by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
ETNA — When one turns off Route 2 in Etna, drives under the metal arch adorned with the words “Camp Etna,” and starts down the gentle slope of the dirt road, one enters a self-contained world that harks back to another time, yet remains firmly connected to the present.
It is a place, said Bethany Couture, a spiritual medium who lives with her family year round at Camp Etna, “of quietness, tranquility and peace.” The camp has operated more or less continuously for 137 year.
A medium, Skolfield explained, is either a clairvoyant, who can see things; a clairaudient, who can hear things; or a clairsentient, who feel things pertaining the spirit world.
Today, Camp Etna, owned and operated by the Etna Spiritualist Association, is composed of a grid of narrow roads, sloping eventually to the shores of Etna Pond and lined with small, charming cottages. Most of these date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when believers flocked to the camp to practice the principles of spiritualism, including The Golden Rule of “do unto others,” belief that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after death and belief in Infinite Intelligence.
“Lots of people who come here [today] are looking for answers,” Couture said as she cradled her 7-month-old son, Guy, in her arms.
“They come to ask, ‘What’s my purpose?’ “said visiting medium Nedra Foster of Bangor.
“We want to know what we can do to reach our highest and our best [through spiritualism],” said Diane Jackman Skolfield, who came to spiritualism through teaching yoga, qi gong and tai chi, which are based in the movement and channeling of human energy to improve health.
Today, the association owns four community buildings, including the Gladys LaLiberte Memorial Temple, and approximately a dozen cottages. Other cottages are occupied by those who, like Couture and her family, live there year round.
Camp Etna has its roots in 1858 when Daniel Buswell held spiritualist meetings in a grove on his farm in Etna. In 1876, his son, Daniel Buswell Jr. ,organized a fall camp meeting in a large tent. Admission was 10 cents for the day. In 1880, a pavilion that would seat 1,000 was built on the site.
In 1900, Daniel Buswell Jr. deeded the land to the First Maine Spiritualists State Camp Meeting Association, which evolved to become the Etna Spiritualist Association in 1919.
During the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Camp Etna could boast more than 350 cottages and meetings that drew thousands of people from as far away as Boston, Hartford, Providence and New York, people who arrived by train, horse and carriage, and soon by automobile. The facility had on the premises “a barber shop, photograph saloon and ice cream rooms,” according to a newspaper clipping from the late 1880s.
More than 100 cottages, the temple and a large hotel were lost to fire in 1922.
The rise of Camp Etna was a manifestation of the interest in spiritualism that swept the United States and, indeed, the world in the mid- to late-Victorian era. British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned the Sherlock Holmes stories and was a spiritualist, also wrote “The History of Spiritualism.”
A stroll around the campus of Camp Etna with Couture, association trustee Carol Mead, Skolfield (carrying Guy) and medium Shirley Boyens puts into focus the depth of their belief system, and what the four women love about the place, including being a part of preserving and passing on its history.
They walk slowly across the mossy grass square in front of the temple while talking about their faith and the history of Camp Etna. Skolfield stops to point out a plant that has powers of healing. She has cataloged many such plants that grow on the campus.
Couture stops to listen to birdsong flowing melodically in the air. “We see eagles, hawks, woodpeckers and loons here,” Couture said.
“I feel closer to the spirit when I am at Etna,” Boyens said.
A short walk brings them to The Pines, a grove of tall, stately trees that canopy The Healing Rock, a sacred circle where spiritualists come to meditate. The circle, Couture said, is built on the principle of the American Indian medicine wheel.
The walk ends at the gravesite of Camp Etna’s most well-known and beloved member, medium Mary S. Vanderbilt, who died in 1919. She is buried under a chestnut tree; a large boulder, said to weigh 12 tons, marks her resting place. The spot is enclosed by an ornate wrought iron fence.
“We are the keepers of the flame, preserving and honoring the heritage, and growing into a new vision of the future,” Skolfield said. The others agreed.
“It’s a wonderful way to live,” Mead said.
Camp Etna is offering these summer programs:
• July 28- Aug. 2 with medium Susan St. Jean.
• Aug. 4-10 with medium the Rev. Roy D’Elia.
• Aug. 11-17 with medium the Rev. Steve Hermann.
• Aug. 17, Medium’s Day.
• Aug. 1925 with medium Sandy Campbell
• Aug. 25-31, International Week with mediums Sandra McFadden, Colin Hall and Graham Connolly.
• 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 31, Mind, Body, Spirit Fair with vendors, food and raffle.
Church services are held at 7:30 p.m Fridays, and 10:30 a.m. Sundays through Aug. 25.
Message Circles are held at 7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Aug. 24.
Potluck dinners take place at 5 p.m. through August.
Etna Spiritualist Association officers are Janice Nelson Kroesser, president; Chrisotpher Couture, vice president; Kelly LaRochelle, secretary; Donna Williams, treasurer, and Carol Mead, Janet Decker and Ken Kroesser, trustees
For information, call 269-2094, go to info@CampEtna or go to CampEtna.com.