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Before ATVs ruled the Oceano Dunes, the sandy expanse was empty — or at least, it appeared to be.
Tucked amid the sand dunes were people: a living, breathing community known as the Dunites. There were never more than 35 of them in the Oceano Dunes at any given time, and they counted among their number artists, writers, poets, and even the grandson of President Chester A. Arthur.
“The Dunes (area), back then, wasn’t quite the madhouse it is now,” said Norm Hammond, a South County resident who’s extensively researched and written about the Dunites since he first stumbled upon the last practicing Dunite, Bert Schievink, in the early 1970s. “People were able to live that kind of unique lifestyle in a place of natural beauty that doesn’t cost any money.”
It was a haven for artists, free spirits, drifters and people who were just down on their luck economically.
“You’ve got clams in the ocean, you got a place to live with no rent and no taxes and some protein and all the necessities of life,” said Hammond, vice president of the Oceano Depot Association.
Hammond said he was attracted to the story of the Dunites because of his affinity for author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who preached living life deliberately.
“The unquestioned life is not worth living, and you can’t really do that unless you find a nice quiet place and pursue that quest,” Hammond said.
When did the Dunites arrive at Oceano Dunes?
The exact timeframe isn’t clear, but the Dunites started coming to the Oceano Dunes, located south of Pismo Beach in southern San Luis Obispo County, around the 1910s.
The assortment in the early 20th century consisted generally of moonshiners, hobos who took refuge in the dunes during the winter and people who just needed a break from the world — such as Hugo Seelig, who sought refuge in the dunes due to his distress over the United States entering World War I, according to Hammond’s 1992 book, “The Dunites.”
Economic problems, especially during the Great Depression, also made the Dunes an attractive option, Hammond said.
“There were no jobs and no money and you could go there and do just fine,” Hammond said. “A lot easier than you could in the city.”
In the 1930s, Chester A. Arthur’s grandson, Gavin Arthur, started a utopian commune in the Dunes called Moy Mell — “pastures of honey” in Gaelic — which served as a magnet for artists and intellectuals.
Novelist John Steinbeck and photographer Ansel Adams were just a few of the notable guests at Moy Mell.
Hammond said some of the mystics out in the Dunes resented the intrusion of the more moneyed Dunites like Arthur.
“Gavin Arthur built his utopian colony and that changed everything — not for the worst,” Hammond said.
Arthur “brought in a lot of intellectualism” and started the Dune Forum, a magazine that aimed to be a sort of New Yorker of the West.
In his book, Hammond notes that Time Magazine said the Dune Forum was “hoping to direct the creative thought of America away from Europe and toward the West.”
How did the Dunites live?
Most of the people living in the Dunes were men, Hammond says, with some exceptions, including Emily Dean, a model who lived by herself before moving into the community house at Moy Mell, and Dixie Paul, an artist who first came to the Dunes in the late 1930s.
Gavin Arthur built a cabin of lumber and a large community house at Moy Mell, where guests often stayed.
A few other cabins were also constructed there at Moy Mell, but most Dunites used “driftwood and old planking, with old automobile windshields used for glass” and other items they could scavenge to build their homes, according to Hammond’s book.
According to “The Dunites,” from about 1915 to 1926, the Dunites scavenged wood from the abandoned La Grande Pavilion south of Oceano to help build their homes.
Another building boom started in 1938, when the Elg, a Norwegian steamer carrying lumber, ran aground in the Dunes near Moy Mell. The Dunites scavenged the wood to build new homes or make repairs to their existing shelters, according to Hammond’s book.
They tucked their shelters into coves along the dunes and no two were the same. Arther Allman, an Irishman, built a replica of a South Sea Islands hut using willow wood, while a man called Slim the Aussie covered the roof of his shack with clamshells, according to “The Dunites.”
For food, the Dunites used to “dance for clams” by wading into the water and spinning until they could feel the clams beneath their feet, according to Hammond’s book. Sometimes they’d go into town and trade their art for staples such as flour and alcohol, Hammond said.
But despite their forays into town, Hammond said he learned through interviews that many people living in Oceano at the time didn’t realize the Dunites were there.
“They paid no attention. Of course, Oceano was just a small little place with a grocery store,” Hammond said. “Everyone went about their jobs and came home and went to bed. None of this free-thinking business, that’s for sure.”
Why the Dunites left
World War II heralded the end of an era for the Oceano Dunes.
Following Pearl Harbor, the U.S. grew fearful of a Japanese invasion on the West Coast. The subsequent sinking of the Union Oil tanker Montebello by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria, combined with the fact that Avila Beach was a vital oil terminal for the Pacific fleet, led to tension in the area. The U.S. Coast Guard started armed patrols of the beach.
“These people that lived out there, they got checked out: ‘Are you a spy? Let me see your ID’ and all that,” Hammond said. “That changed the ambiance of the Dunes.”
In an 1983 Tribune article, Elwood Decker, one of the last surviving Dunites, recalled the fear he felt during the war. (Decker, a well-known Oceano resident, died in 1992 after he was hit by a train about a mile south of Oceano.)
“I dare not go home at night,” he told The Tribune at the time. “They’d shoot anyone on the beach at night.”
Moy Mell was starting to dry up. Gavin Arthur, who was running out of money, shut down the Dune Forum in 1934 because the subscription rates of 35 cents a copy were too steep for the time.
Moy Mell’s inhabitants started to drift elsewhere to look for work, Hammond said.
“The golden era was over,” Hammond said.
A few people hung on. Bert Schievink, whom Hammond happened upon in the early 1970s, lived in the Oceano Dunes until his death in 1974.
Soon the shacks and cabins disappeared back into the sand dunes. If you go out to the Oceano Dunes today, you’d never know anyone ever lived there.
Where to find more information
At the Oceano Train Depot, you can find issues of the Dune Forum, some Dunite artwork and other Dunite artifacts that Hammond has collected over the years.
The depot, located at 1650 Front St., also has handouts with instructions on how to get to Moy Mell and a list of books to read for information on the Dunes.
Of course, if you drive out to the former site of Moy Mell, nothing but the GPS coordinates will indicate what the place is.
“There’s not a trace,” Hammond said. “The only constant is the Dunes themselves.”