America's first nudist colony had a South Carolina address
BY LEE BAXANDALL
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.