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May 29

Dunite Days in the Oceano Dunes

Ephemeric characters flash through history like shooting stars, rarely remembered beyond their days. Visionaries, dreamers and mystics rarely get remembered. Usually that honor goes to industrialists, generals, politicians and entertainers. Dreams aren’t worth a memorial if no one made a buck off it or won a battle.
A rare exception is coming up.
The first ever Dunite Days will be held the weekend of June 8, 2013 at the Oceano Depot. Proceeds will be used for the restoration of Gavin’s cabin, the last surviving dunite cabin. Who were the dunites?
On December 17, 1983 John Frees wrote this story:

Ellwood Decker was an artist and one of the last of the dunites. ©Telegram-Tribune/Sharon Lewis Dickerson

Ellwood Decker was an artist and one of the last of the dunites. ©Telegram-Tribune/Sharon Lewis Dickerson

Dunites: hermits of the ’30s

They were the hermits, drifters, mystics. They came looking for solace — and sustenance — during the hard times of the
early 30s. No one is sure exactly when they came to the Oceana dunes to live. For some was the cheap lifestyle, others were drawn to an intellectual artist colony still others apparently followed and astrologists claim that the Oceana dunes where the holy vibrations were the strongest.
They shared a dream and in existence for dozens of years old up in the dunes building rough shacks in the strips of vegetation that lay between the drifting mounds of sand living off of clams, coffee and cigarettes
They were the dunites.
Few people today are aware that the dunites existed. Most of the dunites are dead now the shacks torn or burned down vegetation scarred and thinned and by the tracks of dune buggies. The last practicing dunite, Bert Schievink, died in 1974 after living virtually alone in the dunes for nearly 20 years.
But for one South County man, the history of the dunites is not dead.
Norman Hammond, a fireman for the city of San Luis Obispo has written a book — as yet unpublished — about the dunites. The Arroyo Grande man has spent four years researching and writing the history of the dunes. He credits Luther Whiteman’s “Face of the Clam” for sparking his interest.
“It’s kind of a South County classic he said of Whiteman’s book, as it describes carefree lifestyle and the type of persons who were attracted to it.
In 1972, Hammond who enjoys hiking into the dunes, one day stumbled into the cove of the last dunite where Schievink lived. Schievink, Hammond said, was suspicious of strangers and clearly wanted to be left alone. But the encounter intrigued him and he began a methodical research of the dunites.
Hammond believes people were attracted to the dunes for solitude — unlike today where the roar of the dune buggies drowns out the cry of the gulls.
“I feel like it is a sanctuary,” Hammond said, and the noise in the traffic disrupts the peace.
“Now you can’t even take a picture without tire tracks across the dunes.”
But for those who lived with the Depression the dunes must’ve been a quiet refuge he said.
“The whole (San Luis Obispo) county was a lonely place that (the dune area) was especially lonely,” he said. “The dunes were place we could go and get by on nothing.”
He learned a commune, Moy Mell, was started in 1931 by the grandson of the president Chester Alan Arthur, who called himself Gavin in order to separate himself from his famous family. The commune was a place for astrologists and intellectuals together and talk for, while surviving on the proceeds from = poetry and the books they would write.
“A lot of heavy intellectualization was going on at the time,” Hammond said.
Gavin’s colony tried to bring their ideas into reality with the magazine, Dune Forum, that was a highly stylized, arty publication.
But the magazine never lived up to the high hopes of its creators and was dropped within the year. Gavin’s colony fared only little better folding after eight years in the dunes.
Hammond’s research led him to surviving dunites who still live in the area.
He talked to the “dunite doctor,” Dr. Rudolph Gerber, now living in Oceano, who treated the dunites for 25 years. For those who couldn’t pay, Gerber said he accepted trades in goods and services.
But the heyday of the dunites began to fade with the onset of the war, Gerber said.
“When the war started the dunes were all shut off by the military patrols” due to the threat of Japanese attacks. “That kind of brought the whole thing to a halt,” he said.
Hammond also ran across Elwood Decker who turned out to be a rich source of information about the dunites.
Decker now 80 and living in Arroyo Grande, lived on and off in the dunes for 11 years. That’s also where he met his wife Ann. Decker is a poet and painter who practices meditation and believes in the great forces of astrology and mysticism that some say binds the Earth together. He seems the ideal dunite.
Decker agreed that the dunite era was hurt by the war, as many of the younger man had to leave and join the service. And the nightly patrols were in nerve-racking experience for the remaining dunites.
“I dare not go home at night,” Decker said. They’d shoot anyone on the beach at night.
He left the dunes in 1946 at the urging of his wife who felt the life there was unnecessarily harsh and limited. They went to Hollywood, where they worked on art films.
Were you sorry left?
“Oh no,” Decker. “I had a wonderful time. I took the
dunes with me.”
He said they returned to the dunes in the mid 50s but the colony was on the wane and their lifestyle had changed.
“Ten years of city life softened me up quite a bit,” he said.”We just never made it.”
Hammond is sorry he missed the dunite era. He said that he would have enjoyed the pristine environment and the conversations with the
dunites.
“I would have loved to of been out there with the movie camera and a tape recorder.”

***
Since this story was originally published Norm Hammond published his book “The Dunites”. It is available at the Oceano Depot bookstore.
Elwood Decker died at the age of 88, in early January 1992. He was hit by a train a mile south of Oceano, within sight of the dunes he loved.
According to historian Dan Krieger “Moy Mell” is ancient Irish for “pasture of honey”.
Many dunite cabins were made from lumber salvaged from La Grande Pavillion.
Oceano Depot website

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