This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times in July 1996:

In the late 1930s, Tampa tax lawyer Ara Brubaker, son of a Pennsylvania Mennonite minister, invited friends to go skinny-dipping in a sparkling lake in central Pasco County.

So began Lake Como Club, the first nudist retreat in Land O’Lakes.

More than half a century later, an area once known for its citrus groves, lumber mills and cattle ranches has become a nudist mecca.

Land O’Lakes has two major clubs (with a third on the way) and two smaller hideaways.

The west Pasco community of Hudson is home to the Florida Naturist Park. Pasco has more clothing-optional facilities than any other Florida county, and is second only to Palm Springs, Calif., in the United States.

Tens of thousands of nudists swarm into town, contributing tourist tax dollars, eating in local restaurants and shopping in local stores.

And hundreds of permanent residents pay property taxes, enroll children in local schools and involve themselves in the community.

On Monday, the American Association of Nude Recreation kicks off National Nude Recreation Week. It’s the one time of year that nudists invite outsiders, or “cottontails,” to look behind the walls and determine if the lifestyle is right for them.

“It’s a matter of freedom,” said nudist Christie Musick, who lives in Paradise Lakes in Land O’Lakes. “You shed the constraints of clothing, take off the trappings of the outside world and no one cares whether you’re perfect or not. You’re not going to find many Cindy Crawfords out here.

“Most people look like your mother, your kids, your best friend, your next door neighbor, people you see at church.

“Just ordinary people.”

Recipe for tolerance

What made central Pasco so attractive to the laid-back, no-tan-lines set?

The base ingredient is the same as any tourist spot in Florida: Florida itself. Tropical weather and sunshine.

Mix in a generous helping of proximity to major tourist destinations. Within easy reach of Pasco are Busch Gardens, Walt Disney World and the Ocala National Forest.

But these resorts aren’t like your average roadside Gator Jumparoo show.

It takes a special sort of social and political chemistry, a certain tolerance and open-mindedness, for a community to welcome a nudist resort.

By and large, it seems, Pasco has offered the perfect mix.

“Communities have been receptive. The county government has been receptive,” said Jack DePree, who has managed Lake Como and Paradise Lakes and now is working on the new Caliente resort in Land O’Lakes. “Once some sort of initial shock wears off, everyone realizes these are pretty nice people you’d want living in your community.”

Nudists and politicians have clashed in the past.

In 1961, Lake Como manager Arthur Cotterill defied a state law that required nudists to apply for county permits, submit to fingerprinting, list any prior criminal convictions, provide character references from a pastor and give the names of the applicant’s immediate family.

The Florida Supreme Court quickly overturned the law.

In 1977, Pasco Sheriff John Short staged a drug raid at Lake Como, inviting newspaper reporters and television crews along while nude spectators watched his deputies round up suspects on marijuana possession charges.

But these days, the government and resorts enjoy a symbiotic, if arm’s-length relationship: Come to Pasco. Bring lots of money and as few clothes as you want. But keep it behind walls.

Nudists seem happy to comply. They don’t want gawkers.

Just who are these people?

In 1994, the Nude Recreation group surveyed its 46,000 members to answer that question.

What it found:

The typical nudist is at least 35. Probably earns more than $50,000 a year. Has at least some college education. Works full time or is self-employed. Married. Enjoys sunbathing, swimming and walking.

They put their pants on one leg at a time – when they wear pants.

“They’re just normal people like anyone else, except that they happen to like not wearing clothes,” DePree said. “You can stand in line in a supermarket in Land O’Lakes and chances are pretty good that the person next to you is a member of a nudist club.

“But there’s no `N’ stamped on their forehead.”

Life behind the walls

Mike and Marge Saxton, both naked, talk about life behind the walls as they relax on their couch, which is draped in towels.

The towels are about the only uniform nudists have; they carry them along wherever they go in the resorts to cover surfaces before they sit down.

A plump calico cat named Melissa dozes on the living room floor.

The Saxtons lived for eight years in Paradise Lakes, and for the past two in a teal mobile home in 86-acre Lake Como Club.

Mike Saxton, 57, is a photographer who recently ran for president of the Land O’Lakes Chamber of Commerce. He has helped run the Miss Land O’Lakes pageant and has produced summer theater performances. His wife, 61, is a home health care nurse.

“Most of the people I know don’t even know I live here,” Mrs. Saxton said. “I figure if people judge me by my lifestyle and not for my work or my personality or whatever, then I don’t think they would be a very good friend.”

Saxton worked 27 years for IBM, the epitome of staid corporate culture with its suits and ties.

“It was a real transition to go from that to a nudist camp,” he said. “It’s a good safety valve and a good release from corporate and business pressure.”

The Saxtons became nudists in the 1960s when they lived in California.

“I was more or less brought up in a nude environment before it was even known as such,” he said. “We weren’t brought up with many taboos. We had a lot of body acceptance and household nudity.”

He has made no secret of his lifestyle to those who know him. What do they think about it?

“I think if they’re not outright friendly, they’re at least tolerant,” he said.

Kathy Griggs, 51, works for accountant Bruce Szabo and is a member of the Lutz-Land O’Lakes Rotary Club. She lives in Lake Como with her handyman husband, David, 54.

“What nudism does is strip away all the pretenses of society,” Kathy Griggs said. “You’re dealing with people, not the trappings of people. As a result, everyone is treated equally.”

She enjoys the freedom she feels as a nudist within the club’s walls.

“I can go over on Sunday and buy my St. Petersburg Times in whatever I want to wear, depending on the season,” she said.

`I feel very safe here’

The cream-colored walls around Paradise Lakes are there to avoid offending unsuspecting neighbors.

But the walls also invite speculation.

Just what are they doing in there?

Myths abound, most of them sexual: Wife-swapping. Orgies. Rape. Child abuse.

Those who embrace the nudist lifestyle acknowledge occasional problems. Sometimes, people behave in an overtly sexual manner in public and are asked to leave. But, generally, they say the myths are unfounded.

“Everybody thinks there are orgies going on all over the place,” said Christie Musick, 47, who lives in a condominium in Paradise Lakes. “Good Lord have mercy, that would not be tolerated. If you want to do something risque, go to your room. Don’t do it in public. It’s an embarrassment.”

Life tends to be tranquil, said Musick, who runs Travel Au Naturel and arranges nude cruises to the Caribbean.

No pants means no pockets, and less of an urge to walk away with someone else’s property.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Musick said. “I feel very safe here. I’ve never been robbed. Never been mugged. It just doesn’t happen here.

“In the nine years I’ve been here, I’ve never heard of child abuse or rape.”

Bad things do happen behind the walls, but not as frequently as in the outside world.

Eight years ago, an ex-Marine shot his wife to death during a weekend visit to Paradise Lakes for their 19th wedding anniversary. People still talk about it, Musick said.

In 1987, a Tampa man was charged with raping a Paradise Lakes woman and then crashing through the gate as he left. He was acquitted of assaulting her, but convicted for criminal mischief for damage to the gate.

Their own little village

Central Pasco’s spot in the Olympus of the undressed should be bolstered when Tom Landers’ dream becomes a reality.

On Saturday, he breaks ground on Caliente, a nudist resort in the woods off U.S. 41 that promises to be even bigger than 73-acre Paradise Lakes.

The backhoes aren’t even on site yet, but already Landers reports $12-million in sales of single-family homes, villas and condominiums.

When finished, the 100-acre resort should be worth $45-million, he said. It will include hotel rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools and a tiki bar. The resort brings about 100 jobs to the community.

“One resort helps feed off the other,” Landers said. “It’s similar to Dale Mabry (Highway) in that respect. You get 30 to 40 restaurants in there and another comes right in between them. There’s comfort in numbers and the market is there.”

Paradise Lakes draws about 70,000 visitors a year. Build Caliente, Landers reasons, and even more will come.

Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand welcomes the idea of central Pasco as a nudist hot spot.

“It is sort of like the domino effect: One is established, another comes on board and people come from all over to go to the new resort,” Hildebrand said.

The county collects $465,000 in tourist taxes each year. Two-thirds of that, Hildebrand said, comes from the Saddlebrook golf and tennis resort in Wesley Chapel. The second biggest contributors, collectively, she said, are nudist resorts.

Lake Como contributes about $41,000 in property taxes and garbage collection assessments.

Paradise Lakes pays $300,000 in sales tax annually.

The relationship is sweetened because nudist resorts tend to be less of a drain on county funds than clothed subdivisions.

They pave their own roads.

Crime is minimal.

Although some are families with children, most are older couples.

“They really don’t demand anything of our services,” Hildebrand said. “They’re self-contained, like their own little village. They aren’t impacting existing services, but they contribute to our economic growth.”

Times researcher Kitty Bennett and information from Times files contributed to this report.