Deep in the Cleveland National Forest, high above Lake Elsinore on the border of Orange and Riverside counties, there is a winding road called Ortega Highway. Although it is only 40 or so miles from Los Angeles, it feels like another world — this is Trump country, biker bar country, general store country. A couple of turns take you to the entrance of a dirt road, rutted and deserted. An old, vandalized sign indicates that you are entering a place named Mystic Oaks. A short drive down the road, you hit what looks like the entrance to an abandoned camp — chicken-wire gate, a wooden sign for Mystic Oaks, KEEP OUT and BEWARE OF DOG postings. Behind the gates, there is no one, just the remnants of wooden buildings and scurrying lizards. Despite its current foreboding feel, for more than 70 years this secluded camp was the refuge of pioneering nudists who danced, sunbathed and played naked in the dusty sun.
During the interwar period of the last century, the idea of nudism as a protest against modern, urban life flourished in certain progressive circles. “Amid rapid urbanization and the rise of a consumer-oriented economy dominated by giant corporations and white-collar work,” Brian Hoffman writes in Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, “many intellectuals, physical-culture promoters and urban reformers thought that Americans’ increasing disconnection with their natural environment threatened to weaken the nation.”
Hoffman also notes that popular fiction such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan glamorized the rugged, back-to-nature lifestyle. Two nonfiction books also greatly influenced many city-dwelling intellectuals looking for an escape from the stresses and anonymity of city life. According to Hoffman:
Maurice Parmelee’s Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy (1931) and Jan Gay’s On Going Naked (1932) introduced nudism to the United States while also critiquing the modern capitalist economy, promoting sexual freedom, and appealing to emerging gay and lesbian communities. The therapeutic, familial and rural character of nudism sheltered a number of liberal-minded activists who approved of the erotic possibilities of social nudity and advocated for radical change.
Nudist camps began to spring up in rural areas on the East Coast. One of the early converts to the nudist lifestyle was a Syracuse grad named Hobart Glassey and his wife, Lura, a home economics teacher. By the early 1930s, Glassey had worked as a psychologist and assistant director at Camp Olympia, a pioneer nudist retreat in upstate New York. In 1933, the couple — along with investors including an “eccentric Irish born businessman” named Peter McConville — came to Southern California to open their own nudist camp in a more temperate environment.
The group leased a portion of the Rhodes ranch off the Ortega Highway in the Cleveland National Forest. The rudimentary, rustic camp featured two cottages, 10 tents, and no electricity or indoor plumbing. Glassey named the camp Elysian Fields. In May 1933, Elysian Fields officially celebrated its opening weekend. A “select list” of open-minded intellectuals was invited to the festivities. “Most of them were professional men and women, and their families,” Glassey told the Los Angeles Times. “We spent the day talking and playing various games. The only difference between our gathering and the ordinary picnic was that we wore no clothing while out in the open.” He made sure to assure the public that “at mealtime we dressed in conventional shorts.”
News of the colony soon reached the Riverside DA’s office. A few days after it opened, Elysian Fields received a surprise visit from District Attorney Earl Redwine and the local sheriff. The L.A. Times reported:
Bleak winds and a belligerent District Attorney yesterday caused a chill over Elysian Fields, embryonic nudist colony high up on the scenic Ortega Highway nine miles west of Elsinore, and sent three promoters of the strange cult scampering for their trousers and overcoats. The three were all that remained of a little group of eight or ten who gathered Sunday in a tree-lined glen in the old Rhodes Ranch … to woo nature without benefit of clothing. The others, many of them said to have been sun worshippers from Los Angeles, donned their clothing Sunday evening and departed after holding communion for a day with the sun, wind and insects.
Redwine and the sheriff confronted Glassey, Lura and an associate. Glassey held his ground as an angry Redwine berated him:
“We are not operating a nudist colony,” Glassey assertedly told officials, “but a secluded vacation center where people may go naked — there is a distinction.”
“If there’s a distinction, it’s too fine for my legal mind,” Redwine retorted. “You can commune with nature all you want as long as you wear some clothes. Otherwise, there’ll be no colony. Riverside County won’t stand for nudism.”
The district attorney returned for another surprise visit a few days later. After threatening Glassey that the nudists would be “thrown in jail every day of the week, if I find anyone here without proper clothing,” Glassey promised that everyone at Elysian Fields would be required to wear “shorts, sweaters or bathing suits.”
But Glassey had no intention of following through with his promise, well aware that the district attorney did not have a legal leg to stand on. Throughout the summer of 1933, the Glasseys and their naked guests kept a low profile. In July, he sent a defiant letter to columnist Ed Ainsworth declaring that the camp was “fully open for business.” Furthermore, Glassey wrote: “Elysia is a half a mile off the Ortega Highway and is reached by a government road which is closed to the public by federal authorities. No one excepting those having business with the inhabitants of the area may travel this road without being subject to fine or 'imprisonment or both.'”
The Glasseys also went around authorities and began building positive relationships with their neighbors. They donated to local charities and participated in community events. In time, Glassey found his rural neighbors “uniformly well-disposed and cordial” and believed the “position of Elysia secure in the community.” Soon, the district attorney had even backed off his fight. “He is clever,” Ed Ainsworth wrote of Glassey. “Look how he squelched the wild-eyed opposition which he aroused at first in Riverside County. When he started the Elysian Fields, there was a roar of protest from citizens and officials. But that has all quieted down.”
The scandalous stories of the nudist camp still titillated the masses, and soon Hollywood came calling. That year, a former child actor named Bryan Foy was looking to get into the directing and producing game. “We finally decided we’d just put everybody on the screen naked; maybe then we’d do some business,” he recalled years later. Soon, Foy and his rag-tag crew descended on Elysian Fields and began filming their fictional “health film” about a reporter who comes to a nudist colony a skeptic and leaves a convert. A (clothed) Glassey made an appearance, giving a wild-eyed lecture, in front of a campfire, about the benefits of nudism. In November 1933, Elysia: Valley of the Nudes premiered at T.L. Tally’s Criterion Theater in Los Angeles. The film critic for the L.A. Times was not impressed:
Attempting in all seriousness to set forth the theories of the nudist cult, but often unconsciously comical, Elysia, photographed purportedly at a certain famous undress camp near Elsinore, seemed to be drawing audiences largely of men yesterday at Tally’s Criterion Theater. What excuse of entertainment it aims to offer is difficult to conjecture, outside of arousing a prurient curiosity on the part of some beholder. … It lives up to its reputation of showing what goes on in a nudist camp, mostly in long shots, but with just enough close-ups thrown in to justify some attention from proper authorities who are concerned with moral issues, especially so far as these may concern younger people. … The curiosity concerning nudist camps may be satisfied by a view of it, but the benefits (sic!) may be seriously questioned, even though the nudist cult is solemnly described as justifiable during several very lecture-y interludes.
These “lecture-y interludes” included many pseudo-scientific claims, such as “exposure of the body to the sun was absolutely necessary to recuperate and build up the flesh,” and “the American Indian never caught colds until the white man put clothes on him.” There were shots of nudists playing football, baseball, sunbathing and eating in the nude, as well as disturbing master-race undertones about staying fit enough to “outdo the savage at any sort of game.”
Temporary bans were placed on the film in Los Angeles and other American cities. Elysia caused such a stir in Puerto Rico that it was banned in the entire country. President Ricardo Jimenez Oreamuno even issued a statement: “If nude men and women appeared in the streets of San Jose, the police would have to restrain them. Possibly these nude men and women would have only pure ideas, good thoughts and the best intentions, but they could not be permitted in the streets. For the same reason, we cannot permit the appearance of people in the same state before the public in theaters.”
While Elysia scandalized the clothed masses, the nudists were on the move. In 1934, Glassey and his investors bought a secluded piece of land further up the Ortega Highway and moved the camp — which had become more commonly called Elysia — there. The land was located in both Riverside and Orange counties. A reporter for the L.A. Times found Glassey outside, hard at work at the new colony, and asked if the purchase of land in two counties had been a mistake:
We did not ‘inadvertently’ purchase land partly in Orange County,” began Glassey as he wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned on the long end of a shovel. “It was purchased with full knowledge of the fact it was partly in Orange County and partly in Riverside County. As a matter of fact, the thought that such an arrangement might be of value in receiving district attorneys and sheriff’s squads was one of the reasons why the land was purchased. … If relations became strained — and I sincerely hope they do not — we could play hide-and-seek with the unwelcome visitors. While the Riverside officers were seeking on their side of the line, we could be hiding on the Orange Country side, and vice versa.
In the same interview, the reporter commented that California governor James Rolph had been hesitant in accepting Glassey’s invitation to visit Elysia, fearing he would have to get naked. Glassey stated they would consider extending the same privileges to the governor that they did to the press. “We possibly would allow him to wear a pair of shorts.”
Construction continued at the new camp — a mess hall, recreation hall, sleeping quarters and commissary were built. A nudist newspaper was started. The newly incorporated “Fraternity Elysia” boasted 200 members, who had privileges to visit the camp. During summertime, Glassey claimed about 75 people were daily at the camp, while the number plummeted to half a dozen during the winter. “Being a nudist calls for intellectual discrimination,” Glassey explained. “In the winter there isn’t so much disrobing.”
But all was not rosy at the colony. In the spring of 1934, swarming bees put a definite cramp in the nudists’ style. “Director Glassey,” the L.A. Times reported, “opined that bees are annoying in any settlement, but in a nudist colony where people remove their clothes, the surface of attack is many times increased and the defender is greatly handicapped by aerial assaults from all directions at one time.”
In October, a fire occurred after a suspicious explosion in the commissary, wiping out many of the camp’s newly built structures. By early 1935, a growing rift over control of Elysia between Glassey and Pete McConville — the colony’s business manager — split the camp into warring factions and spilled into the press.
“Either Glassey or I must go,” McConville told the L.A. Times. The Glasseys, with one infant and another child on the way, increasingly spent more time in Los Angeles. But Glassey claimed that he was still in charge, and that McConville was doing a poor job as financial manager.
In the end, it appears McConville either bought or forced the Glasseys out of Elysia and took charge. The Glasseys seem to have retained control of the “Fraternity Elysia” and would go on to set up a new nudist camp at La Tuna Canyon in Sun Valley.
A new era began. In 1938, McConville allowed Unashamed: A Romance, another “health film,” to shoot at Elysia — he even played a gamekeeper. With the departure of the brash, publicity-savvy Glassey, the small nudist colony operated increasingly under the radar. McConville eventually changed the camp’s name from Elysia to Olympian Fields.
By the 1950s, McConville was getting older, in ill health and living in a small trailer on the property. Around that time Wally Nilson, a grizzled Navy photographer, and his wife, Flora (known as Flo), began to visit the camp. “I was nervous at first,” Flo remembered, “but [I] found it so uplifting, the most natural thing in the world.” In 1954, the Nilsons bought the camp and became McConville’s loving caretakers until he died in 1959.
The Nilsons renamed the camp McConville in his honor. They raised their children in the nude at the colony, and added many resort style improvements — a bathhouse, swimming pool and tennis courts. After the couple divorced in the late 1970s, the quirky, perennially tanned Flo, who liked to say of nudist naysayers, “if they haven't seen what God has shaped, let them stand and gape,” retained ownership of the 129-acre camp. Throughout the decades, McConville boasted a steady but small membership. Residents were well liked in the community — even bowling in the nude at a local bowling alley every week. In 1997, a reporter toured McConville on a golf cart with Flo’s son, Ole, and his wife, Gale:
We drive to the main office, filled with photo albums and reference books such as “California's Nude Beaches, the Clothes-Free/Hassle-Free Guide.” A bumper sticker reads: “Happiness is … no tan lines.” Ole and Gale Nilson are typical of the resort's 150 members: thin and gloriously tan, neither beautiful nor ugly, creeping into their late 40s. Imagine giving a speech to a typical PTA, calming yourself by picturing the audience nude. That's McConville … from playing games to sitting around the campfire, members appear completely unself-conscious, completely nonsexual …There's even the annual “Night of Elegance,” a formal dinner celebration. “We get dressed up without getting dressed up,” Ole says. “Bow ties only, that kind of thing.”
But the era of nudism as a radical statement and the camp’s lack of amenities, including electricity, caused membership to decline. In 2000, Flo renamed the camp Mystic Oaks, and changed the camp from strictly nude to nude optional. However, membership continued to sink. In 2007, Mystic Oaks closed, and with it the dreams of an unabashed Eden.
“For 53 years, it was quite a religious experience, chasing sunshine and health,” Flo Nilson said at the time. “Now it's over.”