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.
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.
On a cold April morning, Knapp, Hilbig, and their small group of followers left the city for the new camp, christened “Elysia Garden.” That afternoon, along the shores of Mirror Lake, the camp was officially opened. The local sheriff was also on hand, and he chatted briefly with Hilbig before the group undraped. The Journal ran a photo of Knapp climbing a tree in the bare, a large branch obscuring most of his body.
A few months later, the press returned to cover what they considered to be one of the oddest weddings Wisconsin had ever seen: A Milwaukee man and a woman from Amarillo, Texas, were joined in matrimony in a small ceremony, wearing nothing more than their wedding bands. Reverend H. Perry Ward, of the Liberal Church of Chicago, officiated in a small goatskin.
Unlike the dedication ceremony, where reporters were allowed to remain dressed, those reporting on the wedding were required to strip down. Still, several Milwaukee newspaper men covered the event, noting that camp members both photographed the service and made sound movies.
Small items about the camp made news throughout 1934. Hilbig was dubbed, “Milwaukee’s No. 1 Nudist” and Knapp predicted that soon, 15-20 nudist camps would be established across the state. But while the movement did attract a small following, it also drew detractors. One letter-writer to the Journal said, “Let us hope Max Hilbig can attract all the nudists in the world to Mirror Lake and we also hope he will build an electrified fence around the place with an entrance but no exit.”
Elysia Garden would not survive long, but the movement that birthed it would survive. 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.