WONEWOC, Wis. — They see dead people on Spook Hill.
They’re walking around the grounds, sitting in the dining hall and in the pews at the abandoned church. Kids, heard by visitors but usually only seen by those trained to see into the spirit world, play outside the rustic and run-down cabins.
“Oh yeah, they’re all over the place,” says Judy Ulch, a jovial 60-year-old who claims not only to see dead people but also receive messages from them that she passes on to their loved ones who pay $40 per half hour for her services.
“Sometimes I see them so close, I see the stubble on their face,” Ulch says.
Ulch and other self-described mediums live at the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp every summer, welcoming guests from around the country who come for visits between 15 minutes and overnight to get insight into their lives from the dearly departed.
They seek hope, solace and inspiration. And sometimes they just come for a fun day out with friends. Or to try to disprove what Ulch and others claim to be their ability to see spirits.
Wonewoc is one of 13 spiritualism camps across the country. It first opened in 1893 and is in its 106th summer season. For years visitors arrived by train and climbed the hill to the wooded bluff overlooking the small town, with a population now of just over 800.
The 37-acre camp is run by followers of Spiritualism, a religion that started in the mid-1800s and reached the height of its popularity at the end of that century, but that still maintains an estimated 250,000 followers.
Some tenets of Spiritualism are that people live on after death and they can be communicated with using a medium like Ulch or Hilda First. First claims messages from a spirit named Fairchild who speaks to her in Shakespearean English.
Perhaps the most famous spiritualist camp — in Cassadaga, Fla. — is 113 years old and on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 30 mediums live in the city, which some refer to as the “psychic center of the world.”
The Wonewoc camp fell on hard times in recent years during a legal fight over ownership. With that settled, Ulch and others are focused on raising the camp’s profile to attract more visitors.
Readings cost $40 for half an hour, while 15-minute mini-readings are available on Mondays for $20. Seniors can get a $35 reading for 30 minutes on Wednesdays, while the price for workshops varies from $20 to $40.
It also offers ice cream socials, campfires and budget rate lodging at just $15 to $40 a night.
Mediums, clairvoyants and healers are housed in the camp — known to the locals as “Spook Hill” — either for all or part of the season. There are workshops and classes, not on typical summer camp fare like basket weaving and swimming, but rather past life regressions and how to see auras in 60 seconds.
‘I’m a believer’
The 36 cabins, dining hall and chapel were mostly built in the 1920s. And it shows. Many are sinking. Doors creak and don’t open fully, a porch light that camp goers said burned different colors for more than 30 years on the same bulb finally went out this summer, and the original chapel is boarded up after a tree fell on it.
Ulch’s husband Harvey serves as handyman, doing his best to keep up with the endless repairs. In his third year at the camp with Judy, the born and raised Methodist shakes his head when he talks about what he’s seen.
“I’m amazed,” he said, after describing seeing a table seemingly move under its own power during one so-called “table tipping” session. “I’m a believer. ... I just kind of like to sit back and observe.”
Followers of Spiritualism often describe it as a science, philosophy and religion rolled into one. Spiritualists believe in seeing visions, receiving prophecy, healing the sick, levitating, writing words given to them from the dead and seeing other manifestations.
Messages they reportedly received from the dead were offered as proof of the immortality of the soul, said Lucas, an authority on new religious movements.
“They’re seekers,” Lucas said. “Spiritualism tends to be very nondogmatic. You can really believe whatever you want to believe as long as you believe the central idea that life is endless.”
‘You have to be really opened minded’
A group of five women who came for a reading one summer day at the Wonewoc camp all said they didn’t see a problem visiting the camp while practicing a different religion. The women, all related but declining to give their last name, said they come once a year for fun and insight into their lives.
“You have to be really opened minded with it,” said Nancy, a 49-year-old who was there with her two daughters, age 20 and 23, her sister and her sister-in-law.
Mainstream religion has historically taken a dislike to Spiritualism because it goes against basic Christian beliefs in heaven and hell, which spiritualists reject, and that the living can communicate with the dead.
The National Spiritualist Association of Churches, based in Lily Dale, N.Y., does not believe its religion conflicts with Christianity, although it says Spiritualism is not necessarily a Christian religion.
Ulch, whose relatives helped build the camp more than 100 years ago, only asks that people have an open mind.
“We would never try to change anybody’s mind,” she said. “I know it’s true and I’ve seen it. I’m not a fraud.”
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