Baring Witness

America's first nudist colony had a South Carolina address


Cat Island in the early 1930s was accessible only by boat, which made the Sea Island Sanctuary off South Carolina's coast all the more mysterious.

Rumor had it that some strange folks had moved in. Naturists, they called themselves. Their neighbors called them something else.

The sanctuary was the site of the first nudist camp in America, founded by a New York group under the leadership of the Rev. Ilsley Boone.

Cat Island, about a mile square, "surrounded on all sides by the marshes and waters of Beaufort River and Johnson River and the creek connecting same," according to the deed of sale, is just down the harbor from historic Port Royal and across from the Parris Island Marine base.

In 1932, Gertrude L. Parks bought the island for $12,000, with the express purpose of building an alternative community there. Snoopers, termed "smut hounds" by the settlers, soon came around.

Charleston stringer Murray du Q. Bonnoitt wrote a story in The State on Aug. 19, 1934, describing the settlement. The accompanying five photos showed naked men and women playing baseball, plowing, camping, dining and socializing in their "sylvan sanctuary."

Bonnoitt reported much curiosity, but little animosity, towards the naturalists. He did pass along a rumor that "members of the Ku Klux Klan were planning a night call at the island. Not understanding why such a visit should be made, nor of who the party consisted, the nudists spent a sleepless night fearing to go to bed. It was later found that the rumors were absolutely groundless."

State governor and notorious bluenose Irah C. Blackwood responded to the The State's story, threatening that he'd "order the sheriff of Beaufort County to arrest them."

Bonnoitt's article perhaps contributed to pressure on the sanctuary, as the United Press filed a national story and hundreds of South Carolinians rowed over to the island to see what all the fuss was about. The sheriff said he'd heard that "the fish weren't biting anywhere but Cat Island Creek, so I knew that life in the raw must have begun in earnest on the island."

On Aug. 27, the Beaufort Gazette ran a story under the headline "Constable Flees Sight Of Nudists." It quoted young Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. "Ed" McTeer as remarking that the governor had sent constables to Cat Island on a "fishing trip."

McTeer's memoir, High Sheriff of the Low Country, recounts the event, stating that state constables, after sighting the nude folks from a boat, fled in embarrassment rather than handcuffing the nudists. Sanctuary residents took more proactive steps when another boatload of governor's constables disembarked at the wharf accompanied by the sheriff.

"A flock of naked men and women came flying down the path towards us, squealing aloha,' and other things. Let's get the hell out of here!' shouted one of the constables. We did, and the investigation was concluded."

Sheriff McTeer contributed much to delaying the demise of the naturist sanctuary. "There is such a thing as personal liberty in this country," McTeer told the Savannah Morning News at the time. "If the governor of South Carolina wanted to go nude about the governor's mansion, whose business would it be but his own as long as he did it in private?"

Gilbert L. Parks was the key figure in the Cat Island settlement. He was a proficient writer and a man of affairs, having attended the Business School of Harvard University in 1923 24.

Parks was the business manager of three New York-based health and fitness magazines published by Bernarr MacFadden, the most important proponant of body acceptance and fitness before 1929. His wife, Gertrude, bought Cat Island and the two founded the Sea Island Sanctuary.

The April 1932 edition of the Nudist announced Park's intention to develop an exemplary landed club for naturism on the model of the 1903 Freilichtpark in Germany. The Great Depression had already eroded the standard of life and nutrition of many city folk.

"Utopia has for many hundreds of years been man's definition of an ideal state where justice and equality prevail," Parks said. "As a matter of fact, the strict definition of utopia is that it is an island. And even today, an attempt on the part of a group of people to start a utopian society would need the isolation of an island for success."

Parks quoted Plato's Republic as precedent for his utopian vision. "They work in the summer, stript and barefoot, in winter, substantially clothed and shod."

Parks then grew practical. "It is definitely planned that during the latter part of April a group of about five couples will leave New York as the advance guard of a group that will settle on a 400-acre island off the coast of South Carolina. Nudism will be an incidental feature, although Southern conservatism being what it is, it would not be flaunted as a basic principle before the natives.

"We hope to live simply enough to be self-sustaining from the abundance of the soil and sea. Fish, oysters and shrimp need only be gathered, garden truck can be raised the year round. The temperature corresponds to that of Los Angeles.

"Does all this sound too good to be true? If you are doubtful, plan to spend your vacation this summer with the Utopians, Inc. Like Thoreau," he philosophized, "we can try and escape from the doubtful values of civilization; as he said, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.'"

Gilbert Parks, before he started the Cat Island nudist sanctuary, had studied Brook Farm, the down-to-earth New England experiment in utopian living where Nathaniel Hawthorne and other transcendentalists sought to live rationally and simply.

Tracking the sanctuary's progress, the August 1933 Nudist reported that "35 guests and workers have shared the community life" on Cat Island in the past 18 months. "Our planned economy is busy putting up over 700 quarts of fruits and vegetables so that from now on our only food purchases need be coffee, tea, sugar and condiments.

"At present, our garden supplies 15 different vegetables. The average meal offers a variety of at least eight of these. Plums and blackberries are now put away as jam and jelly for the winter. Our pear and melon crops will be abundant. The woods are filled with wild grapes. Figs will about double last year's yield."

Bees were hived, floors painted and screens set, cows milked, rows hoed. "When working in weeds and brambles shorts are worn. When painting, hoeing and doing the many repair jobs, it is a joy to dispense even with these."

The former plantation had an eight-room "big house" headquarters and dining hall. Barns and former slave cabins were used as living quarters. Nudity was not compulsory but was generally practiced.

Rates were $6 a month for core members who camped or built a shelter and took care of their own meals. A room with linen and meals included cost $3 per day, or $15 per week.

Sharecropping was an option; up to 20 acres available to interested persons. The Great Depression caused many unemployed nudists to write. Parks considered that perhaps 100 hard-up families could be given temporary shelter and two acres to feed themselves, while contributing to the general welfare in this proprietary yet "semi-cooperative nudist Eden."

In 1934, the sanctuary set out to go beyond subsistence farming, trying to market cabbage, lettuce, potatoes and tomatoes for metropolitan markets. The commune canned its own "Vitodine" brand of vegetables.

A 1934 brochure touted that "Bridge, checkers, radio and a library add to evening discussions round the log fire in the living room at the Big House. A daily change of movie fare always offers a possible evening diversion by making the short boat trip to the Marine base across the bay. Frequent dances are held about the countryside. No visit is complete without hearing the Gullahs sing spirituals at their praise houses' on Saint Helena Island. Collectors of flora and fauna can find constant delight. Rare Indian pottery finds will reward a few."

In historic Port Royal on the bay, sanctuary members bought an old 18-room house, which they fixed up to serve as a car park, warehouse and mainland hotel base for nudists wishing to tour the region. Access to Cat Island was generally from this location or by way of the Bay Street wharf in Beaufort.

Health reformists at the sanctuary were described by a visitor as "naked busy-bodies" who accost the hapless, because pocketless, smoker to "upbraid him on the vile, deviant and disgusting habit" of using tobacco.

But Gil Parks himself avoided zealotry. "Moderation rather than abstinence is the rule governing the choice of foods as well as the easily fanaticized question of tobacco and alcohol," Parks wrote in 1934.

However, "the intelligent nudist wants to know the truth about vitamins. He should know how to avoid the mineral deficiency disorders. It is important to have sufficient variety of foods to provide the wide range of elements needed for all the organs and tissues."

Parks was a prophet of health consciousness: "In the Cat Island nudist back-to-the-land colony, the location was determined by the unusual mineral concentration in the delta coastal region of South Carolina. In particular this region won out over all other sections of the country because of the high vitamin content due to full southern sun ripening of fruits and vegetables, plus the high calcium and iodine content unequalled elsewhere."

A visitor wrote that "the nudists at Sea Island sanctuary are very serious about their faith in the benefits of sun and exercise. They swim, fish, play tennis, handball, baseball, go on hikes and picnics" quite unclad. "They do, however, dress for dinner' and all other meals taken in the main dining room. The approved attire for meals is a pair of trunks, shed immediately upon leaving the dining room.

"The clientele of the island is drawn almost exclusively from the East, states north from Virginia, and from Florida, with a few faithful sun worshippers coming over from inland states to combine sun and salt water au naturel."

Maj. Lyman Barry, a New York state nudist, was a retired infantry captain attached to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in South Carolina. "Whenever I could get away I'd drive down," Barry said, "to spend many wonderful weekends at Cat Island before it faded out because of financial difficulties."

In Barry's view "it was just too far from urban areas to have enough visitors. Oddly, none of the Marines at the huge Parris Island across the bay ever came over," Barry remembered.

However, another nudist of his acquaintance in the military was Julian Hatcher, who became a Major General in World War II. Hatcher would later become Director of the National Rifle Association.

Like many projects dreamt of in that long-ago decade when naturism made it to North America, Sea Island Sanctuary was long on optimism. Enough people just couldn't or wouldn't pay the price to make it happen; perhaps they lacked the Utopian vision.

The Nudist of January 1936 described the sanctuary's end. Cat Island's owner was forced by economic circumstances to give up on the free-physical-culture Eden. Gilbert and Gertrude Parks turned over Cat Island to "another band of pioneers" planning a self-supportive Workers Education project to be named Seacroft.

Its organizer, Dr. William Zeuch, was a pioneer of independent labor study for the benefit of the socialistic union movement. Worker students and labor teachers would join in farming, fishing and craft production, discussions and recreation. A simple, close-to-the-land way of life was Seacroft's stated mission.

Of the Sanctuary's end, Sheriff McTeer would jest, "ferocious Beaufort County mosquitoes, red bugs and sand gnats took their toll on the nudists' tender and exposed skins, and accomplished what the strong arm of the law had failed to do."

Edited and reprinted with permission from Nude and Natural, the magazine of the Naturist Society. Lee Baxandall is a researcher who lives in Wisconsin.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 9/12/95