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“The good old summertime is almost over”
A history of nudism in Tennessee part 3: The naturists
Many of the nudist clubs in the United States began by spinning off from established clubs. It’s not uncommon for nudists to become dissatisfied with a club for various reasons, such as disagreements with leadership, lack of opportunities for involvement, or simply feeling like they don’t fit in. When this happens, some members may start a new club that better aligns with their philosophies. While this can be a challenging process, it can also lead to the creation of a new and vibrant community. In 1992, several members of Crossville’s Timberline Lodge decided the time was right to start their own club, one that was more closely aligned with the values and philosophies of free beach activist Lee Baxandall and The Naturist Society.
The birth of Cherokee Lodge
Tennessee’s Cherokee Lodge and Resort was formed when a handful of members affiliated with Timberline became dissatisfied with the club and decided the time had come to break away and build their own clothing-optional sanctuary. Three couples – Newell (nicknamed “Honey” because of his habit of calling everyone “honey”) and Juanita (“Toot Toot”), Paul and Diane, and Danny and Rosalie purchased the initial 100-acre property on February 25, 1992, a piece of land that had remained undeveloped since it was last deeded in 1948. Groundbreaking took place in March 1992. The Cumberland Plateau location was ideal, as it was equidistant between the cities of Nashville and Knoxville, less than a mile off of Interstate 40, but well-secluded within several hundred acres of pristine forest. The property was named Cherokee Sun Lodge as a nod to founder Danny’s Native American heritage and the quaint old sunbathing camps of nudism’s early days. As Danny recalled in the May 2007 issue of The Bulletin, the property was utterly rustic, with no existing infrastructure. “Nothing came with the property, just woods, and nice creeks. I just walked through and said, ‘This would be a nice place to put this here.’ We started by pushing the roads in, getting city water, utilities. People started coming, and they brought more people.”
It’s important to note that Cherokee was founded by a group of naturists disillusioned with the existing nudist establishment, which they felt was too exclusionary and bureaucratic. They wanted to get back to basics and focus on creating a space for people to skinny-dip and reconnect with nature. They tried to move away from the gatekeeping tendencies of nudism’s old guard and welcome newcomers, singles, and others that traditional nudist camps tended to shun. One of Tennessee’s two existing camps had still refused to sign the TNS member agreement by 1992, citing concerns with the LGBT non-discrimination clause. “After reading the agreement that The Naturist Society sends to potential participating clubs, I can see why the Tennessee clubs didn’t sign it,” proclaimed a reader letter published in the summer 1985 Clothed With The Sun. But the Cherokee owners were quick to embrace the agreement and join the network, and materials provided to guests in the early years stressed the resort’s very forward-thinking admission policy:
In the early days of American club nudism, rules of ‘propriety’ demanded that all visitors be male-female couples. A lot has changed, and today single persons are welcomed much more widely than they once were at nudist clubs and resorts. However, vestiges of that old-fashioned policy linger, and many clubs do have some restrictions on the number of non-member single male visitors they will allow on a given day, ostensibly to provide gender balance and prevent women from feeling outnumbered and uncomfortable. Cherokee Lodge and Resort believes that individuals should be granted or denied access to naturist venues based solely on their behavior, and has set up non-discriminatory admission policies.
The owners promoted Cherokee in traditional nudist and naturist publications like Nude & Natural, Naturally, and The Bulletin. They also placed ads in the Knoxville Metro Pulse and the Nashville Scene, two area alt-weeklies with a large audience of young and progressive readers. These ads sought to demystify the concept of social nudity by simply inviting visitors to “come skinny-dip with us!”
A year of rapid growth
Within one year, the Cherokee property had electricity, water, and sewer lines, and the first seven structures had been completed: an office, a bathhouse, three duplex cabins, a snack bar, and a pavilion with a hot tub. Members laid the blocks, framed the buildings, and dug the pool. Nude & Natural writer Bill Pennington was astonished by this rapid progress, which he described in the December 1993 issue. “Already Cherokee Sun Lodge is showing how fast a club with enthusiastic backing can progress. We originally visited in October ’92 when Cherokee had just started. Returning exactly one year later, we were absolutely dumbfounded how much the club had progressed. Talk about being born full-grown!” Volleyball and tennis courts were also under construction, as was the centerpiece of the resort, the three-story lodge and restaurant. “Well on the way to completion is the great clubhouse made of very large log beams. It will feature a kitchen, a large fireplace, dance floor, game room, library, and surrounding porch on three sides. The clubhouse promises to be a showplace.”
Great care went into the layout of the park. Most of the original forest was left intact, RVs and mobile homes were kept out of sight of the main recreational areas, and all of the structures were designed to resemble rustic log cabins, complete with porches with rocking chairs and old-fashioned oil lamps. Many of the buildings used antique windows with their characteristic wavy glass panes, there were carved Native American sculptures throughout, and a twenty-foot teepee greeted visitors when they drove into the main campground. The facilities were confined to a 25-acre parcel of land near the entrance, leaving the remaining 250 acres of pristine forest largely untouched, aside from the trails and some wooden bridges across the streams and lakes.
With so much land and adjacent property available for expansion, Cherokee had tremendous potential for growth. Improvements were made nearly every year. Large cabins were added for the managers, and campground maps indicated that additional duplex cabins for guests had been planned in an area next to the original units. Work on more RV spaces was underway, and there would eventually be over 150 RV sites. Nine miles of trails were cut in the forests, and there was talk about building a general store and a bowling alley! The young, rapidly-growing Cherokee soon attracted the attention of nudist and naturist leaders, and a trio of Naturist Society Happenings would soon put Cherokee on the map as a regional destination.
The Heartland Naturist Happenings
Before Cherokee’s opening, the region lacked the sort of significant naturist gatherings being held on the east and west coasts and in Florida. Nude & Natural writers and self-proclaimed “Nude Nomads” Camilla Van Sickle and Bill Pennington saw an opportunity for a regional naturist gathering in the Southeast. The word “happening” alludes to a kind of experimental social protest Naturist Society founder Lee Baxandall wrote about earlier in his career as a 1960s playwright and activist. Cherokee was the ideal location for such an event. With the help of the Ken-Ten Naturists travel group of McKenzie, Tennessee, the Nomads organized the inaugural Heartland Naturist Happening on June 9-13, 1994. Attendance fees were just $20, and Cherokee offered half-price tenting, RV, cabin, and grounds fees during the event. There was an artist’s workshop, and interested guests were allowed to visit Scott’s Gulf beach for sunning and skinny-dipping.
The second Happening took place June 15-19, 1995. Again, Bill Pennington noted the rapid growth of the new resort in the February 1996 Nude & Natural.
Cherokee Sun Lodge has grown by 180 acres, adding new roads, parking lots, and a toilet/shower house next to the pool. A paved public road now leads to the club entrance only seconds away from the interstate. Most recently, a regulation tennis court was added; a second court is planned. At 280 acres, Tennessee’s newest club has become the largest and best equipped in the Volunteer State. Quality naturism is what it’s all about.
The second Happening included skinny-dipping trips to Northrup Falls and the Big South Fork wilderness area, and the spacious new hot tub pavilion was christened by 30 attendees who set a new “Cherokee Stuffing” hot tub record. The Happening also hosted the area premiere of the TNS video The Spirit of Naturism. Notable attendees included “Dr. Leisure,” a disability activist, and the founders of the Naturist Tennessee travel group.
Tennessee had been subjected to sweeping anti-nudity legislation in 1994, criminalizing nudity on public lands and placing new restrictions on family nudism. The Happening featured a presentation called “Danger for Family Naturism,” which stressed organizations like the Naturist Action Committee’s important role in protecting naturist rights. The final Heartland Naturist Happening took place June 13-17, 1996. Van Sickle and Pennington were preparing to retire from their nomadic lifestyle, and Pennington expressed hope that a fourth Happening would be held. In the November 1996 Nude & Natural, Pennington wrote:
We’ve opened El Dorado Hot Mineral Pools in Arizona and must devote most of our energies there. However, Bill Miller and Bill Pacer have stepped forward to take charge of the Heartland event, and we’re confident they will do a fine job. From the background, they will receive our support. Please, give yours.
Unfortunately, a fourth Heartland Happening was not to be. Shortly after renaming Cherokee Sun Lodge to Cherokee Lodge and Resort, Danny became ill and was forced to close Cherokee from October 1996 through the end of the 1997 season. It was a devastating blow to the young resort. It was reported that the resort would be sold, and many wondered if Cherokee would ever again operate as a naturist facility.
A rustic version of Cypress Cove
But by 1998, Danny was in good health, and Cherokee was back in business. The club’s first website was launched, and it significantly increased Cherokee’s visibility. Membership continued to grow. By summer, Cherokee announced it had been selected to host the 1999 Midwest Naturist Gathering, a step up from the trio of smaller Happenings. The Gathering was held August 5-8 and attended by Nicky Hoffman, Judi Ditzler, and Bob Morton of The Naturist Society. Some of the last representatives of the National Nudist Council set up an ice cream table, and according to a report in the May 2000 Nude & Natural, workshops included “NIFOC: Nude in Front of Computer” and “Producing Effective Naturist Club Newsletters.” One seminar included a segment called “Southern Naturism for Dummies: A Naturist Guide on How To Enjoy Officer Encounters in the South,” which offered updates on Tennessee’s new nudity prohibitions.
That same month, Cherokee was featured in the August 1999 issue of The Bulletin in an article titled “Youthful Cherokee on the Road to a Rich Future.” Describing Cherokee as a “rustic version of Cypress Cove,” the article referenced Danny’s ongoing legal fights to keep Cherokee open, “something he has had to deal with five times in the last seven years. Any time an incident has come up, he has gone to Nashville to let his voice be heard.”
The article also hinted that Cherokee had reached a crossroads. While Danny was determined to keep the property’s rustic, homespun atmosphere, it was becoming clear that Cherokee had the potential to become something much more significant than any of its founders had envisioned. “About three years ago, we got all the facilities that would qualify us to call ourselves a resort, then we changed the name from Cherokee Sun Club to Cherokee Resort,” Danny told the reporter. The club had recently begun work on a large residential area across from the resort’s main entrance. This gated community would soon have 55 lots in addition to the 50 RV spaces and 49 permanent sites in the main resort. “One day, I want Cherokee to be an actual village where people live here year-round,” Danny explained in the interview. “My future ultimate goal is that people won’t have to get dressed to go into town to get anything. They can live here in harmony with nature.” It’s worth noting that Danny envisioned a naturist “village,” not a tourist destination.
Having doubled its RV capacity and completed construction on a large pavilion, Cherokee announced it would host the 2003 AANR East Convention from July 16-20 and the AANR National Convention from August 11-18. “The club has built a new lake, sports bar, country store, and even a new pavilion by the hot tub,” a convention preview in the June 2003 Bulletin reported. “We’re excited,” exclaimed office manager Sally. “We know we’ll be prepared, and we believe we’ll give the convention a flavor and a feel that it’s never had before.”
Volleyball teams from as far away as Glen Eden in California competed on Cherokee’s courts, Mike Skupin of the TV series Survivor was the dinner keynote speaker, and Danny even gave AANR Executive Director Erich Schuttauf a ceremonial Mohawk. The conventions were hugely successful, and Cherokee was selected to host the 2004 AANR East Convention, scheduled for July 13-18.
Danny enjoyed interacting with the guests, keeping them fed with his cooking, and entertaining them with his Native American-themed activities, ranging from butterfly releases to blowgun demonstrations, but he was uncomfortable with the scope of these larger events and annoyed by all of the stuffy business and politics of the meetings. The Heartland Happenings were casual affairs, primarily managed by the attendees, as was the Midwest Naturist Gathering. But the AANR conventions were stressful, noisy, logistically challenging, labor-intensive, and expensive. Hours upon hours of meetings, motions, and grievances left many attendees fatigued and irritable, and tempers flared. At the AANR National Meeting, the president had to issue a directive against “sniping.” Exhausted by the back-to-back conventions, Danny insisted he would focus on smaller events in the future.
Christian naturist groups soon sought out Cherokee to host such an event. Danny constructed Cherokee’s Little Church in the Wildwood in the spring of 2006, a log cabin structure with a century-old bell in its tower. An ordained minister with The Universal Life Church, Danny, and office manager Sally began to hold weekly non-denominational services. Later that summer, Britain’s Channel 4 filmed a documentary at Cherokee called “God’s Nudists.” In 2007, Cherokee was selected to host the Christian Nudist Convocation, featuring Christian naturist leaders. The event was the cover story of that week’s edition of the Nashville Scene, which unfortunately treated the subject with mockery and disdain. “Why wouldn’t you want to sit at the dinner table with your plate of Cherokee’s famous barbecue and come face-to-face with a passerby’s penis as you gnaw on a drumstick?” the reporter joked. The Scene article was picked up by various “News of the Weird” columns throughout the country, much to the dismay of the Convocation’s hosts and participants.
Better coverage came that summer from Knoxville’s Metro Pulse. “After a while, it doesn’t even seem weird anymore that we’re all just sitting around like pre-fig leaf Adams and Eves, nothing to hide, nothing to cover up, soaking up the sun and one another’s company,” columnist Leslie Wylie observed. “Truth be told, I could kind of get used to this—once you lose the mindset that nakedness outside the bathtub and the bedroom is wrong, it’s more natural than it seems.”
A pivotal year
The summer of 2008 marked a turning point for Cherokee Lodge. By May of that year, Danny had decided to transfer management of the club to a new couple who had plans to transform Cherokee into a national destination. They would rename the property Cherokee Cumberland Resort, and there was talk of additional pools, more luxurious facilities, and even condos. A final AANR East convention was held July 13-20, and the Cherokee website promised a characteristically Tennessee experience.
Now who said Elvis ain’t gonna show up? He done been here last summer and is comin’ back to haunt us again for the convention. The Chuckwagon Crew is gonna be puttin’ together fixins for the best vittles in Tennessee to satisfy your drooling tastebuds. We been told and some have seen that there are some pretty dang good singers, strummers and pickers among our nudist friends. Let’s all get together for a whoppin’ big songfest around the campfire.
Soon after the convention, Danny became embroiled in a dispute with the new managers, whom he believed were abandoning the naturist values that had defined Cherokee for sixteen years in an effort to operate the club as an adults-only venue. Unable to reconcile their differences, Danny closed Cherokee to visitors in October of that year. Nearly all of the RV owners packed up and left Cherokee for other area resorts, including Timberline – itself now an adults-only club. Danny felt betrayed, and in January 2009, a website announcement revealed Cherokee would open in the spring as a textile resort called Indian Lake Campground.
Cherokee Lodge and Resort will be reopening under the original ownership, Chief Danny and One-Feather Donna, in the spring of 2009. Over the winter months, the grounds will be cleaned, renovations made, amenities added, and family friendliness and fellowship will once again be restored. Probably the biggest change will be that the theme of the resort will change to a family RV and Camping Resort and will no longer be operated as it has been in the past.
The news disappointed many area naturists. A state that once boasted four nudist and naturist parks now had just one. But the country was still reeling from the recession, and Indian Lake never took off. By October 2009, Cherokee’s textile experiment had ended. In November, the Cherokee website reappeared with an exciting announcement: “Danny & Donna want everyone to know that they are back and it is business as usual! Call now to reserve your seasonal site for 2010 and to get your membership!”
This is what I wanted it to be
When Cherokee reopened in March of 2010, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the earliest days of the old Sun Lodge. Danny and four generations of his family were working hard on repairs that season, but the resort was hauntingly empty for the first couple of months. Concerns that the club might not recover from its second closure were somewhat alleviated on Memorial Day weekend, which attracted around 200 visitors, including some of Cherokee’s long-time supporters and many first-time naturists.
During the spring of 2011, a new website for the resort was launched, and Cherokee established a presence on social media. Giving guests the ability to see the rustic beauty of the property had a significant impact, and Cherokee began to draw many more young and first-time visitors. Summer weekends frequently attracted a few hundred guests. But many of those visitors would only stay for the afternoon. Most of the overnight guests were tent campers who set up in the surrounding forest, leaving the RV sites and lodge rooms almost empty and the facilities underutilized.
Cherokee’s 20th anniversary was celebrated in 2012, and articles acknowledging the milestone appeared in the April 2000 Bulletin.
Cherokee Lodge and Resort will celebrate its twentieth anniversary season this spring, a testament to the resilience and economic viability of a rural nudist club. Cherokee’s endurance is rooted in a willingness to continuously invigorate its membership by welcoming new visitors and enhanced by a commitment to traditional naturist values. Just as importantly, Cherokee embraces its rustic heritage, deep southern roots, and serene mountain surroundings and blends these elements into a one-of-a-kind clothing-optional destination.
Danny always wrestled with Cherokee’s rapid growth. He was determined to move away from the insular and cultish atmosphere of the old nudist camps and create an entirely new alternative, and the club’s tremendous early support exhilarated him. But he soon discovered that a sprawling resort buzzing with golf carts, packed with RVs, and with convention-goers was antithetical to his original vision of a peaceful wooded sanctuary for skinny-dippers and nature enthusiasts. In many ways, those final three seasons – with naturists hunting the woods for morels and wild ginseng and gathering around a bonfire in front of the lodge – inadvertently achieved precisely what the Cherokee founders had hoped for when they first gathered to discuss the idea of a new park two decades earlier – a quiet little naturist village.
Times were changing. A growing number of nudists were looking for a party scene, and many resorts in the region were happy to cater to their needs. Countless nudist resorts in the Southeast had transitioned into swinger resorts and enjoyed tremendous success. Under different leadership, this might have been Cherokee’s fate. Danny had long voiced his belief that the naturist movement was being threatened by the growing popularity of these “adults-only” resorts, which he dubbed “fuck farms.” He was adamant that he’d rather see the 150 RV sites and home lots sit empty than fill them with the party crowd and the swingers. He’d rather see Cherokee go out of business than sacrifice principle for profit. And that’s what happened.
Cherokee was a little rural camp that almost grew into a big national resort, but it ultimately chose to stay true to its humble roots rather than live on in name only. Its loss was devastating for naturists in Tennessee, but its story is hardly tragic. As Danny said to me that final summer, watching newcomers and old friends enjoy the serenity of his mountain getaway, “This is what I wanted it to be.”
In October 2003, The Bulletin reported that the Timberline Lodge owners had decided to move on. “After a decade and a half… the owners of Tennessee’s oldest nudist park, Timberline Lodge Resort, are retiring. In the late 1980s, it was a rustic campground that operated as a co-op. Today the park boasts some of the finest accommodations available in the nude recreation industry.” Timberline sat empty from 2003-2008, maintained by a solitary caretaker until 2009, when it reopened as a successful adults-only resort. The two-story lodge was damaged in a fire in 2020, but the resort continues to thrive as an adult venue.
The years between 2010-2014 represented a bittersweet era for Cherokee Lodge, as it was becoming clear that this wasn’t a new beginning but the final days of the Cherokee community. Facing health issues and disappointing revenues, Danny quietly put the property on the market, and the resort sold in early 2014. The property now operates as a textile campground. Cherokee Lodge might still be in business today had Danny made different choices in 2008. But it almost certainly would have been a drastically different resort than the Cherokee founders had envisioned.
Of Tennessee’s three lodges, Rock Haven is the sole survivor. Only time will tell how it will hold up against the forces that have shuttered so many of the region’s beloved clubs. Nashville’s explosive growth has driven a construction boom in surrounding towns and cities, and more and more farms and forests, including those in Murfreesboro, are being wiped away for sprawling subdivisions and commercial developments. Rock Haven’s survival may ultimately depend on its ability to resist these forces of change.
In the October 1993 Bulletin, Cherokee Lodge’s office manager Sally reflected on the end of the club’s first season. “The good old summertime is almost over,” she wrote. Today, her words seem hauntingly prophetic when looking at the state of nudism and naturism in Tennessee and the Southeast.
Danny once said that he thought almost every nudist park in the country would eventually sell to swingers or sell to textiles, and the few that didn’t would have to try and hang on as best as they could. His prediction has been realized in the Southeast (outside of Florida), where a thriving social movement built by many brave nudists in a difficult cultural and political environment over 80 years has nearly vanished. What took so long to build has so quickly fallen away. Most Southern states have no more than one nudist or naturist park. Some states have none. But textile and swinger campgrounds and resorts are thriving in the region.
Most naturist spaces will be faced with a similar set of challenges. Aging owners, societal changes, and economic uncertainties will invariably force difficult decisions to be made. We may comfort ourselves with headlines that exclaim how Florida nudism is a $4 billion-a-year industry. We may celebrate when a mainstream publication gives us positive coverage. But a nudist park will almost always be more profitable as a swinger or textile club, and the land will always be more valuable as a commercial development. That reality, and the threat it poses, should not be ignored. An ambitious politician or a journalist looking to make headlines may not hesitate to use nudists as cannon fodder. We should harbor no illusions when confronting the extraordinarily difficult future our movement faces.
The emergence, growth, and rapid disappearance of the nudist movement in Tennessee and much of the Southeast should serve as a cautionary tale. It can happen, and it can happen quickly. We should appreciate that our movement is more than a set of businesses; it is a set of ideas and ideals. It was built by people who dug foundations and water lines and lakes with shovels, who built cabins and lodges with hammers and nails, using wood carried in their bare hands from trees cut using two-person saws, who risked arrest and loss of their jobs to pursue their particular way of life. In many instances, we’ve failed to keep what those early nudists built because we’ve been unable to match their enthusiasm and passion and allowed their labor of love to become what we now call the nude recreation industry. By embracing the illusion that nudism is an industry and that we are merely consumers in that industry, we relieve ourselves of sharing responsibility for its sustainability. When a state lacks nudist or naturist spaces, we go on social media, and, speaking as dissatisfied consumers, we demand that AANR open a resort or TNSF open a beach. When a resort announces it is closing or for sale, we propose that someone should buy it and keep it as a nudist venue.
As we’ve learned in Tennessee, the greatest threat to nudism and naturism isn’t the politician or the sheriff or the outraged citizen – it’s our own inaction. In the 1930s, a handful of Tennesseans came together and networked and connected with others and started a small group. Many more groups followed. In the 1960s, another group of Tennesseans rolled up their sleeves and began work on a pair of campgrounds. In the 1990s, a similar group of Tennesseans went out into the woods and created the largest naturist resort in the country. Every group, campground, resort, and community in North America emerged in a similar manner. To save what we have left and to rebuild what we have lost, we must come to see ourselves not as consumers of an imaginary industry but as activists, organizers, builders, and founders of an ever-evolving, ever-expanding social movement.
It’s been done before. 🪐