In the 1950s, a grade school classmate told me there was a nudist camp in Berkshire County. I thought I would never go to such a place, but as a preteen, I have to admit, I was curious.
Of course, when I got a driver’s license, I just had to find this camp. I took some friends, and we did find it in nearby Hancock, up a long dirt road off Route 43. However, the fully clad owner, very accustomed to voyeuristic teens, turned us back before we got very far. We learned the naked members were out of vision, over a hill.
In the 1980s, while in my 40s and visiting Pittsfield, I decided to revisit this camp. I found a number of mobile homes on the grounds and, yes, there were some older naked folks in the distance. I was invited to come in for a tour, but it turned out I was not quite ready to “remove my duds,” and so I politely declined the invitation.
How did a nudist camp end up in the Berkshires so long ago?
The camp, called Birch Acres, was opened in 1955 by a 44-year-old bookkeeper from Nassau, N.Y., named Hiram Hart. He had become a nudist after serving in the Navy during World War II. Both Hiram and his wife were active in the American Sunbathing Association, which is now known as the American Association of Nude Recreation.
The couple wanted to create an ASA-affiliated camp for those who wanted to be close to nature, where individuals and families could relax, sunbathe and feel free to be in the nude. The Harts acquired the historic 128-acre Kittle Farm, with a 1771 farmhouse, located in Hancock. The town granted permits to open the camp, approving the owners’ plans to have a swimming pool, tennis courts and other outdoor sports.
Birch Acres began with annual membership fees of $50 for a family and a bit more for individuals. It mostly drew members from Massachusetts and the adjoining states who were typically couples in their 30s with one or two children. By the second year of operation, the membership reached 70 adults, with 30 children, and many of the families spent weekends or entire summers staying in the farmhouse or in tents.
Some members eventually built cabins or brought in mobile homes, with the understanding the land belonged to the Harts. The owners moved there full time in 1961. Hiram loved to ski in the winter, often in the nude. In the 1970s, Birch Acres also hosted several conventions and open houses that drew as many as 300 visitors at a time.
In 1977, the Harts sold a major interest in the camp to Richard Wadlegger, a 32-year-old General Electric Co. engineer originally from North Adams. The deal would permit the Harts to live on the property the rest of their lives.
But, in 1985, complaints by the Harts about Wadlegger to the IRS, and also to the state, over environmental issues led to court battles between the two parties. The Harts were forced to move elsewhere, leaving their Birch Acres “baby” behind.
They relocated to Florida, where they lived their lives stress free. Hiram died in 2002, at age 91.
With bank loans, Wadlegger made considerable improvements to the property, but then had continuous financial and legal problems. Beginning in 1977, he had begun a legal battle with the owners of a 350-acre farm adjoining Birch Acres.
I recalled passing this farm on my drive up in the 1980s and was surprised to see some long-haired horned Scottish cattle. The farm, known as Wandak, was dedicated to raising rare breeds of farm animals and giving them the same sense of freedom that Birch Acres gave to nude sunbathers.
In addition to the cattle, there were unusual sheep, poultry, potbellied pigs, ponies, a burro, and many cats and dogs. Too often, the animals made it through old fences and frequented the nudist camp, leaving “manure muffins” and other droppings.
In 1990, Wanda Halten, the 33-year-old daughter of the original owners — and a single mother — was in charge of the Wandak Farm. Wadlegger and Halten could not deal with each other amicably, and several court battles ensued over the unwelcome animals.
Halten was unable to meet fines and court costs that mounted to over $30,000. She had mortgaged the property, but in 1992 the farm went into foreclosure, auctioned off and taken over by the bank. (Halten still farms in Canaan, N.Y.)
In 1991, Wadlegger also ran into serious trouble when sewage was found to be leaking into a brook, killing fish and reaching the nearby farm animals. In addition, the camp’s taxes were in arrears. Wadlegger was unable to file for bankruptcy, but did delay foreclosure several times. Eventually, Birch Acres was auctioned off for $220,000 in early 1994.
The buyers of Birch Acres were Daniel Bookstein, a former aerospace engineer, and his wife, Virginia, an accountant, who had lived in West Stockbridge since 1984. Neither was a nudist but felt this was a great property with views of Jiminy Peak and much potential for a retirement venture for the couple, then in their 50s.
The good news for nudists was that the Booksteins not only decided to keep it a nudist resort, but would make many improvements. The couple initially named their retreat Renaissance Resorts, but another entity had a similar name. The name became Berkshire Vista.
Upgrades included new electrical lines, sewage improvements, 150 RV sites, rehab of the farmhouse, new tennis courts, solar power to heat the pool, improving the bar and food areas and much more.
The Booksteins (as well as this writer) are not known to be nudists but enjoy their clientele. As some say, they have made lemonade out of lemons and have kept a popular nudist camp going in the little town of Hancock for over 65 years.