. "I'm looking for peace within."
First has experienced health problems over the last few years, so camp secretary Judy Ulch has shouldered most of the tasks of operating the camp.
Ulch, 60, has been exposed to Spiritualism all her life. Her grandmother was a "very powerful" medium, and her great-, great-great-, and great-great-great-grandmothers also worked at the camp. Although Ulch was raised Lutheran, her family regularly held séances. And she always knew when and where not to talk about that aspect of her family.
She has worked as a middle school teacher, owned a bookstore in Stevens Point, and run a barbecue joint down in Arkansas, where she and her husband spend winters. "So I am, like, a regular person!" she laughs. Even so, "We get poked fun at a lot. I have for my whole life. Because we talk to dead people. I've learned that I don't care whether people make fun of me.
Ulch is direct, upbeat, approachable and quite serious about the tenets of Spiritualism. One core belief is that everyone has spirit guides (a sort of evolved personality that has gone through several lives).
"It's up to us to listen to them," says Ulch. "To learn to be a medium, you learn to listen to those voices. Sometimes it comes in words, sometimes in sounds, sometimes in feeling. But you know it's coming from Spirit."
On most Friday nights, the camp conducts spirit circles - better known as séances, a term that's avoided because of its negative connotations. But a séance it is: "You sit in a circle, surround yourself with the white light of God, and ask the spirits to come. And they come with messages or insights for us," says Ulch.
During a spirit circle or reading, Ulch says she's not in a trance, but an altered state: "I call it 'off in the ethers.' I'm not listening to cars or people talking outside. I'm listening to Spirit, to the messages that I'm getting." "Spirit" is shorthand for any of the entities - God, angels, dead relatives or spirit guides - with whom a medium communicates.
Afterward, she doesn't remember specific messages. "If I did, I would go crazy. Too many personal details and sad things." Even after doing readings all day, she doesn't feel tired: "I'm not doing the work. It's coming from Spirit - all they are using is my voice."
Trance states are only for "if we're doing a circle and it's just the friends and family sitting around." Ulch doesn't feel comfortable being in a trance among strangers - sometimes visitors come to the camp "to test us, or to cause problems, and I don't want to be in a trance if someone like that is in the room with me."
Ulch has to turn off her medium side when she's just living her life. Otherwise, she sees stuff going on with people in the parking lot at Wal-Mart, and "it's too much."
She sees a lot happening around the camp that you or I wouldn't. Sometimes she sees "ladies in long dresses" walking about, or kids in the windows of the Andrew Jackson Davis cottage. She and others have heard laughing early in the morning, when there are no visitors staying at the camp. She's even seen spiritualist founding father Andrew Jackson Davis stroll by the camp fire ring and tip his hat.
Last summer, Ulch and three others attempted a "trumpet séance," a complex practice where several mediums attempt to communicate with Spirit through a special trumpet. Ideally, the trumpet will levitate, glow or emit voices.
"Sometimes it takes years to get it to work," says Ulch. Self-deprecatingly, she adds, "We got the trumpet to move about a half inch."
Ulch tells me the "spirit light" outside Cabin 13, where I'm staying, has a bulb that hasn't been changed in 30 years and glows different colors without warning. I don't notice anything peculiar about the light except that it's on night and day. However, the table lamp inside my cabin, which is not a three-way fixture, works as a three-way if you tap it the right way.
My reading with Judy Ulch takes place in the living room of her cottage, neatly adorned with flowers and American flags.
We face each other over a small table. Nothing seems to really change as we begin; Ulch just closes her eyes from time to time. First off, she tells me that she saw immediately, even earlier that morning at the flag ceremony, that I am not alone. I'm traveling with a whole entourage of spirits. This takes me aback, but of course I'm flattered. Who wouldn't want to have an entourage?
I have two spirit guides, "scribes" who help me with my writing. Somebody who's a father figure, who's not my father (since he's still among the living) and not my step-father (since I don't have one). This is puzzling.
Ulch also fields a message from my maternal grandmother, who indicates she has a very strong connection with me. There's something about me needing to look for a black album with photos and newspaper clippings. There is, in my family, a black album with photos of my grandmother. No clippings. Of course, most photo albums used to be black, right?
There is something with the ear, says Ulch - did she have hearing problems? No. I can't offer anything about ear problems, but Ulch doesn't drop it. The idea that mediums take their cues from their subjects and if something doesn't fit, they move on, doesn't hold true here. She comes back to this ear problem several times in the half-hour reading.
Could the ear be a symbol for something else? Ulch says it's possible, telling me of one reading she gave when she kept perceiving something about "popcorn." The sitter was mystified - until she made the connection that her mother's maiden name was " Pipkorn."
I'm not floored by shockingly dead-on (so to speak) messages from the great beyond, yet most of what Ulch tells me does make some internal sense to me. I leave the reading feeling, well, energized - pointed in a certain direction. It certainly gives me things to think about.
Later in the day, I go into Wonewoc to visit the Pine Eden cemetery, where Ulch's genealogy work led her to discover her own medium forebearers. The very first headstone that catches my eye bears my grandfather's first name. The second bears my grandmother's name, and the third says "Delia," my other grandmother's name. This is what they mean at the camp by watching for signs, I think.
On closer inspection, "Delia" turns out to be "Della." Okay, I feel less weird. This can officially be chalked up to coincidence, right? Or is this my entourage letting me know they're with me?
Visitors are drawn to the camp for a reason, the mediums aver. The site itself, on the bluff, is said to be a healing place from long ago.
"Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp is so healing, so blessed with harmony, spirituality and tranquility, because it is located on Indian Prayer Grounds," Ulch writes in her Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp: A Brief History. But this is based on stories that have been handed down; Ulch can find no written record of Native Americans having lived there.
Ulch says most of the people who visit the camp are "looking for answers, for a little insight. A lot of people are up here looking for their fortune to be told. We don't do that."
Doubtless, some people come for the entertainment value. Others are truly seeking some solace or guidance. All the mediums ask is that you enter a reading with an open mind.
"I've heard so many times people say, 'I come up to camp to recharge my batteries,'" says Ulch. "Camp is a good place to be. We can be who we are here."
Although outsiders see Spiritualism as superstition, practitioners consider it scientific. According to the National Association of Spiritualist Churches, "it investigates, analyzes and classifies facts and manifestations demonstrated from the spirit side of life."
UW-Madison journalism professor Deborah Blum's new book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, outlines the quest of 19th-century scientists to investigate the claims of Spiritualists. Back then, says Blum, science was "just discovering the structure of the atom, radio wavelengths, and the whole idea of communication by invisible energies." Then, as now, Spiritualists believed "the spirit world functions on a kind of energy-transmission level."
Modern-day Spiritualists often feel their beliefs have been proved. Blum, while maintaining the need for replicable results, says some 19th-century investigations she researched were "really well done, carefully controlled. About 5% of what they found was completely inexplicable."
Blum has become more open-minded since writing the book, seeing "interesting patterns in people's experiences." She thinks there may be something to "crisis apparitions," when someone you know dies far away, and "you have a sense of them or see them." And although Blum thinks "We are very prone as a species to see patterns or assign meaning to things that are meaningless," she's not willing to write off such phenomena as mere coincidence: "Either we're all prone to incredible hallucinations or there is something really interesting there that we don't know yet." Science "still hasn't figured out what the major energy balance of the universe is. They call it dark energy... but we don't know what it is."
Spiritualism as a movement grew out of an intense religious fervor that gripped New York state in the mid-1850s that also gave birth to Mormonism and Christian Science. Spiritualism also shares characteristics of transcendentalism, the hallmark of 19th-century American philosophy.
Shades of Spiritualism run through American literature - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Many Victorians turned to séances as families lost loved ones young in the Civil War. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln hosted séances in the White House following the death of their son Willie.
Today, Spiritualism is a religion, and "a beautiful one," says Judy Ulch, a medium at the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp. While communication with the dead is the best known of Spiritualism's beliefs, its other tenets are less unusual - and quite progressive.
Spiritualists support freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination (including on the basis of sexual orientation), women's rights, the right to die, planned parenthood "and the widest dissemination of sex and hygiene knowledge, to the end that poverty and social diseases may be eliminated."
They oppose industrial oppression, capital punishment, and "war in any form." With regard to abortion, the church believes "it is the individual's right to make an informed choice in the matter as she alone would be responsible for her actions."
Spiritualists believe in evolution, not "individual creation"; the Bible story of Earth's creation "bears no relation whatever to scientific facts." And they reject the concept of damnation, eternal or otherwise.
It's a positive philosophy, emphasizing opportunities for growth. The religion's symbol is the sunflower, which "turns its face toward the light of the sun" just as Spiritualism "turns the face of humanity toward the light of truth." Of course, this tends to be overshadowed by the communication-with-the-great-beyond angle.
And one more thing. "We're not trying to convince anyone of anything," says Ulch. "Take what you need and leave the rest. We don't go door-to-door, we don't advertise. We don't push anything."
Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp, 608-464-7770, www.campwonewoc.com
The camp's summer season runs through Aug. 24.
National Spiritualist Association of Churches, www.nsac.org