Deep in the naked prairies of the heartland, hidden in the rolling cornfields of rural Illinois, there’s a place of local legend.
If you stumble upon it, you’ll find everyday Americans. Midwesterners and coastals. Lawyers and truck drivers. Farmers and nurses. The elderly and the very young.
“We’re no different than everyone else,” said resident Irma Huebner. “We just like to have our clothes off.”
At Blue Lake Resort, a nudist campground in Erie, nudism is a tradition and way of life.
The member-based park is a summer getaway for outdoor recreation and a secret refuge from the rigidness of modern life. It’s a place for personal liberation, a perfect spot for sunbathing, a one-time stop on a whim or a dare.
But Blue Lake isn’t a sex colony, a peep show or an outdoor orgy. It’s family-friendly, and there are rules.
“We don’t tolerate any lewd behavior or behavior that makes people feel uncomfortable,” explained Chuck Jester, the resort’s general manager. “There’s a lot of people who think nudism and sex are the same. They’re not.”
The bare facts
Founded in 1972, Blue Lake Resort has about 200 members from all walks of life. The modest 66-acre grounds are rimmed by trees. At the center is a chlorinated lake next to a central clubhouse, a volleyball court and sprawling lawns filled with campers and trailer homes.
Blue Lake’s season extends from May through early October. Membership starts at $296, and day passes are available for $30.
The campground, two miles southeast of Erie, also has a handful of motel rooms available for overnight guests. Visitors can pay a nightly fee to stay in their campers, RVs or tents.
Blue Lake recently transitioned to new management. Past owners discouraged publicity, but the new owners are intent on engaging with the public and encouraging outsiders to explore nudism.
The camp thrives on a casual, cordial vibe that welcomes first-time visitors. Still, staffers make sure all guests follow another ground rule: Clothes are not allowed.
“We’re nudist, not clothing-optional,” Jester said. “When the weather is nice, you’re expected to be nude.”
There are exceptions. While menstruating, women can wear bottoms. Clothing also comes on when the weather gets cold. “We’re nudists, not stupid,” Jester said.
For the sake of hygiene and sanitation, people always use towels to sit on. As a result, towels are prized objects. The winners of a hotly contested volleyball tournament receive embroidered ones.
First-time visitors arrive with anxieties. For example, some men worry they will become aroused. But Blue Lake is a highly desexualized space. Staff have had to escort out problematic guests, though that rarely happens.
What visitors and longtime members stressed is not the resort’s eccentricity but its normalcy. As the Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum once wrote, “Nudity quickly becomes unremarkable when generally practiced.”
Like the summer camps depicted in the movies “Dirty Dancing” and “The Parent Trap,” Blue Lake Resort has all the hallmarks of a summer hideaway: a pool-like lake, a deck for sunbathing, potluck dinners, barbecues, game nights, sports, athletic contests and more.
Blue Lake Resort receives a fair share of first-timers who are curious about the nudist community but often wary. “We don’t ask a lot of questions,” Jester said of newcomers. “We tend to answer questions.”
Nudism, also known as naturism, is a social equalizer bar none. Underneath high-end designer clothes or $3 mass-made shirts, everyone wears a birthday suit. It’s the one outfit owned by both the uber-rich and the dirt poor alike.
“When you take your clothes off, you’re all the same,” Jester said.
The oldest taboo
If there is a dominant doctrine of belief at Blue Lake Resort, it is live-and-let-live libertarianism.
Before moving to Blue Lake Resort in 2001, Irma Huebner lived in Camanche, Iowa, a small town where her family’s nudism wasn’t always consonant with Midwestern sensibilities.
“At the front of our house we had a sign about how we answer the door nude, and if that bothers you, don’t bother us,” Huebner recalled.
As a nudist parent who raised children with nudist principles, Huebner saw how tolerance of the human body taught her family respect for all people, regardless of the form, color or size of their fleshy figures.
“They accept people as they are,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with the human body.”
Guests at Blue Lake Resort tend to be in their 60s, staff said. Their bodies are as different as their lived experiences. War veterans bear injuries or scars. Others show the results of having undergone mastectomies or orchiectomies.
Blue Lake’s golden rule is tolerance. By overcoming the stigma of nudity in a safe, non-judgmental space, other stigmas can be met and overcome.
“This is not a place just for Ken and Barbie dolls,” Jester said.
More than a fad
Every nudist has an origin story. Some were raised in permissive homes and have been comfortable with nakedness since childhood. Others came to nudism in middle age or later.
Jester, 73, realized he didn’t much like clothing as a 10-year-old. His first adult experience with nudism came around 1985 at the nudist Black’s Beach in San Diego. “It just felt free,” he remembered.
Before retiring in 2009, he worked as an engineer and customer service manager. His job was stressful, and he said he vividly remembers the feeling of relief he felt visiting Blue Lake for the first time in 1993.
“When I came through the gate, it felt like a load was taken off,” he said.
For Huebner, the full-time resident at Blue Lake, early adventures in nudism involved skinny-dipping with her husband and their friends.
Since joining in 1983, she has seen Blue Lake become more popular each year, reflecting the growing acceptance of nudism nationally.
Since the beginning of the American nudist movement in the 1930s, naturists have struggled to distance themselves from accusations of sexual deviancy or pornography, according to "Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism," by Brian Hoffman.
To avoid public scrutiny, nudists retreated to quasi-public cults and camps. Their ranks swelled during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Blue Lake was founded in 1972.
The resort belongs to the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR), a Florida-based nonprofit with dozens of affiliated clubs and resorts across the United States. Estimates vary as to the size of the naturist community. The AANR, which has roots dating to 1931, has served 213,000 individuals, according to its website.
Nude beaches remain popular with Americans and Europeans. In France, a country with an estimated 2.6 million nudists, naturism is booming.
In the U.S. heartland, nudism has had a slower launch. Blue Lake Resort is AANR’s only club in Illinois, according to the organization’s map.
Jester, who is a signatory of the “Nudists’ Bill of Rights,” a 10-item declaration of nudist prerogatives, said that Blue Lake visitors come from all over, but mostly are from the Chicago area, the Quad-Cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Even though resort leaders aren’t worried about membership growth and retention, they’ve been around long enough to see longtime friends get too old to return, or die.
A few years back, a group of young women from the University of Iowa dropped in for the day. “Coming to a place like this was on their bucket list,” Jester explained.
He could have charged them the day fee. Instead, he waived the expense, asking only that they spread the word to their friends at school with the hope of bringing in more young people.
Ultimately, as with any community, the longevity of Blue Lake Resort will depend on the next generation of nudists and nudism dabblers.
Jester thinks others outside the community would benefit from an experience at the campground.
“Anyone can stay here,” he said. “My goal here is for people to be happy.”