Indiana Daily Student

No shirt, no shorts, no shame: inside Bloomington’s decades-old nudist club

<p>The sign for Fern Hills Club is pictured. From young children to retirees, the club serves as a vacation spot and communal living space for practicing nudists in south central Indiana.</p>

The sign for Fern Hills Club is pictured. From young children to retirees, the club serves as a vacation spot and communal living space for practicing nudists in south central Indiana.

There aren’t many places you can find a judge, a lawyer, a doctor and a preacher gathered together. Not unless it’s a particularly noteworthy occasion. 

But lounging by the pool on a lazy summer afternoon at the Fern Hills Club in southern Bloomington, you just might see all four — without a stitch of clothing on any of them. 

For nearly 75 years, Fern Hills has served as a vacation spot and communal living space for practicing nudists in south central Indiana. Its membership spans from young children to retirees. In between are working adults from a wide variety of professions, including those in the courtroom, the clinic and the clergy.

Aside from the obvious exception, Fern Hills operates like any other campground. There are cabins, hiking trails, recreational sports and regular social events, all cocooned in a dense forest that offers privacy and respite from the stressors of everyday life.

“Once you go through the gate, it’s like the outside world just fades away,” Fern Hills co-owner and treasurer Karen Bauer said. 

Bauer doesn’t know exactly how to explain what draws people to nudism. It’s been part of her life almost as long as she can remember. Her parents, Manford and Betty Ripple, joined Fern Hills in 1966 and helped manage it until purchasing it 10 years later.

She was six years old when her parents first took her to the club. They bought a trailer and cleaned out a space on the grounds where Bauer and her sisters would spend most of their summers.

Bauer doesn’t remember that initial visit, but the family story tells of Manford having to persuade a reluctant Betty to go. Betty felt too skinny, too uncomfortable to be around other people unclothed.

After she and Manford divorced in 1991, Betty ran the club until she died 11 years later. 

“She turned out to be the one that absolutely loved it and never wanted to leave,” Bauer said of her mother.

The inside of the clubhouse at Fern Hills Club is pictured. The club has several cabins, a pool and playgrounds around the site. Courtesy Photo

Since 2003, Bauer has co-owned and operated the club with her sisters, each of whom has maintained a full-time job while managing the resort. When Bauer isn’t handling Fern Hills’ finances, she works at her husband Jawn’s law practice downtown. 

Jawn graduated from the Indiana University School of Law in 1981 with a Juris Doctor degree and has provided legal counsel for several nudist organizations, including Fern Hills. He said although nudist clubs have historically faced scrutiny from certain political and religious groups, for the most part nobody beyond the front gate pays them any attention.

“We're not gonna bother you if you don't bother us,” Jawn said. “You do what you want. As long as it doesn't infringe on us, we don't care.”

That’s been Fern Hills’ policy ever since 1947, when pioneering nudists Vernon and Marie Smith inherited an 83-acre plot of hardwood forest from Vernon’s father. They hoped to transform the secluded valley into an idyllic retreat for fellow family-oriented nudists.

When the Smiths officially opened their resort, they noted the rich green foliage decorating the basin’s slopes. Fern Hills had its name.

They dug a large hole in the ground, lined it with asphalt shingles and filled it with water. The resulting inground pool was the club’s flagship attraction. As more nudists flocked to Fern Hills, the Smiths built cabins in which members could spend quick weekends or entire seasons.

In 1948, they received accreditation from the American Sunbathing Association, now known as the American Association for Nude Recreation. Since 1931, AANR has existed to promote nude recreation and protect nudist rights through education and lobbying, according to its website. 

It offers several resources for nudist organizations, from club discounts and brand marketing to legal aid. It even publishes articles with everyday tips for nudists like how to garden and cook safely when thorns or hot splatters are a concern.

Jawn said above all, AANR’s mission is promoting the wholesome, familial nature of nudism and countering the perception that it is inherently sexual.

“It’s not about sexuality,” he said. “It's just about enjoying nature in a way that's fun.”

Nevertheless, Fern Hills takes several measures to ensure new visitors and existing members feel safe being around others unclothed. Karen said she and her sisters are extremely cautious of who they let in, a practice that began with Marie Smith in the club’s earliest days.

That means making sure they know the names of everyone on the grounds, conducting background checks on incoming visitors and monitoring multiple visits before granting membership. On rare occasions, it means asking people to leave when they simply don’t fit in. 

Jawn and Karen both said one of the most common concerns they hear from prospective members is the issue of arousal. 

“We get young men who say, ‘Well, how’s it not sexual?’” Karen said. “‘How do I control myself?’”

Jawn said that if someone asks him this question, then Fern Hills definitely is not for them.

“If you get aroused, you don’t need to be here,” he said. “That means you’re too immature or unable to separate the sexuality versus the nudism. And until you can do that, don’t knock on the gate.”

Regardless of how often it surfaces as a concern, Karen said arousal is rarely an issue. She credits it to the atmosphere the members at Fern Hills have carefully cultivated over the years. 

The club has limits on the number of single people it admits, and it doesn’t allow married men to come without their spouses. Intimate public contact and suggestive behavior are strictly prohibited, and guests are required to carry a personal towel to sit on when nude. 

The primary reason Fern Hills is so strict about its policies is to preserve a safe environment for children, Karen said. Both she and Jawn believe children can benefit from a community that teaches them to appreciate the human body in all its shapes and sizes.

“They are out exploring, and asking and looking,” Jawn said. “They’re grown up to respect the body, to understand the body, to know that not all bodies are absolutely perfect.”

Throughout her childhood, Karen never felt ashamed despite many of her neighbors knowing the Ripples were nudists. 

“I knew there was nothing wrong with it,” she said. “I was proud to be a nudist.”

In January 1981, Karen began working at the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office. She spent her free time running, cycling and playing volleyball at the local YMCA.

Even after entering the workforce, Karen was never afraid to tell people she was a nudist. Most of her friends were immediately supportive once they found out, and some of them even accepted an invitation to Fern Hills and ended up loving it. 

Perhaps no one was more accepting of Karen than Jawn.

In the fall of 1982, Jawn began a part-time job at the prosecutor’s office. There, he recognized a familiar face he was used to seeing on the volleyball court at the YMCA.

As the volleyball-adversaries-turned-colleagues grew closer, often joining each other on runs and bike rides, Karen decided she had to tell Jawn she was a nudist. She was never going to be able to be with someone who didn’t accept it.

Three years later, they were married.

When he met Karen, Jawn was no stranger to nudism. During his time at IU, he and his friends often swam naked at Griffy Lake or the quarries. He said throughout the course of a hot summer, he would share the water with hundreds of fellow skinny dippers.

While Jawn realizes social nudism may seem odd to outsiders, it always seemed perfectly natural to him. It was comfortable, liberating.

“Not having to wear clothing is very, very fun,” he said. 

He’s consistently shocked by the moral judgments passed on nudity, particularly in media. Mature language, violence and drug abuse are prominent in American television and film, but a female breast?

“By God, it’s the end of the world,” Jawn said. “My gosh, really? Come on, it’s just a breast and a nipple — we all have ‘em.”

During his skinny dipping days, Jawn identified as a novice nudist but hadn’t considered affiliating with any organization. That changed shortly after he met Karen.

Throughout the 1980s, he appeared in court numerous times to testify on behalf of AANR-accredited resorts across the nation. He said the anti-nudist push was strongest then, with state legislatures seeking to apply the same penalties and regulations to nudist resorts as adult nightclubs.

Back in Bloomington, Jawn would dole out legal advice to Karen’s mother while she ran Fern Hills. As soon as Karen introduced him to the Ripple family business, he completely bought in. 

“This is a family-run camp,” Jawn said. “These sisters grew up there and it’s important to them. It’s a labor of love.”

He isn’t the only one who sees the love Karen and her sisters put into Fern Hills. It’s the same reason local retiree Teri Starns decided to stick around Fern Hills when she visited three years ago. 

After years of waiting for the right time to explore nudism, Starns and her husband sampled a few clubs in southern Indiana. They ultimately settled on Fern Hills because of the familial environment Karen and her sisters had created. 

The Starnses now live at the resort most of the year and consider themselves full-time nudists. Their favorite activities include attending concerts and going on golf cart rides through the woods after dark.

One of the first things Starns noticed at Fern Hills was that everyone made eye contact with each other. 

“You’re not checking out somebody’s pants, because they’re not wearing any,” she said.

The Starnses consider themselves fun and open-minded people, and their grandson refers to them as “hippie naturists.” Still, Starns understands nearly everyone has insecurities about their bodies. 

“There’s no body shaming going on here,” she said. “You’re gonna get all different shapes and sizes and weights of people, and everybody’s just kind of accepted for who they are.”

An outdoor playground at Fern Hills Club is pictured. Nudists have gathered at the club since 1947. Courtesy Photo

Fern Hills will officially reopen for the summer season Memorial Day. Nudists of drastically different ages, body types and occupations will arrive with towels and plenty of sunscreen in tow.

As for why those visitors come, neither Starns nor the Bauers came to a complete consensus. They only have their suspicions.

Starns thinks people at Fern Hills connect in ways they don’t in the outside world. Karen said sometimes people just need a break from life to take their clothes off and enjoy the sunshine. 

Jawn suggested the simple pleasure of not wearing clothes might be enough — enough to convince a judge, a lawyer, a doctor and a preacher to spend an afternoon naked by a pool together. If not, he has a slightly more complex theory.

“It's a breakdown of pretense,” he said. “It's a breakdown of society divisions and society classifications. It’s amazing how the barriers are broken down.”

Then again, maybe it really is just fun to be naked.

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