BEFORE: Swallows “South 40” was completely devastated by 2003’s wildfire.
Photo by Mark Tinderholt used with permission.
NOW: Rebuilt clubhouse and restaurant.
Swimming pool area. A second “conversation pool” with swim-up bar is being planned.
New trees and lawns surround the “South 40” section of rebuilt homes.
Photos reproduced from Sun Island Resort web site with permission.
By Gary M.
June, 2006 - Driving up Harbison Canyon recently to visit one of Southern California’s oldest established nudist clubs, one is struck by all the changes that have taken place since the big fire three years ago. In October, 2003, the eastern half of San Diego County was destroyed by a raging inferno that swept away homes and hillsides full of trees and dried grass indiscriminately. The fire burned over a million acres and took nearly two weeks to extinguish. And the fifty-year old Swallows Sun Island Club, nestled in this quiet and underdeveloped canyon, was nearly wiped out. Of the 50 residences there, only two mobile homes survived. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.
At that point, nobody was sure if the resort would ever reopen. Owner Jim Shafer had been trying to sell the park for several years but had few takers. The odds of keeping the site nudist were even slimmer. But that’s when the miracle happened. Nudists from all over the country responded with money and material to help Shafer rebuild. Both AANR (The American Association for Nude recreation) and The Naturist Society channeled their members’ donations to help with the effort.
When I last visited the park in 2005, the transformation was already underway. The “South 40”residential area had many new pre-fabricated homes lining its main street and several others were under construction. Some of the long-time residents – but not all – had returned and were volunteering their time also to bring back the recreational infrastructure. The perimeter fence had been rebuilt and is being repainted, and both the clubhouse and restaurant were open for business. The motel is 90% renovated as of this writing. People were again lounging by the pool and the traditional afternoon water volleyball game was in progress. And, even better, Shafer had found a buyer who promised to keep the park nudist.
Earlier this year, the sale of the park was finally completed. The new owner is Fernando Gonzales, 45, a resident of the park and a building contractor by profession. Gonzales had volunteered during the months following the fire and he and Shafer “started taking” and the decision to sell “just evolved” according to a farewell letter sent by Shafer to the residents last month.
The word from the people living at the park is that the new owner “exudes enthusiasm” with an engaging personality that makes everyone feel welcome and “energized to pitch in.” Jay Goldby is the new General Manager and Jim McDonald has returned as chair of the resident’s Activity Committee. The three of them are hard at work planning building upgrades and scheduling the summer activities. One of the first things they decided was to jettison the old name for the park.
Swallows, the original name, was christened in 1954 by original owners Doc and Georgia Zehner. During the first decade, an outside nudist club named Sun Island, which was based in nearby El Cajon, used Swallows as its base of operations. In 1964, “Big Sue” Latimer purchased the park from Zehner and renamed it “Swallows Sun Island Resort.”
The stories about “Big Sue” are legend in the nudist community. She ruled Swallows with a tight grip and loud mouth for nearly a decade. Often she got on a loudspeaker at 10am to remind everyone, “This is a NUDIST resort! It’s a sunny day so get those clothes off!” Sue sold her ownership share in 1989 and died a few years later.
The name Swallows Sun Island remained through several more owners in the 1990’s until now, when Gonzales and the new team decided to drop the “Swallows” and keep just the “Sun Island Resort” if just to remove the connection in people’s minds to the park that was destroyed by the 2003 fire.
“People still think Swallows is closed,” said Goldby. “By changing the name we break out of that stigma.”
For the 2006 season, Goldby said the motel and clubhouse are completely remodeled, and there are as many as 20 of the newly constructed homes now available for sale. “We are also bringing in cable TV for the first time as well as high-speed Internet lines.”
He added that many of the roads are in the process of being repaved, and the front entrance to the park is also being changed. The RV and camping areas are also open and hookups improved.
Goldby says Sun Island also has maintained a “good relationship” with its neighbors in the canyon and sees no problems with the proposed Indian Casino being built a few miles away. “We are talking to them about running shuttle buses to and from the park for those residents and park visitors interested in doing a little gambling” once the casino is completed next year. Anticipating some additional residential growth in the canyon during the next decade, Golby also said a new grove of tall trees will be planted at that end of the Sun Island “to insure our future privacy.”
Hiking trails have always surrounded the park and the general manager says that since the fire there is less foliage around to shield nude hikers in a few spots. So far there have been no complaints from neighbors and Golby said the plants and shrubs are “slowly growing back.”
He added that Sun Island now has 200 paid members with an ambitious goal of 800 within the next three or four years. The old Swallows was always known for its younger, family atmosphere and the management team hopes to create enough youth-based activities to win them back again.
“We are speaking to several of the outside nudist clubs and beach groups in the San Diego area, and we also are advertising at the local colleges,” Goldby said. “We now have two massage therapists on the grounds, which we hadn’t before. We are also going to sponsor some tennis and volleyball tournaments in hopes of attracting nudists interested in those activities.”
Another project that has seen an enthusiastic response from the members is creating a “Swallows Retrospective” on one of the clubhouse walls. “We want to include pictures and articles beginning at or near the time of the opening of the original resort to the present time,” Gonzales said. Many pictures were lost in the fire and he is asking for the nudist community to look through their old scrapbooks and to donate copies to the club.
The club also has a brand new Internet web site with a new link address: http://www.sunislandresort.net/.
On it, the new owner thanks everyone for their ideas and hard work in bringing the resort back to full operation. “You’re doing a great job and we appreciate you very much!”
One fifty-year old tradition does remain, however. The Sun Island web site and all of its literature reminds visitors that “We are a NUDIST resort (not clothing optional). Weather permitting, clothing shall not be worn in recreational areas.”
Somewhere “Big Sue” is smiling.