Captain Nitwit’s Cambria house was a dump, according to its crinkly, cranky, owner-designer-builder Art Beal. He began sculpting the rock of Nitwit Ridge, with dynamite, in 1928. Nitwit’s budget wasn’t as large as the newspaper baron building up the coast, but he made up for it with his physical strength and feisty demeanor.
Both castles would achieve historic status.
Art Beal was thought to have been born in the Bay area and lived in Oakland. His mother was a full-blooded Kalamath Indian who died in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 when Beal was 10 years old. His father was a traveling man he never knew. Beal was raised by a strict church group and went into the U.S. Merchant Marine and to sea as a 17-year-old.
School had never suited him. “I went through the front door and they pushed me out the back.”
Beal’s first filed Tribune clippings begin turning up in 1973. Depending on the story he also called himself Dr. Tinkerpaw or Der Tinkerpaw, “Because I tinker with my paws, and it’s Der not Doctor.”
He does not explain the signs on the property marked “Dr.” but don’t expect a linear tale from Beal. “Sometimes they call me Captain Nitwit because I live on Nitwit Ridge.”
Reporters mention his collection of faded clippings from the 1920s showing him winning distance swimming championships in San Francisco Bay. Beal said he knew movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, comic Will Rogers and other stars from the vaudeville circuit where he did athletic stunts and told jokes.
He would toss off lines while in the middle of an interview.
His standard line about bachelorhood, “Ajax club — I work fast and leave no ring.”
Or “You know the difference between a Mason and a Knight? Once a Mason always a Mason; once a night may be enough.”
Clippings show his vaudeville partners at one time were a one-legged bicyclist and a dog. After Beal’s time as a merchant seaman and entertainer, he settled in “West Combria Pines” — his pronunciation — and began to assemble the Castoff Castle.
The home staggers up 250 feet of rocky cliff. Some say he built nine levels, others say five. It can be hard to define the edges, because landscaping overgrew the house in later years. Some rooms are attached, but most aren’t. Building materials included driftwood, car bumpers, turned wood, pots, beer cans, abalone shells, rusted car wheels and tons of concrete.
When he got tired of living in one room, he made another.
Built to code? Hard to imagine someone who could give orders to Captain Nitwit.
His strength was remarkable.
A story quoted Beal, “Pixies and gremlins didn’t do it. I did it all with these two hands.”
His work as the town’s first garbage man provided ample inspiration, though his wild driving or slow sifting through trash may have gotten him fired. The stories vary. There was a picture in a special place of honor, a toilet-seat frame, for the woman whose complaint led to his firing.
He would work often shirtless with grimy trousers, no socks, shoes without tongues, on his lot in the middle of nowhere. The town grew up around him bringing some who didn’t like the eclectic pile.
“Johnny-come-latelies,” Beal would mutter. “It was in ‘28 when it all began. Nobody was here then. This hill was hidden far back in the woods. So, I created my first one room shack.
“But that wasn’t enough. I put up another, and another and another, I can’t stop now.”
Reporters from The Cambrian, Telegram-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Times Herald, Sacramento Union, NBC’s Today Show all made the trek to interview Arthur Harold Beal.
The folk art home was recognized at a state historical landmark in 1986.
A June 22, 1991 story by Susan McDonald sadly noted that, with the Nitwit Ridge roof gone and no electricity or running water, Beal had to live miles away from the place he loved most. After being found with hypothermia and in and out of hospitals in his final years, Beal had to leave the place he had called home for more than six decades and live in a nursing home.
He crankily spent his final days where things were clean and orderly, and the Muzak plays on and on.
About a month after McDonald’s story was published, a caretaker cleaning out a shed on Nitwit Ridge turned up a half-gallon jar about one-third full of oily, pale amber liquid marked “glycerin.”
Beal confirmed it was nitroglycerine, and the bomb squad was notified. Jim Mulhall of the bomb squad (now Atascadero Police Chief) estimated that the bottle had been in the shed 40 to 50 years. Muhall was unable to say for certain whether the liquid in the bottle was nitro, but its appearance and having Beal say it was made it necessary for the bomb squad to remove the bottle.
“This was the first time we’ve had to go get pure nitro,” said Mulhall. “In the past it was used to strengthen dynamite, but is rarely ever used these days. It is so extremely unstable and so extremely explosive.”
A task force member dressed in a protective suit carefully lowered the bottle inside a rubber bucket filled with vermiculite into a bomb trailer. They took it to a local quarry to detonate it.
It would be Beal’s last big blast. He died at a Morro Bay nursing home August 16, 1992 at the age of 96. He had no known relatives, though he may have had a daughter who died during World War II.
Various efforts have been made since Beal’s death to restore the site. The property was in tax trouble in March of 1997 and the buildings did not get much repair in Der Tinkerpaw’s declining years.
Michael and Stacey O’Malley, the new owners of the 2.5-acre site, give tours of the whimsical house site on Hillcrest Drive. Reservations are required to tour the state historical landmark at 881 Hillcrest Drive. Call the O’Malleys at 927-2690. A donation of $10 for adults and $5 for children is requested, but not required, for each tour.
The O’Malley’s collect articles about Art Beal and are especially interested in anything prior to the 1960s.
Telegram-Tribune stories by Susan McDonald, Lee Sutter, David Eddy, Brooks Townes, Tim Ryan and Kay Ready and an L.A. Times story by Charles Hillinger all contributed information as well as Kathe Tanner of the Cambrian.
Another blog, Honey Pot has a collection of color photos from Nitwit Ridge.
If you like tales of coastal curmudgeons you may want to read about the Baykeeper, Sandal Makara.