Thayer man has seen it all, from plane crashes to nudists
May 5, 2013 9:48PM
Ralph Knapp; Harriet, a shorthorn-black angus cross, and her calf. | Photo provided
Updated: June 6, 2013 6:27AM
“A flying saucer results when a nudist spills his coffee.”
— author unknown
Ralph Knapp couldn’t come to the phone when I made the initial call to set up an interview with him. He was hand-milking Harriet who had just given birth. Harriet is a shorthorn-black Angus cross. At the ripe old age of 16, her udders are too saggy to do the job properly. And, according to Ralph, a baby calf should have mama’s milk the first week of its life.
Knapp, 72, is a truck farmer who lives in Thayer with his wife, Joanne. They have raised three adult children.
Knapp also is a former justice of the peace, has served on the Newton County Police Merit Board for the past 26 years, is the only remaining active charter member of the Lincoln Township Volunteer Fire Department and is the nephew of Alois Knapp, an Austrian immigrant who founded a nudist colony in Roselawn he named Zoro Nature Park in 1932.
Ralph, what’s one of your main crops?
“Asparagus,” he said.
This sand country is ideal for acid-loving crops like blueberries. Asparagus likes an alkaline soil.
“We have to add limestone every few years.”
Last fall, you were given an honorary gold card and axe for 50 years of service as a volunteer fireman.
“Yeah, after 50 years, they gave me the axe.”
It doesn’t take a mathematical wizard to figure out that you were with the LTFD on Halloween of ‘94.
“I heard what I thought was thunder. Soon thereafter, Joanne received a phone call that a plane had gone down by the Prohosky farm. I met the boys at the station, we hopped in the fire truck and drove to the site. At first, all we saw was part of a tail section of a plane in that soybean field. It was complete destruction.”
American Eagle Flight 4184.
“We didn’t realize until about an hour later that it was a commercial airplane with 68 people on it. We wanted to believe it was a cargo plane that had crashed, but that wasn’t the case.”
You guys from Lincoln Township were the first responders.
“They wanted to set up a morgue at North Newton High School, then they thought better of it because it was going to take quite some time to take care of the situation. The Remington National Guard Armory was decided upon.”
I know there were locals who helped with the identification process during the ensuing weeks.
“Yes, there were.”
Horrific. Ralph, let’s switch gears. Coming to America for the Knapps.
“Uncle Alois came here first in 1910. He was from Austria. My father, Herman, and Uncle Peter didn’t emigrate to New York City until 1924. Soon after, they started farming on property just west of Roselawn.
“My father told me when they came to the United States, they were often looked down upon as those ‘damn foreigners who came to America.’”
Why was that?
“Because Germany and Austria sat side by side and things were getting kind of hairy in that part of the world. During World War II, there were certain ethnic groups in America who were suspicious of people with surnames like Schultz or Schmidt.”
You mentioned your Uncle Alois. I can think of another Austrian named Alois who named one of his sons Adolf. Later, that son liked to be called “Der Fuhrer.” Tell me about Alois Knapp.
“Uncle Alois was married to a woman named Lorena whose maiden name was Jensen. She liked to write poetry and things like that. I remember when she passed away in 1951. Alois went back to the Old Country and married a woman named Ursula. We really liked Ursula.”
Wasn’t Alois Knapp on a TV show back in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s?
“Yes, he appeared on ‘What My Line?’ The panel couldn’t determine that he owned a nudist colony, by the way.”
Did Alois do anything else for a living?
“Yes, he was an attorney. He earned a law degree at Northwestern University. He had practices in Chicago and Crete, Ill.”
When your immediate family would pay a visit to Uncle Alois and Aunt Ursula would they be naked?
“Yes, Alois was proud to be out there without clothes on. I believe it was in 1967 that my uncle sold the place to the Drost family. Dick Drost was paralyzed from the waist down. The Drosts immediately changed the name from Zoro Nature Park to Zoro Nature City and then to Naked City.”
Ralph, from what I’ve read or been told, when Alois Knapp owned the nudist colony it was a classy place. The members were sun worshipers; it was like their religion. What about when the place changed hands?
“Dick Drost started the Miss Nude America contest. I was justice of the peace here at that time. Drost asked me: ‘Since you’re judge around here, would you be one of the judges of our first Miss Nude America contest?’”
You turned him down, of course.
“No, I agreed to be a judge. The Chicago news stations came out here to cover it. They had to black out the nudity, obviously.
“Being so close to I-65, Drost started catering to truckers. There would be dozens of them parked out on what used to be the air strip that was on the property. There were nude waitresses. Shows were performed and one ‘lucky’ trucker was permitted to spray whipped cream on whatever part of the body of the nude waitress that he wanted to.”
You don’t say?
“And remove it however he wanted to remove it. It was a novel sort of thing. The county raided the place. Drost ended up being exiled from the State of Indiana. Today, Naked City is called Sun Aura.”
What about Ponderosa Sun Club across the street?
“A man by the name of Harvey Schmidt had a falling out with Uncle Alois, so he started his own nudist camp. But in Uncle Alois’ later years, when he’d return from Florida to Indiana in the summertime, he realized what Naked City had become. Uncle Alois chose to stay at Schmidt’s nudist camp and they ended up becoming good friends. The true nudists followed suit and also moved to Ponderosa Sun Club.”
“We sell produce at Ponderosa in the summertime. My good friend Cecil and I raise some of the produce together. Cecil took his wife in there one time while selling our wares. I asked him, ‘Did Thelma take her clothes off while she helped you hawk the vegetables?’”
Old Cecil’s reply?
“‘Nope, she woulda scared off the customers.’”
Ralph, when I was in high school, there was a girl whose family lived in Naked City. The school bus would pick her up on Ind. 10. She asked me if I would be her prom date. She was really pretty and a very nice person. You’re not going to believe this, but her last name was Smelly.
“I didn’t know the Smellys. Did you take her to the prom?”
No, I ended up going to the big dance with what would become my first wife. I shoulda gone with Penny Smelly.
There is a memorial in remembrance of the victims of American Eagle Flight 4184 at the station of Lincoln Township Volunteer Fire Department in Thayer. As the weather warms, nudists will emerge from their cabins in Roselawn. Ralph Knapp’s asparagus crop will sprout from the soil. Harriet’s calf is doing fine.
Life goes on.