I can’t say this is surprising, but then nothing really is anymore:
Milwaukeeans needed distraction during the Great Depression. Urbanism, it seemed, was failing them. The great brick and mortar works that had once powered the city were quieting and people were growing desperate and questioning things they had never before questioned.
So, in the spring of 1934, when Dr. Alois Knapp arrived in Milwaukee promising to build a state-wide movement back to nature — and out of clothing — people paid attention.
Knapp was an Austrian. He had trained as a priest, but found the law more intriguing. He and his brother left their homeland between the World Wars and settled on a huge plot of Indiana farmland. Finding Americans to be a people in desperate need of a relaxing and affordable means of escape from the speed of modern life, he transformed 180 acres of the land into a nature resort. At Knapp’s resort, dubbed “Zorro Nature Camp,” clothing was forbidden, bringing to the US the long-established European practice of nudism.
Which seems quirky, since Zorro, aka Don Diego de la Vega, had only just been created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley. Then again, the Zorro stories were set in pre-Gold Rush, Spanish-speaking California, about as unMilwaukeelike a place as was imaginable.
Knapp found a following in both Indiana and across the Midwest. In Milwaukee, a local man named Max Hilbig became such a devotee of Knapp that he pledged 100 acres of land in Sauk County to establish Wisconsin’s first-ever nudist camp. Knapp came to Milwaukee in April 1934 to dedicate the camp and drum up support for his cause.
Upon arriving in the city, Knapp and a handful of his Zorro Camp members appeared as the Gayety Theater on N. Third Street to deliver a lecture on the benefits of nudism. Before he spoke, the Milwaukee Police Department’s morals squad paid him in a visit in his hotel room, evidently to inform him of the city statutes against indecent performances.
The local media was quite amused with the doctor and his practices. Visiting him in the lobby of Belmont Hotel, they reported that he had indeed attracted a small group of followers, all of whom, it was noted, were fully dressed, as was the doctor. Although not a medical doctor (he declined to say which kind he was), Knapp extolled the many benefits of nudism. He said the practice helped Germany to rebuild after the war, cutting down on juvenile delinquency and “moral irregularities.”
“Nudism is not nakedness,” he told the Milwaukee Journal. “Poise [and] firmness of tissue reveal character. Complete freedom is hard to acquire under the impediment of clothes.” He even declared that nudism would lead to the end of war. The generals, he said, would have no place to pin their medals.
Germany, in fact, did get its first officially-sanctioned nude beach in 1920, though the Third Reich would have none of that and banned the still-newish FKK movement. Nazis weren’t a problem in Wisconsin, but ordinary citizens were annoyed, and said so, with the results you’d likely expect:
By the spring of 1935, Milwaukee nudists had joined with the brand-new Wisconsin Nudists Association and expected their membership numbers to spike that summer. Having abandoned the Sauk County camp, the group had acquired a small plot of wooded land.
They refused to divulge its location.
I know not what became of the Association, but there remains a Nudists of Wisconsin page on Facebook.