Bernard A. Drew: The early 20th century Otis retreat where clothing was optional | Columnists

The Wikipedia entry for Henry Strong Huntington Jr. (1882-1981) oddly lists as one of his references my book “Henry Knox and the Revolutionary War Trail in Western Massachusetts” (McFarland, 2012).

Yes, the two-sentence book refers to Burgoyne Trail Associates, the nudist colony promoted by Huntington at Otis in the 1930s. But only because the name was historically wrong; Captured British General John Burgoyne did not follow the Knox Trail from Albany to Boston in 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga. Instead, he traveled through central Berkshire County.

I can tell you, from research I did in the 1980s, that Huntington, from Scarsdale, NY, became intrigued by the concept of social nudism after twice visiting camps in Europe. He edited The Nudist magazine. He purchased 350 acres in Otis and Sandisfield from Fred Preston in 1933. It was the former homestead of Captain Isaac Norton, later the country home of Connecticut Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles M. Robinson. Huntington invited friends to join him and his wife, Edith, in enjoying the sunshine.

Andy Morandi, who ran the Otis Hotel at the time, once told me that club members stayed at the old red farmhouse. They were playing tennis or taking a walk.

“I don’t think there were ever more than a dozen or 15 people there,” he said.

Guests, Charles Humason said years ago, visited his store. “He and his wife were very nice, they came first, then the others at the weekend.” Townspeople took it all in stride, he said. “Everything was posted, you weren’t supposed to go.”

Her sister-in-law, Thelma Humason, said: ‘I was working at the store at the time. When we delivered groceries there, we had to call first and we had to ring a big bell at the entrance.

Some snuck out to watch. William Tacy, of Lee, said: “They would be out there naked, playing tennis or volleyball or swimming in the pool.” One July 4th, he and some young buddies for a bit of sport set off firecrackers near the camp.

Eileen Brennan from Sheffield told me she went to Burgoyne Trail Associates when she was 9 years old. “My father was a psychiatrist, my mother a psychologist. They went there for seminars while us kids were running around outside. We went there until I was about 12 years old.

“One of the best times I had there was a day when we went to pick blueberries, not raspberries.

“Nudism is fantasized about being sexy, but once you were there, it wasn’t,” she said. “And we all got dressed for dinner. There were certain ways.

Della Markham, as the camp cook, kept her apron and other clothing properly buttoned and zipped.

The press tried to create controversy. “Otis Township will be overrun with nudist worship over the summer,” the Boston Globe headlined in an article.

Burgoyne Trail Associates rep Tisley Boone told The North Adams Transcript that there were no nudist camps at the Otis settlement; it was more of a health center with sunbeds. “The use of the word ‘nudist’, as it is generally accepted by society, is entirely wrong and misrepresents us. It is true that there will be sun and air bathing according to the most approved principles,” he said.

State police said they would not visit the heavily wooded camp unless there was some sort of unrest. Officers apparently abducted two intoxicated trespassers on one occasion.

Camp attendance has declined. It didn’t help when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wanted to expand its state forest, near the civilian conservation camp, near Upper Spectacle Pond, with land just west of the settlement.

Huntington continued the ultra-tanner’s retreat until at least 1941 – “Cheerfulness is gained by going without clothes”, he insisted – but he too lost interest.

The property became Camp Sequena, a summer facility operated by the Connecticut Trails Council of Girl Scouts of America. In 1972 it was converted into the Otis Wood Lands holiday home development.

A few years ago, Donna and I hiked part of the abandoned Knox Trail from the old CCC campsite at Upper Spectacle Pond East and took a trail that brought us to the edge of the subdivision. We also did the loop around the Wood Lands. No ghost haunted the place; everyone wore clothes.


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