Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Brief History of Organized Nudism in Ohio

Outdoors, au naturel

Area nudist camps gained exposure in '30s

By Mark J. Price - Beacon Journal

June 26, 2006

AKRON, OH -- There was absolutely no truth to the rumor that Akron residents took everything off and ran naked through the woods.

Some of them wore shoes.

When looking back on the halcyon days of the 1930s, nude volleyball may be the last image that springs to mind.

Well, OK, nude baseball is probably a close second.

In the summer swelter of the Great Depression, however, a merry band of men and women decided to leave everything behind -- including undergarments -- to frolic in the great outdoors.

A back-to-nature movement that originated in Europe had cartwheeled into the United States, and self-confident Akronites were eager to join. Much to the chagrin of starched society, nudist camps began to pop up on the outskirts of town.

Club members gathered at secluded areas on weekends to exercise and socialize -- with minimal concern for sunburns, mosquitoes, thorns and splinters.

Former Akron barber Chester W. Riel, executive of the Natural Friends League, created a flap in June 1934 when he announced the opening of a nudist camp in Portage County.

Happy campers converged in the woods on a 55-acre farm about two miles from Rootstown. (Ahem. If an off-color remark is beginning to form in your mind, please stop it.)

Membership cost $5 to $8, but anyone wishing to join was required to pass a “strict character examination.'' The official camp roster included 85 men and women ages 21 to 61. Their children were welcome, too.

The resort touted itself as a place “where the sun may shine on all equally.''

Riel posted a sign to explain the Natural Friends League's principles of nudism:

“You may consider yourself on your honor to be ladies and gentlemen, although I hardly believe a true nudist could be anything else,'' he wrote.

“It is the purpose of this league to inspire within a clean body the fundamentals of health and higher morality. We have been said to be seekers of health through nudism. But I want it made clear to you now that we are not seekers of health but the leaders for others to follow.''

Nudists followed a strict regimen every Sunday at the camp. The day began at 5 a.m. with group exercises and a brisk swim. Breakfast was served at 7 a.m. followed by a relaxation hour. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., campers enjoyed volleyball, baseball, handball and tennis.

A work session was held from 1 to 3 p.m. Club members were instructed to clear brush, repair roads and perform other chores.

The day ended with entertainment from 6 to 8 p.m.

“We sit around and sing or talk or tell stories, just like they do in clubs,'' Riel noted in 1934.

Akron journalists were eager to cover the nudes -- so to speak. In the pure interest of journalism, reporters offered to slip off their skivvies to land a big scoop. But Riel would have none of it.

“No, you can't go back there, and you can't take any pictures,'' he told a Beacon Journal crew. “For some of our members don't care to have their neighbors know they are nudists.''

Reporters could only stand at the gate and listen to shouts of glee from the woods.

When Akron's newspapers did publish photos of nudist camps, the artistic images were from Europe and other far-away places. The chances of recognizing someone greatly diminished.

The Portage camp's opening was controversial, of course. Some citizens expressed outrage. Some registered amusement. Some wondered how the heck to get there.

Inevitably, the law got involved.

“Nudism is a lot of hooey,'' Portage County Sheriff LeRoy Jones announced. “We're going to take action if these reports are true. What action? Well, we haven't decided. Maybe we could arrest them for indecent exposure.''

Jones conducted a raid in July and found a group of naked, middle-aged men clearing brush to set up a picnic table. The sheriff also found a group of women, all wearing dresses, looking after toddlers in the camp office.

He declined to arrest anyone.

“Those fellows back there aren't exposing themselves to any women,'' Jones decided. ``I guess there's nothing wrong.''

Following a rent dispute, the camp moved in 1935 to Eli Breitenstein's 140-acre farm near Clinton in Summit County. Breitenstein wasn't a member; he just rented the land.

Nudists weren't as happy with the new site. Camp members constantly had to shoo away curious onlookers who trespassed onto the farm.

To make sure there was no hanky-panky at the camp, Summit County Sheriff Jim Flower took a look, too.

“From what I've gathered, most nudists look upon nudism as a sort of religion in which the development of the body is the chief aim,'' he noted. ``If that is so, I don't intend to interfere, no more than I would with the members of one of the recognized religious sects.''

Jeepers creepers, there were peepers. The Cleveland League of Naturists, which had a camp near Macedonia, got tired of all the gawking and moved to a 50-acre farm near Sharon Center in Medina County.

Naturally, this demanded further scrutiny from officials.

“I don't favor nudism,'' Medina County Prosecutor L. Ashley Pelton announced. “I feel sure it must be against the law.''

Dr. Russell Bigelow Abbott, leader of the Sharon Center group, was elected national president during a nudist conference at the farm. Fifty nude delegates from across the nation cast ballots at the gathering.

Abbott explained that going without clothes provided comfort and freedom.

“I do it unconsciously,'' he said in 1934. “I'm so used to it now. And I run around naked in the house. Of course, I have to be careful out in the yard.''

Seven nudist organizations were operating in Ohio by the mid-1930s. All professed the highest standards and principals for morality and health.

“Our camps are open to any skeptic who harbors the impression that immorality prevails amongst our members,'' Riel told the Beacon Journal.

After a few years, the uproar subsided.

Authorities determined that camp activities on private property were legal as long as they didn't take place within view of the public.

Officers left the nudists alone.

Nudist camps may have disappeared from local headlines, but they did not disappear.

Today, the American Association for Nude Recreation cites 50,000 members and more than 270 clubs committed “to fostering wholesome, nurturing environments that promote body acceptance and respect for all persons.''

Regional resorts can be found in Bath Township, Millersburg and Cleveland.

If the weather is nice, the great-grandchildren of those 1930s rebels might be playing volleyball this weekend.



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