Film revisits infamous Kauai camp
John Wehrheim struggled for years with what to do with the pictures.
His collection of photos are both deeply personal and emblematic of an era. They document a time and place on Kaua'i that some reviled, some adored and many knew only as a punchline to local jokes or a codeword for a 1970s phenomenon: Taylor Camp.
Wehrheim wanted to publish a book of his photos from Ha'ena's infamous clothing-optional, alternative lifestyle, hippies-in-treehouses community.
But he didn't want to do just another book of photography.
As an intermediate step, he ended up creating a 20-minute slide show of the photos set to period music and showing it at the Kilauea Theater as a one-night fundraiser for Kaua'i Community Radio.
"An hour before the screening every seat in the house was taken and there were 1,000 people outside wanting to get in," Wehrheim said. "The 'slideshow' was held over for a week. I knew then we had a film and decided that I would create a feature-length documentary."
Wehrheim then set out to get video interviews of the players involved in the Taylor Camp saga, including politicians, community leaders and the camp residents themselves.
Tracking down the former Taylor Camp residents was actually easy, he said. They mostly kept in touch over the years. Many are leading what mainstream society would consider successful lives.
"They spread the word, threw big parties, everyone came and we interviewed them — sometimes for days," he said. "They wanted their stories told."
Some wanted to "wax nostalgic" and romanticize their hippie days, he says, and those interviews provide comic relief.
"But most were honest and forthcoming and talked about the drugs, the rip-offs, the welfare and food stamps and the children growing up wild. Yet almost without exception they all described it as 'the best time of their lives.' "
Wehrheim is in a unique position to tell this story. He did not live at Taylor Camp, but stayed at a house nearby when he first moved to Kaua'i in 1971. His dossier is complex: He is a Notre Dame grad with an engineering degree, former Kaua'i Community College photography teacher, owner of Pacific Hydroelectric, developer, world traveler and husband of Kaua'i Councilmember and former mayor JoAnn Yukimura.
He was a recent college grad when he came to Kaua'i, where he got to know Howard Taylor, brother of movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who owned property in Ha'ena.
Howard Taylor got mad at the county when his plans for developing the land languished for years. Perhaps as an act of revenge, he bailed out a group of 13 young men and women who had been arrested for vagrancy and invited them to live on his property.
Those were the original residents of Taylor Camp.
They built tree houses of bamboo, lived outside the norms of society and got a reputation on Kaua'i for a lifestyle that was seen as indulgent by some, idyllic by others and dangerous by the establishment.
Wehrheim had an adventurous spirit, the knowledge of photography, an affable demeanor and the ability to gain the campers' trust. At first they scattered when he walked in carrying a tripod and camera. After a time, Wehrheim had to get an appointment book to schedule in all of the photo sessions. The campers wanted pictures taken of their handmade homes and unfettered lives.
This spirit carried over to the 2000s. After the slide show screened, Taylor Camp residents contacted him to share their stories, this time with the perspective provided by 30 years.
"Soon, people were calling me to be interviewed and volunteering their old photos and 8mm films from 'back in the day.' What really surprised me was that after the initial concern expressed by so many of the campers, that I would exploit and sensationalize the drugs and nudity aspect of the camp life or the darker side of Taylor Camp, when the camera started rolling, I was amazed at the very personal and confessional character of many of the interviews."
The photos are astounding. Taylor Camp is like an exotic tribe with little touches of America here and there: a Frank Zappa poster, a treadle sewing machine, a porcelain toilet on a platform without walls.
To see the campers then and now is the best part. Some seem to have shed their former selves completely. Others look like a part of them never left the camp.
"You didn't have to be naked. But what you did have to be was real," one former resident says in his interview.
"... Inside the houses, people had their clothes on because there were mosquitoes everywhere," a woman says.
The film itself is naked, warts and all, taking on the negative side of Taylor Camp as well as the sweet memories of golden days and great surf and good friends.
Wehrheim says the film project just seemed to come together after all these years of trying to decide what to do with his photos. People were ready to talk about those days.
"Now we're all too old to pretend that it was anything other than what it was and that we were anything other than what we were.
"Ten years ago some of us were still a bit ashamed (or secretive) about what we did when we were young. Our kids hadn't all grown up yet and we didn't want them to get the wrong idea — the 'wrong idea' being the truth."
The state condemned the Taylor land in 1973 and battled to evict the campers. In 1977, the state burned down the camp structures. By then, most of the campers had moved on. The film shows what the land is like today: undeveloped still.
The film will be turned into a book, finally after all these years. It will also tour Hawai'i theaters before being submitted to film festivals in the fall.
Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.