In honor of National Nude Day today, we are dialing the wayback machine to the late 1970’s, to revisit North Palm Beach’s former, though unofficial, clothing optional beach.
At the time, a nearly two-mile stretch of untouched beach hammock in North Palm Beach was known as Air Force Beach. Then part of insurance billionaire John D. MacArthur’s vast north county holdings; today it’s MacArthur State Park.
The name dates back to the Korean War in the early 1950’s when the county’s beaches were segregated but the Air Force needed a place to train black and white servicemen together, according to the Palm Beach County Historical Society. The fly boys chose this beach, which at the time was a remote spot on the north end of Singer Island.
MacArthur, who at one time owned most of northern Palm Beach County and plenty of Martin County as well, bought the land but didn’t develop it or care who made the long, hot trek through the sea grapes to visit it.
Some probably apocryphal stories say the crusty billionaire relished a skinny dip himself, including one once with a visiting Walt Disney. (Other stories say that MacArthur and Disney did strip down to swim once, but the incident occurred in a rock pit while the men were scouting property. Other versions of the story say the men jumped in the Intracoastal in their boxer shorts. In the 1960’s, Disney was considering buying a portion of MacArthur’s Palm Beach County holdings to build a large theme park. He and MacArthur couldn’t agree on terms and well, we all know what happened next.)
But when it came to his beach property, MacArthur had a laissez-faire attitude over who visited his beach or what they wore – or didn’t wear – while they were there.
It became common knowledge among visitors walking the path to the beach that a left turn led to the beach’s clothing optional area while a right turn led to a more conventional beach experience.
By the late 70’s, Air Force Beach had a reputation as one of the nation’s biggest nude beaches, something MacArthur seemed to relish.
Not so the local authorities, who periodically arrested naked swimmers and sunbathers.
Want more naked truth in honor of National Nude Day? See archived Palm Beach Post stories on SunSport Gardens, the nudist camp and community in Loxahatchee, including a 5K run held at the facility as well as columnist Frank Cerabino’s take on naked running.
After MacArthur’s death in 1978, the State of Florida bought the land. Naturists and even the strait-laced MacArthur Foundation reportedly asked the state to set aside a clothing-optional portion of the beach.
The State of Florida stripped that idea from park plans, setting off years of cat-and-mouse skirmishes between park rangers and scampering nudists.
For years afterward, there were periodic requests that the state reassess the idea of allowing nudity at the park’s north end, but the idea was apparently never seriously considered.
However, a few hold-out nudists can occasionally be found together in the altogether at the dune line at the park’s far north end, usually surrounded by a homemade privacy barrier.
But the most shocking part of the Air Force Beach saga isn’t that people regularly took off their clothes there.
The astounding part of the story is how close Palm Beach County came to having nearly two miles of ocean-to-lake land clothed in concrete.
The bare facts are these: The Palm Beach Post archives contain a 1980 survey from an area engineering firm, revealing a developer’s nakedly avaricious plans for a subdivision of 594 homes, a beach and racquet club and pool complex to be built on the undeveloped land, including 107 proposed homes for Munyon Island in the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The site is one of Florida as it was created by nature,” the firm’s senior vice-president was quoted as saying. “We propose a single-family development which will enhance the…property.”
If the state, encouraged by Palm Beach County, hadn’t stepped in, a wild and beautiful stretch of beach in Palm Beach County and one of the country’s most productive sea turtle nesting sites would have become private, “enhanced” with concrete, lawns and tennis courts.
That would have been a naked shame.