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A history of nudism in Tennessee part 1: The beginning
Editor’s note: From its emergence in urban industrial hubs to its expansion to affluent coastal destinations—and the vast expanse in between—U.S. nudism has consistently sustained a rich tapestry of regional nuances. This three-part written history, the first of its kind to our knowledge, explores the under-appreciated realm of Tennessee nudism, and uncovers the pioneering figures and significant groups that have decisively influenced the national nudism narrative, shedding new light on an often-overlooked aspect of American social history. We hope you enjoy.
The history of organized nudism and naturism in Tennessee began much earlier than one might imagine. Nudists familiar with the state can likely identify Tennessee’s trio of lodges: Timberline Lodge (1964 to 2003), Rock Haven Lodge (1969 to present), and Cherokee Lodge (1993-2014). But several nudist groups, some with unimproved camping areas, were operating in the state long before Timberline opened. In this essay, we’ll examine the earliest documented nudist group in the state, established in 1937, and conclude with the first concerted effort to open a full-fledged nudist park in 1957.
Solar Health Club
While informal skinny-dipping and nude sunbathing occurred in Tennessee long before organized nudism took root in America, Solar Health Club appears to have been the first group in the state to seek and receive official recognition from the American Sunbathing Association. In the June 1937 issue of The Nudist, club organizers described their plan to operate a campground on an idyllic property west of Nashville.
We are planning to purchase a beautiful site consisting of 11.4 acres including house and barn and various outhouses, located west of Nashville, with private road running about one mile off the highway. There are several wonderful free stone clear springs, with good strong water pressure that will be ample to supply our swimming pool. This can be easily made by widening the creek running from springs through the forests. A fruit orchard and plenty of blackberry bushes promise us native fruits. It is impossible to even see the house or grounds from the private entrance gate. It is entirely secluded from view and the nearest neighbor house is over a mile from our property lines in either direction. We have splendid space already for our tennis, volleyball and badminton courts, and a splendid location to build our community clubhouse. This property can be had immediately and we expect to close the deal this week.
A portion of the club’s letter to prospective members was included in the publication. In it, the club organizers claimed to count among their members “some very well known doctors, artists, architects, writers, actors, nurses and professional women, who enjoy with us swimming, tennis, badminton, volleyball, and other outdoor sports, including hiking through the forest trails, and the study of nature.” The club also stressed its commitment to health and wellness and referenced Physical Culture publisher Bernarr MacFadden as an inspiration. “Our exercises are systematic and along the lines suggested by Bernarr MacFadden, while the meals served at our clubhouse will be somewhat vegetarian and especially adapted to bodybuilding and muscle building.”
The Solar leaders also stressed a solid commitment to the moral and psychological benefits of nudism, characteristic of the era clubs, which were extraordinarily careful to avoid any implication of impropriety to sidestep trouble with area townsfolk and law enforcement.
Were you and your family to visit a camp, you would at first hesitate, perhaps, in appearing naked among others of both sexes though you would soon notice more refinement and a much greater and stronger morale among them than exists even on our own city streets and in a great many homes. You would not once hear a suggestive remark, nor witness so much as a curious glance, except perhaps in admiration of a beautiful body. We feel it is high time our growing children are brought up to know and understand their opposite in sex, to think of the body as wonderful and beautiful. They will then naturally have clean and pure minds, and the more they know about each other from a physical standpoint, the less curiosity and immorality and disease will exist, and the next generation will be of the highest character and morals.
The director of Solar Health Club was identified as George Seabee, likely the pen name of a naval officer, as the word Seabee is used to identify members of the Navy Construction Battalion (or CB). George claimed that the Solar Health Club recently welcomed ten new married couples and would be selling portable canvas housing on its property, “entirely storm and windproof, screened completely and ventilated, ready for you to equip as you please as your own camp” for $150 and a $10 annual membership fee. George also suggested the group would involve itself with other regional nudist camps, including Indiana’s Zoro Nature Park. “We are trying to arrange to spend the convention weekend at Zoro Nature Park with Alois Knapp and wife and hope to see and meet you there in August.”
The February 1938 issue of The Nudist offered this description of a curious feature of the Solar grounds.
At one place there is hewn onto the top of a solid rock a curiously shaped bowl, obviously the handiwork of man with many strange markings. What is it and who made it? Perhaps some Indian tribe used it to grind corn in. Or shall we permit ourselves to give this silent memorial a more fantastic and yet possible interpretation: could this stone have been an altar upon which sacrifices were offered?
It’s unclear if the Solar Health Club survived for more than a year or two, but a second group of Tennesseans expressing interest in becoming an affiliate of the American Sunbathing Association appeared in the November 1941 issue of Sunshine & Health. In a discussion of newly organized groups, there was a listing for Group #69 in Nashville. It seems that this group never quite came to fruition, as it disappeared from subsequent editions of the magazine. But in the May 1945 Sunshine & Health, another Nashville group seeking ASA affiliation appeared: Group #234. The following month it was joined by Memphis #242. By September 1948, there was another Nashville Group, #310, along with Union City #311 and Group #392, which included organizers from the rural counties of Cheatham, Robertson, Montgomery, and Dickson, all west of Nashville. Many of these groups likely had the same members as some of the earlier efforts, but it wasn’t until 1950 that a couple of these clubs earned ASA recognition and took on names.
The Ten Tan Club
The first of two named Tennessee nudist groups appeared in the June 1950 issue of the Eastern Sunbather newsletter: Nashville’s Ten Tan Club. The Ten Tan Club emerged from Group #310, first identified in 1948. A report from the club’s leader appeared in the November 1950 Sunshine & Health, signed by Camp Secretary George. It’s possible that this George was George Seabee from the Solar Health Club. The Ten Tan Club had access to a camping area with multiple clear springs feeding a swimming pool, similar to what Seabee described on the Solar Health Club property.
Just a few lines to let our friends know that the Ten Tans are going strong. Our group has been in existence three years; for the first two years we had only a few couples who were readers of Sunshine & Health and who were interested in the “natural way of life.” Until this year we had no adequate camp facilities. We met for sunning on a wooded hilltop on the farm of one of our members. This year it is different, we have a beautiful campsite in the hills of Tennessee, a large swimming pool fed by the water of two cold, clear springs, a cabin and an outdoor grill, all deep in a beautiful valley surrounded by wooded hills. Our membership is now twelve couples, most of whom have children. Every weekend we have a grand time swimming, sunning, hiking and cooking fish, hamburgers, steaks or what have you. Now that we feel we have a permanent and enthusiastic membership it has been unanimously decided to affiliate with the American Sunbathing Association so we may all participate in a way of living which we have found so wonderful.
The Tennessee Sunshiners
In June 1950, another group appeared in Sunshine & Health that would eventually help nudists establish a more permanent footprint in Tennessee – the Tennessee Sunshiners, based in Sparta, east of Nashville. A seemingly frustrated group leader identified as Bob submitted this report to Sunshine & Health, published in November 1950.
To start off - I want to ask everyone to read the explanations and rules for contacting a new group listed in new groups forming. Very few have done this, I am sure. In the first place; we are not yet an established group, we are still just trying to get together. Although we have a small camp, and have about twenty members, they are not all active, and our little camp is not open to the public for transient visitors. We received inquiries from California to Massachusetts and from Florida to Michigan. It is certain that a public camp would be a huge success here in Tennessee, but none of us have the money to build such a thing at the present. Another thing that makes me very unhappy are the dozen or so postcards - which violate the instructions issued by the magazine, and also shows so little sincere interest that I don’t know why folks waste the penny.
Bob also stressed the club’s commitment to working with local authorities to establish a degree of community recognition, acceptance, and legitimacy. “The post office is aware of our activities,” Bob wrote, “as are the authorities. In fact the prosecutors and sheriff’s offices have received directions as to how to reach us, and invitation to visit at any time. We have nothing to hide in our moral and healthy way of living, we have no fear of a surprise raid.” Bob’s report also hinted at a working relationship with other clubs in the area. “Some of us visited the Ten Tan camp at Nashville last Sunday and had a wonderful time. They do have a wonderful camp and the fried chicken was grand. Several of us are visiting Sunny Rest in Pennsylvania, where we also hold active membership next week; then on down to Lake Como and Sunny Palms in Florida.” Another report from the Tennessee Sunshiners appeared in the February 1953 Sunshine & Health. The author, identified as Bill, wrote:
We had a very quiet summer and fall. The terrific heat all summer made our heavily wooded home grounds too hot for much activity, the long and disastrous drought lowered the level of the lake until it was too warm for swimming. Since we had to close our home camp to club activities to any extent due to its small acreage no longer accommodating the group, we have had only a few new members and old friends stopping by. We are all more or less marking time until the purchase of larger grounds permits group activities again. We have an option on a wonderful 115 acres and have established a trust fund from donations of the members to make the required down payment. Sunday a group of us spent most of the day hiking around the place, planning what we would do as soon as we get possession.
One of the Tennessee Sunshiners’ more interesting activities was beekeeping.
We took some more pictures for our future picture story showing “Beekeeping in the Nude” and should have several good ones. So far no one has been stung, and we have had a lot of fun making the pictures. Incidentally, we finally overcame the objections from our County Agent recently to visiting a nudist home, and he came over to give us some needed help with our apiary plans. Another interested person was one of our State Bee Inspectors who, after inspecting our little fellows, asked many questions and took the latest issue of Sunshine & Health with him.
As alluded to in the 1953 update, the Tennessee Sunshiners received prominent coverage in the January 1954 issue of Sunshine & Health, with significant attention given to the group’s beekeeping activities in an article titled “Bzzz.”
A professional punster would be incapable of resisting the urge to describe the Tennessee Sunshiners as literally buzzing with activity, and here are the pictures to prove it. People are forever asking, “what do people do at a nudist camp?” seemingly unable to realize that nudists who live in camps the year-round do the same things anyone who lives in the country may do. Beekeeping is light, pleasant work, and on a large enough scale, can be very profitable.
In sharp contrast to today’s leisure-focused nudist resorts, clubs of the 1950s involved a tremendous investment of time and labor from the members. These were working communities. Members dug the swimming areas, built the facilities, and installed whatever utilities the camps had, though most of these early spaces were quite rustic, with only the most rudimentary amenities. The Sunshine & Health columnist observed:
It’s not only the bees that buzz around the Tennessee Sunshiners, but the two-man saw gets a frequent workout. It’s a handy little gadget to have around the house for cutting firewood for cozy long winter evenings in front of the fireplace… their wood serves them a triple benefit, it builds muscle tone, and heats them twice, once when they cut it and again when they burn it. That’s true economy in the field of heating. This summer Bill and Jo will entertain guests of the Tennessee Sunshiners. Why not plan now to buzz down to Tennessee for a vacation?
The October 1954 issue of Modern Sunbathing featured a story on the Sunshiners, mostly a how-to guide for beekeeping nudists. It’s worth noting that organizer Bill, also a photographer, had many photographs published in the various nudist magazines of the era, with many taken at prominent clubs, including Alois Knapp’s Zoro Nature Park.
The Cherokee Chums and the Chatta-Tans
As early as October 1950, the Tennessee Sunshiners was listed as the central contact for two other groups: Cherokee Chums in Knoxville and Chatta-Tans in Chattanooga. Little is known of the Cherokee Chums and the Chatta-Tans, though the latter offered an update to the readers of Sunshine & Health in November 1950.
Our first news is a little skimpy and uncertain. Our first steps in starting the new group are the same. Although we who are now in the group are new, there used to be a swell group here, we hope to bring them together again. We have no campus yet, but that did not keep some of us from getting out in the sun last weekend. It was a glorious experience for the youngsters and the two new couples who were enjoying the sun in total exposure for the first time.
The consolidation of the East Tennessee groups and talk of a 115-acre land purchase in 1953 was significant, for the growing organization in the eastern part of the state would eventually lead to the formation of the first landed nudist campground with full facilities, initially organized on a property north of Knoxville in 1964.
HiTenn Sun Club
In another boost to the emerging nudist community in east Tennessee, members of the Tennessee Sunshiners in Sparta, the Cherokee Chums in Knoxville, and Chatta-Tans in Chattanooga were joined by Oak Ridge’s HiTenn Sun Club in 1953. HiTenn Sun Club was partly organized by scientists from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, whose work on the Manhattan Project enriched uranium for use in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II. In the March 1953 Sunshine & Health, a couple identified as Ken and Sue introduced the club.
We have finally arrived! Imagine our joy when we opened an official looking envelope the other day addressed to Ken and Sue and were greeted with, “Your group will be listed as HiTennSun Club and the next issue of Sunshine & Health.” The emotion of starting your first group ranks second only to the sensation caused by the first caress of clean spring air after leaving a winter cocoon of stuffy clothes. This is the first experience in nudism but we like firsts: the first complete release from the shackles of raiments; the first member to be interviewed (an interesting chap); the first prospective campsite we looked at (our imagination ran riot). We still build a camp in our dreams from every potential campsite that we see. There are several almost ideal for our needs within 30 miles of Oak Ridge, and we have high hopes that we will have made a down payment on one of those by the time this is published.
The 498 Hollow
In the May 1957 issue of Solaire Universelle De Nudisme, there was a listing for The 498 Hollow in Knoxville. The club was mentioned in several publications during 1957 and 1958, but little information was provided. The club appeared to be an offshoot of The 498 Ranch in Bainbridge, Ohio, as it and the 498 Plantation in Gainesville, Florida, included the Ohio address as a contact. In the February 1961 issue of The Bulletin, Ohio organizers Jay and Marj reported, “After two years of limited operation, we are opening again with a new park in the woods. We are open to over 600 former members plus touring members from other clubs who hold ASA or NNC cards.” The 498 Hollow continued the Tennessee nudist community’s coalescence around Knoxville.
Although the first Tennessee landed nudist park would be constructed in the state’s eastern region, a group from Memphis was the first to open a nudist facility – just across the border in Arkansas. A thorough overview of the beginnings of Wildwood Lodge was provided in the February 1957 issue of Sunshine & Health.
Back in 1954, Jim and Betty of Memphis, who were ardent nudists, started organizing a club. Along about this time, Cecil and Wilma, also from Memphis, started making contacts to form a club. Neither couple knew about the other until over a year later. Jim was in the Air Force and transferred to Texas to complete his service but undaunted by this setback he continued to plan and work for a club in the Memphis Area. During this time Cecil and Wilma continued making contacts. Jim was discharged in July 1955, and returned to Memphis where he met Cecil and they began to combine their efforts. By August 1955, Jim and Cecil had contacted several nudist families in the area. Some were members of clubs in nearby states. With these as a nucleus, a site for a park was located a few miles west of Memphis and work was started on the grounds. In September because of a change in ownership of the land this site had to be abandoned. Naturally this was a great blow and disappointment to the group but they were made of stern stuff, fired with determination and did not let a matter as trivial as this floor them.
On October 15, 1955, Cecil met with Gordon and his wife Beulah, who identified another site for a nudist park, the remnants of a 66-acre cotton farm just over the state line in Arkansas. Gordon purchased the property, and work began in March 1956. The overgrown grounds were cleared, electricity was added, a well was dug, and the founders erected a handful of trailers and tents. A 24x36 foot concrete block clubhouse was built, including a kitchen, a recreation and dining hall with a fireplace, bunk beds, and a bathroom. Private lots for cabins were cleared, with water and electricity added. Trees were planted, a fence was built for privacy, and telephone lines were hung. A total of 30 adults and their 15 children became the inaugural members of Wildwood Lodge. “If our present rate of membership growth continues,” Gordon wrote in the 1957 Sunshine & Health report, “our membership will be doubled before next summer. We are a happy group and invite all who would like to join or visit us to write today. Plan now for the summer months ahead, come play, relax and rest in the friendly, congenial atmosphere of Wildwood Lodge. Hope we hear from you.”
Although the Sunshine & Health report offered an optimistic vision for the future of Wildwood Lodge, a troubling situation was developing that was not included in the magazine’s story. In late 1956, reports about the proposed park began to appear in several local newspapers, inspiring the Caldwell, Arkansas sheriff to begin an investigation. Edith Church of the National Nudist Council, who had experience advocating for nudist clubs in the bible belt, flew to Arkansas to meet with the sheriff, hoping that by educating him about the realities of nudism, she could help protect the fledgling club. Church provided an account of the situation in the March 1958 issue of Sunshine & Health. She recalled that on November 28, 1956, Gordon and Church met with Sheriff Campbell of St. Francis County, Arkansas, to discuss Wildwood. In a move that would forever change nudism in Arkansas, Church handed Sheriff Campbell a copy of Sunshine & Health, along with the Wildwood constitution and bylaws. Church wrote:
Mr. Campbell and the others were most cordial, and when we urged the sheriff to come out and visit the camp to assure himself that the conduct there was above reproach, he said he had been planning to visit but just hadn’t gotten around to it and assured us he had no intention of causing us any trouble. We were jubilant as we drove back to Wildwood lodge; confident that all was secure; confident that Sheriff Campbell was a man of his word. As for what happened within the next two months, your guess is as good as ours.
On January 29, 1957, Gordon was arrested on charges of indecent exposure and of possessing and distributing obscene literature – the copy of Sunshine & Health provided by Church. Gordon’s case was heard on October 24, 1957. The indecent exposure charge was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, but the obscene literature charge remained, for which Gordon was forced to pay a little over $100 in court fines. Ironically, a few months later, on January 13, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nudist magazines – even those with full-frontal nudity – had the right to be mailed through the U.S. Post Office. Gordon might have walked away without trouble had the case been tried just a few weeks later.
But Arkansas legislators, spooked by the Wildwood case and the absence of laws prohibiting nudist activities in Arkansas, were determined to act to ensure nudist camps could never take hold in their state, and they quickly passed an update to AR Code § 5-68-204 in 1957. In part, the law stated:
It is unlawful for any:
(1) Person, club, camp, corporation, partnership, association, or organization to advocate, demonstrate, or promote nudism; or
(2) Person to rent, lease, or otherwise permit his or her land, premises, or buildings to be used for the purpose of advocating, demonstrating, or promoting nudism.
(d) Any person, club, camp, corporation, partnership, association, or organization violating any provision of this section is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor for each offense.
In the January 1958 Bulletin, Gordon struck a hopeful tone about the future of Wildwood Lodge and nudists in Memphis and Arkansas.
Until the Arkansas anti-nudist laws are disposed of in some manner and nudism made safe here we cannot count this as a victory and we have a fight ahead yet. All members of Wildwood Lodge feel that they can count on the support of all ASA members to achieve this victory and are optimistic about the future.
Sixty-six years later, the Arkansas prohibition on nudism stands, inspired by the actions of a handful of Tennesseans who wanted to build a space for people to “play, relax and rest in the friendly, congenial atmosphere” of a private, clothes-free camp. But Wildwood Lodge wouldn’t be the last nudist camp built by Tennesseans, nor would a Tennessean-owned nudist camp be the last to affect state (and national) laws regarding nudism.
A movement takes shape
Beginning in 1937 and continuing through the 1940s and 1950s, a handful of trailblazing individuals brought the nudist movement to Tennessee. Armed with resources and information from the American Sunbathing Association, the National Nudist Council, and existing nudist camps, they began the slow and complicated process of locating and networking with other prospective nudists in the state. Some established informal gathering spaces at existing homesteads, on farms, or in secluded rural areas. A few pooled their funds and purchased properties to build an actual nudist campground. Groups came and went, and interest waxed and waned, but in time, with the hard work of these committed individuals, a movement began to coalesce, membership grew, leaders were selected, funds were raised, and property was secured. In time, facilities were constructed, and a thriving nudist community began to emerge. Organizers faced many false starts and several legal and financial roadblocks, but through their determination, a 140-acre resort would eventually rise near the grounds of an 1800s-era fruit ranch whose members, according to local legend, danced naked in the apple orchards each morning as part of a ritual to inspire more abundant harvests. 🪐