Where have all the Dunites gone?

A story of poverty and influence in California.

By Steven Zepeda   

The Oceano Dunes is the northernmost sector of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex that connects the coastal border between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Today, it is the only beach in California categorized as a State Vehicular Recreation Area, which makes it an off-roading Mecca that attracts up to two million tourists a year. However, beyond the frantic buzz of ATVs still echoes the history of the Dunites: a collection of cabin-dwellers who inhabited the Oceano Dunes for nearly a century.

The first person on record to call himself a “Dunite” was poet Edward C. St. Clair, a Spanish-American War veteran who settled in the Dunes around 1900. Like St. Clair, the Dunites were poor folk who championed creativity, expression, and freethought above all other attributes. Their community in the Oceano Dunes reflected these qualities as it quickly transformed the barren sands into a thriving haven of art. At the height of its influence, the Dunite community attracted a hundred visitors monthly and was a host to valuable American figures including John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Ansel Adams, Ella Young, and John Cage. The Dunites also contributed substantially to Californian culture. They boasted notable works like Luther Whiteman’s novel, Face of the Clam (1947), Elwood Decker’s abstract art films (1948-1951), and Gavin Arthur’s queer-liberation treatise, The Circle of Sex (1962).

From abject poverty arose a vibrant community. These members, homeless and through agency of their own, came to play a large role in shaping American culture.

This society was built by none other than who we would define as homeless individuals. The Dunites owned little more than cabins constructed of scrap wood and black beach tar. Common comforts were absent and the only luxury they enjoyed was the occasional bottle of whiskey, left lying in the sand by itinerant bootleggers. Their poverty was sharpened by the Great Depression; in fact, Migrant Mother (1934), Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression Era photograph, was taken in Arroyo Grande just 10 miles east of the Oceano Dunes.

From abject poverty arose a vibrant community. These members, through agency of their own, came to play a large role in shaping American culture. This is why the Dunites’ experiences offer society a refreshing contrast to the depictions of poverty we are well familiar with — depictions which invariably equate poverty with powerlessness. The Dunite experience proves that such an association can sometimes be broken. In fact, the Dunites embraced this lifestyle of minimalism that, in turn, gave them a sense of freedom and power, away from the regulation of a greater society and government.

What allowed the Dunite community to establish itself, however, was the fact that the Oceano Dunes remained largely uninhabited by outsiders. For a long time, the Dunes were unregulated; tourism in the Dunes had yet to take root, which allowed the Dunites to exist in their bohemian society, untouched by the outside world. However, plenty of tourist development projects were attempted, especially during the roaring twenties.

The first attempt was launched by a group of Los Angeles developers, who sought to construct a glorious dance hall in the shifting sands of the Oceano Dunes, “La Grande Pavilion.” It was a mission-style, multi-story structure, boasting three ornate observation towers, and was set to be the Circus Maximus of an emergent Rome in the sands of Oceano. The same developers bought acres all across the rolling dunes, expecting that the success of La Grande would enable the construction of a thriving beach town or, in their words, “the future Atlantic City of the Pacific.” The optimism was matched with the success of La Grande’s opening night as the sounds of crashing waves was drowned out by the beat of dancing feet and ragtime piano.

La Grande’s hay-day, however, was short-lived. Dancers found it difficult to traverse the sands with the hard, thin tires of a horse-drawn buggy. Even modern cars with high-tread tires and four-wheel drive often get stuck in the wet sands of Oceano. If not dislodged before high-tide, a beachgoer can do little but watch their favorite jeep slide deeper and deeper into the maw of mud. The lack of patrons was not all that doomed the dance hall.

In 1915, shifting sands bore a gaping hole beneath the northwest corner of the building that left La Grande’s foundation unstable — causing one of its towers to topple over — and marked the end of the tourist enterprise. Even as developers tried to sell smaller sections of the beach, the constant movement of sand made property lines indiscernible. All later projects failed for the same disappointing reason: dunes move. To this day, the Oceano Dunes lay void of any permanent structure. Though the “Atlantic City of the Pacific” was left unrealized, it enabled the Dunite community to finally take root in the Dunes. Plank by plank, the group of squatters stripped bare the corpse of La Grande and used its quality hardwood to construct their own huts across the sea of sand. Enough cabins were made to sustain their small community and thus, the Dunite Era began.

As no significant tourism could be developed at the time, state and federal agents felt little need to occupy the Dunes. In fact, the Dunite Era was marked by a near complete absence of an external presence in the Dunes, government or otherwise. The lack of government agents meant that the Dunes were a tax-free zone, an invaluable trait for the mostly unemployed Dunites. Additionally, the Dunites were squatting illegally, so any type of government presence could have dissolved their operation. Luckily, even the county was initially disinterested in the Oceano Dunes. The first attempt to establish a presence was unsuccessful. A young county recorder set out into the Dunes to collect information on the Dunites for taxation purposes, but quit after finding the trek to be too tiring.

The Dunites were naturalists who gathered all their basic necessities from the surrounding environment. They dug wells to extract freshwater, dried cow dung to make fuel, and planted small gardens to grow dune herbs. Their staple food was the Pismo Clam, Tivela stultorum. These specimens are known throughout the seafood industry for their abnormally large size and great taste. Though today excessive clamming has driven the Pismo Clam population into deeper waters, at the time, the Pismo Clam could be found in ample supply along the shoreline. To locate one of these creatures, one only needed to plant a firm heel in the sand and spin a quarter turn or two until they felt the firm lips of the mollusk; a single hand could then scoop out the shallowly-buried bivalve from the muck. In only an hour or two, one could collect ten, fifteen, twenty of these surprisingly succulent sand-dwellers.

The Dunites called this method “dancing for clams.” This technique was a highly-effective way to gather clams while eluding the local game warden — the only government agent ever to hold real power in the Dunes during the Dunite Era. It is difficult to notice that someone is dancing for clams when they are waist deep in foamy surf. Fortunately, game wardens during the Great Depression were not as strict on the Dunites, whom they knew relied on the clams for survival. Dunite Ella Thorp Ellis recalls the leniency of the game warden in her autobiography, Dune Child (2011). While she and her father were hunting for clams, they spotted the game warden approaching in the distance. Her father quickly planted his pitchfork and clam bag at his daughter’s feet and fled into the dunes. The warden approached Ella, checked a couple clams, and went along his way. Of course, the warden knew this polio-stricken four year-old couldn’t possibly have amassed a sack-full of clams or even use a pitchfork, for that matter.

Many Dunites were known (and often disliked) for their clever trading, using the sweet smell of Pismo clam to swipe quality supplies from local farmers. This was one of the many reasons why the Dunites were despised by the local community. Shopkeepers in Oceano only marginally trusted the beach-dwellers, assuming they were building some amoral, nudist, free-love commune out where the feds couldn’t find them. Only one man from the outside world ever showed real compassion to the Dunite plight, Dr. Rudolf Gerber, who offered many free services to those affected by the Great Depression. At any rate, the Dunites didn’t need a savior; they handled the dilemmas of poverty through communal efforts.

The community sustained itself by sharing knowledge and supplies, like gardening tips, building support, and fishing equipment. Such practices guaranteed that all Dunites were able to reap the bare essentials for dune living. The use of communal tools also encouraged the Dunites to gather food and eat as a community. Feasts were ubiquitous in Dunite culture and created times for open intellectual discussions, which some referred to as the “Dune Fire”.

The Dune Fire was so meaningful to the Dunites that in 1931, the Dunites attempted to give this discussions a permanent location. A community house, laden with kitchen and two guest bedrooms, was erected in the spot where La Grande Pavilion’s shadow once fell. Another guest house was constructed along with a personal home for Dunite Gavin Arthur, who believed this place would become the center for a new city of artists and intellectuals. Ella Young, a druidess and frequenter of the Dunes, named the spot “Moy Mell”, meaning “Pastures of Honey” in Gaelic. To fund their utopia, Gavin and the Dunites began publishing their own intellectual magazine, Dune Forum (1933-1934).

Both our cognizance of how to utilize natural resources and our participation in communal projects has waned. These are simply the signs of the times.

The paper survived due to, in part, the Great Depression. It finally made the Dunite community visible to the greater nation. Hundreds came to experience the simple-lives of the dunes lauded by the magazine; such as, the Polynesian-style hut built by world-traveler, Arthur Allman and the mystic, loin-cloth wearing George Blais, who claimed to know the secrets to perfect bodily health. This seemingly nominal community, deep in the desert of a depression-ravaged county, quickly became the cultural axis it was made to be. Before he was famous, John Steinbeck came to the dunes to read his manuscript of his first classic, Tortilla Flats. Both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would showcase their various photos of sands and driftwood at the community house. Upton Sinclair, upon hearing about the impoverished, but successful community out in the dunes of Oceano, journeyed to Moy Mell to discuss his political theories. Though the Dunite community would continue its role as an artistic haven, its existence would be radically compromised with the militarization of the Oceano Dunes. Ultimately, Moy Mell was dissolved.

The Pearl Harbor Attack of 1941 made government a normalized presence in the dunes. Military outposts connected by red-brick highways were rapidly raised all across the Oceano coast. The patrols disturbed the Dunites, many of whom were afraid the army would eventually displace them. Many of the older Dunites, who had originally came to the dunes to escape the disruption of war, now wanted to seek different refuge. Dunite culture had become heavily identified with freedom from contemporary civilization, meaning some did not believe that their community could continue to exist in any true form until the government presence was eradicated. While the army left the Oceano Dunes in 1945, after the surrender of Japan, a battalion was left stationed just south of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex, planting the seed for the Vandenburg Air Force Base.

The 1960s spelled further disaster for dune-life. The greasy chatter of Volkswagens, whose simple design made sand-surfing simple, shattered the sacred silence of the Oceano Dunes. If the militarization of the Dunes was the end of the Dunite Pax Romana, then the incursion of dune buggies was like the barbarian invasion of Dune Rome. Remaining Dunites were thrown aside by disrespectful beach-goers who were completely ignorant of the important community they were displacing.

There were many reasons why the birth of dune tourism was incompatible with the Dunite community. For one, driving vehicles through the dunes is incredibly dangerous. Dunes are enormous sight-blockers which naturally suppress sound, meaning motorized vehicles are often felt before they are heard. Today, the Oceano Dunes are host to 200+ vehicle accidents each year. Buggies began to zoom straight through Dunite coves, making it increasingly dangerous for Dunites to get about. Additionally, the Dunites became  marginalized by the outsiders. Dunites who would leave their homes for more than a day often had their cabins ransacked and set ablaze by drunken vandals. In 1966, Strongman Henning, a longtime resident of the Dunes, awoke one night to the loud bang of rocks smashing against the tin walls of his cabin. He rushed outside as the group of children ran away laughing at the strange, old man. The scare was more than an annoyance. Henning suffered a heart attack and died shortly after. The last Dunite, Bert Schievink, died of cancer on Aug. 21, 1974.

The seemingly wimpy end to this once prominent Californian community should not diminish the great lessons we can extract from the Dunite experience. It’s obvious that three critical factors enabled the Dunites to circumvent their poverty and sustain a vibrant community: their efficient use of natural resources, their communal exchange of these resources, and freedom from outside hindrance. However, it is doubtful that this prized combination should reform for America’s homeless any time soon, as these qualities are increasingly difficult to find in contemporary society.

Both our cognizance of how to utilize natural resources and our participation in communal projects has waned. These are simply the signs of the times. The urbanization of society, coupled with its mutual reliance on mass-made products, has made knowledge of nature esoteric. Similarly, individualistic ideology has almost completely displaced communal thinking. It is equally troubling that today’s homeless are never free from disturbances, forced to move from place to place, victimized by political conflict. This often takes the form of laws that “criminalize homelessness” — giving police the authority to harass homeless people when they are sleeping or loitering in public spaces. However, this can also take the form of general molestation by the public — shop owners removing homeless people from their premises, for example. Until the 1960s, the Dunes provided a perfect place where the local homeless could escape harassment. It is doubtful than any similar location exists in California today.

The Dunite experience proves that poverty does not necessarily lead to powerlessness. On the contrary, poverty led the Dunites to convene for feasting and public discussions. An influential axis of art and freethinking eventuated from these “Dune Fires”, making the Dunites an unseen force behind 20th century American culture. One hopes that the Dunites will one day be recognized for their contributions, and that society will no longer wonder how such a poor collection of women and men could ever be so powerful.

Steven graduated in 2017 with a B.A. in Religious Studies and a B.S. in Genetics from the University of California, Irvine. He was raised in the coastal community of Guadalupe, CA, where he developed an academic interest in the Dunites-a small, bohemian community of beach dwellers that flourished during the early 20th century. Steven currently teaches secondary science at a school district.

Steven can be reached at [email protected].

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