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How Samagatuma nudist camp differs from the Swallows

What you see is what we are

Ernie Miller is the godfather of San Diego's nudist scene.
  • Ernie Miller is the godfather of San Diego's nudist scene.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

This is a story about the nudist camps tucked away in San Diego, but it has to start with a small forewarning. It doesn't convey the most fascinating thing about nudism. I will tell you about how the camps are booming today. I will tell you how one of them dates back to 1935 and how the good citizens of San Diego then reacted to their frolicking naked neighbors. I will tell you how the local nudists try to explain why they go to such trouble to spend time in public without their clothes on. But I can't convey the utter shock of seeing them do it.

Bob Welder:“My father was a very strict man; he was a Church of God minister. Yet he used to work the fields of his farm in the nude."

Bob Welder:“My father was a very strict man; he was a Church of God minister. Yet he used to work the fields of his farm in the nude."

Even if you’ve been to Black's Beach, you’d still, initially, be astonished by a visit to The Swallows or Samagatuma, San Diego's two ‘'landed” nudist clubs. The clothes-wearing custom is so deeply imbedded in our society that even if one gets used to seeing people flout it while lying in the sand or playing in the surf, it's still freshly astonishing to see them chop wood in the buff, or play tennis, or dine in a restaurant. But now I find myself straining to convey that sense of astonishment, even though I’ve already conceded defeat. There's no need to belabor the point. Even one step removed, the local nudists are remarkable.

The San Diego resorts never had any major troubles with the law.

The San Diego resorts never had any major troubles with the law.

For all the hoopla surrounding it. Black's Beach stands in the history of San Diego nudism like this year's automobile, the most recent and shiniest development in a long line of models. The first camp appeared here in the early 1930s, at the very-beginning of nudist history in America and just thirty years after the birth of modern social nudism.

The Swallows looks like a middle-class country club, manicured and compact. Samagaturaa's sprawling wilderness verges on the squalid.

The Swallows looks like a middle-class country club, manicured and compact. Samagaturaa's sprawling wilderness verges on the squalid.

Before 1903, one has to go back all the way to ancient Greece, most notably in the realm of athletic competitions, to find a time when the unclothed body was accepted casually. Participants in the original Olympic Games, as well as in other more common sporting events, wore no clothes to fetter their movement, and today our words relating to "gymnasium,” from the Greek gymnos (naked), reflect this early nudist legacy. The Romans shared some of the Greeks' tolerance for nudity, hut by the fourth or fifth centuries, the rigors of Christianity had obliterated any such broad-mindedness.

As the centuries passed, societal disgust with human flesh seemed to intensify, rather than lessen, reaching almost fanatical levels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. America proved even more rigid in its tastes than Europe, by the latter half of the nineteenth century producing that reform-minded American postal authority Anthony Comstock, who rabidly imposed his own revulsion for the human epidermis upon everything which passed through the United States mails. The Victorian outlook touched most of the Western world, however, and against this .backdrop, Herr Richard Ungewitter's modest tome on the subject of nakedness was nothing short of startling.

A German, Ungewitter thought that people should associate together au nature!, but the idea was so extreme that no publisher would touch it. Finally Ungewitter published Die Nacktchett himself in 1903. The 104-page, illustrated volume gave birth to the notion of social nudism, founded the literature of the movement, and coincided with the appearance of the world's first nudist resort.

Another German. Paul Zimmerman. opened that Freilichtpark (free-light park) near Klingberg, Germany. Zimmerman saw nudism as one clement in a general return to a hardier, more primitive, and healthier (he believed) lifestyle. If one visited the first Freilichtpark. one abstained from meat, alcohol, and smoking: one drew one's own water from an icy stream: one rose in the wake of dawn to join a campful of naked Germans passionately performing calisthenics. Even so. since Zimmerman then had a monopoly on the nudist scene, hundreds of people from all over the world trickled in to participate, and the concepts of nudism began to spread.

World War I dampened their growing notoriety, but by 1926 reliable estimates said 50,000 active Lichtfreuden (literally, “light friends") were baring it all in Deutschland, and that year an American published The New Gymnosophy in London and introduced the concepts of nudism to the English-speaking world. Three years later, a German immigrant to the United Stales by the name of Kurt Barthel advertised in the German-language press for other experienced nudist transplants: with the three couples who responded, he founded the first American nudist camp north of New York City.

Others soon opened all over the country, and the first California camp, near Lake Elsinore, was christened Elysia. San Diegans were introduced to it in 1933. when a movie about the resort opened at the Spreckels Theatre. The first San Diego County nudist establishment, Campo Nudisto, appeared shortly thereafter in Jamul. It was there that Ernie Miller first got acquainted with the joy of romping around without clothes in San Diego's backcountry.

Miller, still alive today, is the godfather of San Diego's nudist scene. After an invalid childhood in Wisconsin, he had moved to San Diego in 1927, and the film at the Spreckels captured his imagination. In it he saw a way to counteract the ill-health engendered by having only half a lung and a partially paralyzed diaphragm. As it turned out. he enjoyed Camp Nudisto so much that when it folded, he and four partners opened their own camp on rented property out in the Samagatuma Valley, way beyond Alpine. They spent six months there and a year in El Cajon; then Miller finally found and bought the current location in Ramona.

Ever since. Miller has lived on the grounds of the East County resort, a site so remote that only the paved roads distinguish the drive out there from what the Thirties nudist pioneers must have seen. To get to the camp, one has to travel north on Highway 67 past Poway, through miles of isolated, boulder-studded mountains, then finally down a twisting, tree-choked stretch of Mussey Grade Road. An Indian head and a hand-lettered sign finally announce the dirt path which leads through thicker trees, past a neighbor's neighing horses, and up, up, up the lonesome mountain. Finally, a pink post bearing an ancient “S" appears, and a few hundred yards further, a chain-link gate guards the 160 acres of Samagatuma.

Samagatuma differs from The Swallows, the county’s only other nudist resort, as much as Mark Spitz's body differs from Jackie Gleason's. The Swallows looks like a middle-class country club, manicured and compact; in contrast. Samagaturaa's sprawling wilderness verges on the squalid. Decaying leaves mat the dusty paths, garbage fills the old, abandoned swimming pool, and pieces of junk lie rusting here and there in the grass. The oddly varied structures which house Samagatuma's permanent residents cover only a small part of the grounds, however, and fans of the camp rhapsodize about the opportunities for solitude in the undeveloped countryside. Ernie Miller resides in a tumble-down building originally built as a weekend cabin. Bare wall board serves as a ceiling; soot and debris from a pot-bellied stove are ground into the dirt-packed carpet; decades of junk overflow every exposed surface. Miller's appearance matches his domicile: on a chilly winter day he wears a grimy spotted T-shirt and slacks and puffs away on a cigar which he holds with grease-encrusted hands. (“I smoke to keep breathing. Otherwise, I'd forget to take in a breath.") Yet, at 76, he retains a sharp mind and a twinkling sense of humor, and he greets visitors with a courtly courtesy. Camp children flock to him and he accords them the unreserved attention and love of a grandfather.

He vividly recalls his early days in the nudist business. Living on the grounds as caretaker, he existed on a meager income from a photographic processing business and camp dues (then sixty dollars a year per family).

Word of mouth soon brought in forty to fifty people as members. News of Samagatuma's existence didn't spread beyond the nudist underground, however, a secrecy which was intentional. Miller even maintained a San Diego post office box number, so the curious wouldn't even know the camp was in East County. “We didn’t want snoopers around. If word got out, all sorts of busy-bodies would be investigating the place, including the police."

Remarkably, the passion for privacy didn't spring from a bad relationship with local law enforcers. Unlike nudist camps in other parts of the country, the San Diego resorts never had any major troubles with the law. although the reigning district attorney did officiously investigate Camp Nudisto upon its opening. He reportedly concluded nudism was kosher, providing “those who prefer to go without clothes keep out of places where there are others to be offended or annoyed." (As late as 1969, however, a mere arrest for public nudity still brought mandatory registration with the state as a sex offender.) Miller recalls. “We never had any problems with the authorities. It was always just the opposite. In fact, if a stranger came into these parts and wanted to know where to find us, the sheriff would want identification or else he wouldn't tell 'em a thing." When fires broke out in the surrounding dry countryside, the Samagatumans shared the water from their swimming pool with local firemen, "so when it came down to us. boy, we got service!"

If the county police agencies weren't oppressive. Miller says the neighboring gentry would have been, had they known much about the place. He recalls how the newspapers milked one incident for two to three weeks, when a nude, drunk non-member was picked up in the vicinity of Campo Nudisto. To avoid any breath of scandal, Samagatuma followed the lead of almost all the early nudist camps, enforcing strict rules of personal conduct which included abstention from alcohol and any physical contact — even something as innocent as hand-holding among married couples.

With the advent of World War II. Miller’s members found themselves with no gas to make the long trek up to the country every weekend, yet Miller braved the solitude and subsisted on chickenfeed and milk from a neighbor's cow until the post-war years brought renewed nudist interest. To maintain the tight family atmosphere. however. Miller consistently restricted membership to forty or fifty people until he finally sold the place in 1975.

It languished under the direction of the first new set of owners. Miller grumbles that they made the same mistake as so many of the individuals who set up unsuccessful camps in San Diego over the years. ‘‘They all started with a big splash. They all started with the thought you can make some money at it. It can't be done! If you break even you're doing good." The first year after Samagatuma’s sale, membership dropped down to less than two dozen, then the current owners. Bob Welder and Chris Glow, took over. Chris is a quiet woman who maintains a low profile and screens all new members “by vibes." Welder, in contrast, is a brazen promoter. A stocky, bearded man. with skin the color of burnished leather, he boasts that the club now has about 230 members, with expectations of 600 to 700 by summer.

Vigorous promotions have attracted many of those to the club: others, fearful of losing their all-over tans, have turned to Samagatuma since the closing of Black’s Beach. The 1977 passage of Proposition D also benefitted The Swallows in El Cajon, which now claims about 400 members. Although the character of the two clubs differs dramatically, they basically operate the same: non-residents at both can come out at any time and use the facilities, while year-round residents (about a hundred at The Swallows and sixty at Samagatuma) live mostly in trailers scattered over the grounds. Outsiders can visit both clubs a limited number of times, paying a day fee of $4.50 to $7. Yearly memberships at Samagatuma cost a flat $150 per person or per couple, while the owners of The Swallows charge anywhere from 572.50 to $165 per person. The two “landed" clubs aren’t the only option facing local nudists. Two totally distinct nudist "travel clubs" (the Wee Bears and the Golden Oaks clubs) charge their members a substantially lower membership fee, then the members visit landed clubs and pay reduced visitors’ rates en masse. Southern California offers plenty of clubs to travel to. While Los Angeles County only has one club. San Bernardino and Riverside counties boast about a half-dozen, including McConville, the descendent of the original Elysia.

As varied as the local clubs are, when seasoned nudists from each of them talk about why they became and remain nudists, several themes crop up again and again. Bob Welder out at Samagatuma is one of the most articulate spokesmen. Invariably naked, Welder, 49, marches resolutely all over the grounds, claiming to disdain clothing down to temperatures as low as forty-five degrees (he even boasts that he enjoys the nocturnal beauty of nude three a.m. strolls in the crisp mountain air).

Sprawled out on one of the deck chairs next to Samagatuma's expansive new pool, Welder explains that he became involved with formal nudism about five years ago, but his experience with social undress began when he was a child in Ohio. “My father was a very strict man; he was a Church of God minister. Yet he used to work the fields of his farm in the nude. He loved nudity! He loved the feeling of sun and wind upon his body.” Even before Welder got into the clubs, he recalls, "The first thing I would do when I got home from work every night was to shuck off my clothes because I’d feel so much better with my clothes off. Nudism is natural. It's a way of life. It’s being satisfied with what you've got.”

Welder echoes the health speculations so dominant among early justifications for the movement. Blood circulation, he asserts, is the key. "All these ailments that you hear about are a direct result of poor circulation. You get the blood moving, and people are greatly improved." Wandering around the camp. Welder introduces Al, a thin. 59-year-old former Alaskan who claims his doctor only gave him six months to live before he shucked off his clothing and miraculously recovered several years ago. John, a blacksmith with a body which could have been sculpted in ancient Greece, wanders by to inject a story about how a serious accident nine years ago almost killed him, until he got his health back at a nudist camp.

Welder claims nudists today draw members into their ranks from all walks of society, unlike the Thirties and Forties, when most were poor. He says now the average club member falls into the top thirty to forty percent of the income levels, and Samagatuma residents range from a car dealer to a space-shuttle scientist: "We don’t have a bunch of bums any more."

The variety of the nudist population points up another of the nudists’ favorite assertions: that nudity democratizes people. Without clothing, you can't tell if your companion is a banker or an iron worker. "Clothes are so social," one enthusiast said. "You get out of them and you get out of all the social games that we play.” Welder touches upon the point lightly, but he hammers on the claim that nudists don’t live all that differently from anyone else. “They’re a little healthier, maybe, and their kids don't have the sex hang-ups that other children have. You don’t have this snickering and ‘let’s see what you’ve got’ business because they know what everyone’s got.”

Out at The Swallows, Sue Latimer agrees that "most kids take to it like a duck to water. Sometimes a teenager won’t take to it. Sometimes when they’re in puberty, say twelve to fifteen, they’ll have a little trouble. But if they’re good nudists, it doesn’t bother them a bit.” School buses pick up more than two dozen children a day from the bus stop in front of The Swallows’ tall brown fence on Harbison Canyon Raod; the twenty-acre resort includes space for fifty permanent trailers. To Latimer, who’s been a-co-owner of the twenty-three-year-old camp since 1964, the motivation behind nudism has nothing to do with health or any fancy philosophic rationales. “It just feels good. It’s great to go without clothes. Particularly a bra," she pronounces the word with loathing, ‘i’ve been living here so long that it’s gotten to the point where I just hate to go to town anymore. You can’t really feel free in your house in town. You have to keep the shades drawn; you have to keep the door locked at all times.”

Latimer sports short-cropped gray hair, a soft Southern accent, and a placid demeanor. This morning, she wears a jogging suit because she's sitting in the reception gate near the road, and because the bright sun hasn’t completely warmed the morning chill. Across the lawn, however, the players knocking tennis balls around the court wear no clothes, and later in the day, no one at The Swallows will. Unlike Samagatuma, The Swallows requires everyone but first-time visiting women to take off their clothes, weather permitting. “If they come here, they come to be nudists,” Latimer says flatly. “We figure they shouldn’t be walking around with their clothes on, looking at people.”

There is a steely note in her voice, and it soon becomes clear that Latimer runs a tight ship. The grounds and Class A restaurant are immaculate, as are the showers, the shuffleboard courts, the clubhouse and pool area. The discipline shows up elsewhere than just on the physical grounds. Latimer carefully pre-screens all visitors; one can't just march in through the gate. She seems offended by the notion of public "photo shoots" such as those staged yearly by Welder at Samagatuma. She allows drinking, but (again unlike Samagatuma) prohibits nude dancing. Of the behavioral restrictions, she says, “It’s definitely a more relaxed atmosphere than it used to be. But still, there’s touching and there’s touching. And that’s why we don’t allow nude dancing, because booze and nudity and dancing just don’t mix.”

Latimer has tangled with sticky behavioral problems in the past, most notably when one contingent of swingers tried seducing other club members too explicitly for her tastes. She resolved that crisis, and like the other club leaders, acknowledges the swingers’ continued presence, but insists swinging isn’t an integral part of nudism. “The swingers here don’t proselytize. It’s like behind closed doors. They keep it cool and if you don't want to participate you certainly don’t have to in any way."

The subject of swinging brings up an irresistible question prompted by nudism: What is its relation to expressed sexuality? Ask the nudists, and most say precisely the same thing: nudism, they chorus, is not a sexual experience. “People come out here and they expect to see orgies on the lawn and screwing all over the place. But when you're out here, you just turn it off,” Latimer says adamantly. "Girls look at men and men look at girls, but nothing is ever said. Unless they put on some real sexy outfit — then they get whistles. But not when they’re nude.”

A few notes jar, however. For all Latimer’s emphasis on proprieties, she still charges single women less than half the rate for single men in an effort to balance the sexual ratios. Welder disdains this practice; he says it’s sexist and “prostitutes the women,” yet his own club newsletter overwhelmingly features pictures of female club members in poses bordering on the provocative. Then too, there is the larger, nagging question of why strict social rules (ranging from the prohibition on touching to taboos on erections and women spreading their legs) have been such a constant part of the nudist movement since its inception. If nudism is asexual why the emphasis on avoiding even the mildest forms of sexual stimulation?

To Jack Douglas, a UCSD sociologist who just published a study of San Diego’s nude beach, the answer is elemental. “I don’t think for a moment that people ever learn to disassociate the nude body with sex. At a beach where everyone is clothed and women wear bikinis, nobody in his right mind would deny that he has some sexual feelings," he says. Douglas hypothesizes in his book that the nudist insistence on the healthy “naturalistic ethos” is simply a reaction to societal condemnation of nakedness. The clothes-wearing rule is so rigid in our culture that even while non-nudists may no longer regard nudists as insane, many certainly still regard them as creeps. Given this stigma of sexual perversity, Douglas concludes. “It’s easy to see why our traditional nudists are generally people with a certain religious fervor about ‘the movement’ and why they continue to put out implausible public relations manifestos asserting that sexual feelings normally aroused by sight of the nude body are somehow extinguished in the bright sunshine of the ‘health camps.’ ’’ While Douglas is highly sympathetic to Black’s Beach, and has frequented it (in the nude) for many years, his book dispassionately describes how beach supporters during the recent proposition fight consciously and deliberately distorted the sexual aspects of the beach, particularly for the television cameras.

Douglas' conclusion is not that nude beachers (or traditional nudists) are bad. nor even that the element of sexuality surrounding them is very “heavy” (with the exception of voyeurism), but that instead, sex is a casual leitmotif running through nude social encounters, an element which nonetheless is fundamental to setting up the nude situation in the first place. While Douglas thus de-emphasizes sex, traditional nudists still would dispute his assessment of the vitality of its presence.

But even as venerable a nudist as Ernie Miller can harbor some misgivings about nudist culture. Sitting in his dirty cabin, he mutters that today's nudists don't behave like they did in the old days. “Nowadays, I think they’re coming here just to have a place to go. Like the beach, or Disneyland, or something. In the old days, if you were a nudist, you were there every Sunday. You were committed. Why, they'd come in earmuffs. if necessary.” Miller grouses about other things, too: the general rise in non-marital sex, the decline in the family, the permissiveness with which parents raise their children. Grumpily, he recalls how the old nudist magazines used to airbrush out the genital areas, but publications today no longer trouble with such niceties.

Despite Miller's complaints, he stoutly predicts that nudism will spread throughout society (“in a hundred years or so") and that society will benefit when that happens. He recalls how the early nudists maintained that someday nudist camps would not be necessary, but were needed only to protect nudists from the outside world. Sue Latimer at The Swallows echoes Miller’s optimism about the future. Sure there are setbacks like the Black’s Beach vote, but she points to other simultaneous developments. A Fullerton firm just announced the opening this month of a nudist apartment building in San Bernardino, for example, along with plans to set up such complexes throughout Southern California.

Other nudist observers, like Douglas the sociologist, are more cautious about the future. Douglas argues that “the general public is by no means ready for nude beaches.” Before they become fully accepted, “our fundamental parts of ourselves, our very body feeling, images, and sexual expression will change in important ways.” Only very slowly does he predict a spreading of social nudity. ,

Out at Samagatuma, Welder, the bubbling apologist for nakedness, is the most pessimistic of all. If only people could get the wrong ideas out of their minds, nudism could be accepted everywhere, he says, but the problem is that “large sectors of society exist on perverted nastiness.” There’s another problem too. Welder says. “What people don’t realize is that nudists don't give a damn about what anybody’s body look like. We’ve got a guy here who’s a paraplegic; one woman has had a mastectomy. It doesn't make any difference. But one reason why nudism will never become widespread is that a lot of people just have too much vanity."

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