Once Upon a Time off South Carolina
Cat Island once a nudist retreat
BY GREG HAMBRICK, The Beaufort Gazette
April 3, 2006
BEAUFORT, SC -- News had traveled ahead of the bus carrying about 20 New Englanders to downtown Beaufort in the early 1930s. Fellows and ladies, but mostly fellows, had come out to catch a peek at the newcomers, disappointed to see they had all of their clothes on.
They were the first residents of the Sea Island Sanctuary on Cat Island, what's thought by historians to be the first nudist colony in the country. The bare Lowcountry residents caused a big stir in South Carolina in the '30s, with locals both leery and curious, and state officials in fits.
Gilbert and Gertrude Parks bought the island in 1932, hoping to mimic successful nudist retreats in Europe by providing shelter and hundreds of acres of open land to their naturalist brothers and sisters.
A 1935 advertisement for the sanctuary talks of "Lazy hours under a balmy sky. Jungle trails, festooned lagoons, palm-fringed vistas where wild game and wild fowl in their habitat greet you unafraid."
Many curious fishermen dropped anchor near the island's shores when the nudists first arrived, Beaufort native Arthur Levin told The Beaufort Gazette in 2001.
"Fishing was never better in the creeks around Cat Island then it was that summer," he said.
In his memoir, "High Sheriff of the Low Country," former Sheriff J.E. McTeer wrote that mothers and wives weren't so curious.
"I could imagine the pictures that were racing through their minds of a mass immigration of their husbands and sweethearts to Cat Island," he wrote.
The island served as a retreat for nudists and a home for others, providing a little land to those interested in growing their own food to eat or barter.
With McTeer taking a live-and-let-live approach with the islanders, the colony lived a mostly quiet life until a story in The State newspaper in August 1934 alerted Gov. I.C. Blackwood to the alternative lifestyle on the state's shores. Claiming he was prompted by "ministers of the gospel and other prominent citizens," Blackwood sent two constables down to investigate the colony.
The meddling upset island residents, with one man who did not want to be identified angrily declaring to the Savannah Morning News that the remote island was private property and none of the governor's business.
"Visitors to the island have always been welcome, but we have not gone out of our way to invite visitors," he told the paper. "Snoopers have never been welcome."
McTeer led the governor's men to the island, along with their wives, even though the sheriff had advised against it.
As islanders greeted the boat with an "aloha" and nothing on, the prudish constables called for a retreat back to Beaufort, McTeer wrote.
"Well, I never," exclaimed one wife.
"Neither have I, Madam," the sheriff said.
By 1936, the nudist colony closed because of financial strains, though McTeer jokingly blamed it on the sand gnats.
"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," he wrote.