Voices from the Backshore: A History of the Dune Shacks

They walked along the beach through the worst possible conditions—at night, during storms, in the snow. They weren’t by the sea to vacation or get a tan or write a postcard; they walked in pairs along the coast of what was known as the graveyard of the Atlantic and they were there to save lives. They were the men of the Massachusetts Humane Society and they were the first “coast guards,” walking the back shore to help survivors of shipwrecks.

They built shacks along that same back shore to serve as shelters both for the coast guardsmen themselves and for shipwreck survivors washing ashore. They impressed Henry David Thoreau enough that he wrote of them in his classic travelogue-meditation Cape Cod in 1865.

And it was perhaps using materials from those same shelters that the next wave of dune shacks was built in the 1920s by artists and writers attracted to Provincetown as a sort of “Greenwich Village North.” These were bohemian free spirits who had already claimed the beauty and quaintness of the fishing town but now wanted more: more space, more solitude, more experiences. And so they went to the dunes.

Ptownie Dune Shack Provincetown

Among them was, of course, Eugene O’Neill, the first to give the shacks their artistic cachet; he wrote Anna Christie and The Hairy Ape out at the old coast guard station. Jack Kerouac, e.e. cummings, Jackson Pollock, Edmund Wilson, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer all spent time working and living in the dunes, some as guests of Hazel Hawthorne, owner of the shacks called Thalassa and Euphoria. Eventually there came to be a whole shack society out in the dunes, a collection of coastguards, writers, artists and fishers, held together through kinship, friendships, and shack acquisitions.

Of course, the dunes weren’t just about solitude. During Prohibition, shacks served (predictably, perhaps) as venues for drinking parties. Eugene O’Neill reportedly shocked a group of schoolteachers on a beach taxi tour when they realized his group was frolicking outside—in the nude.

Cynthia Huntington’s The Salt House recounts how Hazel Hawthorne first encountered her shack: it was in a dream on a hot summer night in New York City in 1919 that she saw a small cottage perched on a sand bank above the ocean. Hawthorne and her husband embarked on a search, walking all the way down the coast from Portsmouth. Nearing Provincetown, they encountered Agnes O’Neill coming out of the dunes with a suitcase, and Hazel told Agnes her dream. Agnes sent them right out to the old Peaked Hills lifesaving station, with instructions to rent one of the “cottages” for $12/month. Hazel moved right into Thalassa, and in many ways she never left.

The smallest of the shacks has perhaps the most colorful history. “Around 1920,” says Robby McQueeney, self-styled “dune tramp,” who lectures locally about the shacks, “coastguardsman Frank Cadose was the first to occupy the old Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving Station henhouse. Thought to have been built around 1900, it was later sold to fellow coastguardsman Frank Henderson, who started renting it to Harry Kemp in the 1920s.” Henderson gave the shack to Kemp outright “rather than listen any longer to Kemp’s ceaseless complaints,” writes David Dunlap. “By the 40s, Kemp had largely squandered what slim reputation he’d enjoyed in serious circles. He had become a caricature: an ever eccentric, often besotted, unabashedly self-promoting poet—beloved by many, but just tolerated by others.”

In other words, Kemp was too strange even for Provincetown. He eventually gave the shack to Sunny Tasha and her family; now known simply as “Tasha,” it’s on log skids to allow it to be moved or jacked up as it adapts to the shifting landscape; it was blown apart by a storm during the 1960s but rebuilt. Most of the shacks have some adaptive features; the ones that didn’t were swallowed by the growing barrier dunes. Because of the fluid dune system, shacks have to be repositioned every few years.

After the 1931 hurricane destroyed O’Neill’s old lifesaving dwelling, rebuilding and repopulating the shacks became a priority for many, and for decades thereafter artists, poets, and novelists continued to create an alternate bohemian colony in the dunes. Norman Mailer stayed in Euphoria and reportedly found it too distractingly beautiful to stay. Boris Margo and his wife, artist and poet Jan Gelb, built a shack on the site of the old station, which promptly fell into the sea. Undeterred, Margo enlisted the help of his nephew, artist Murray Zimiles, to rebuild; by 1947 the shack was hosting annual “full o’ the moon” or “howling at the moon” beach parties to which Margo invited the whole town: he’d build a 40-foot driftwood sculpture and set it ablaze just at moonrise while partygoers danced, sang, read poetry, and played music. Now known as “Margo-Gelb” or simply “Boris,” the shack hosts writers and artists for two-week residencies. Perhaps if they listen closely they can hear the echoes of Jan Gelb’s whoops of delight as she ran, naked, to jump into the ocean every morning.

Ghostly apparitions notwithstanding, many people in fact never left, their ashes mixed into the sand near the shacks they loved: Harry Kemp, Jan Gelb, Boris Margo, Nick Wells, Sunny Tasha, and others are still out there.

Most of the shacks are known by their erstwhile owners’ names. C-Scape, the westernmost shack, is an exception; it was built in the 1930s and named in 1996 by the Provincetown Community Compact’s Jay Critchley and Tom Boland, who felt they wanted to honor all the shack’s previous owners.

Dune Shack Provincetown Ptownie

Over time, the use cycles and patterns of the shacks changed. Families evolved, individuals moved around for work or education, but shacks remained a constant in the family: they remain rooted somehow in the sands and scrub trees of the back shore.

For many people, the shack experience is a life-changing one that contributes significantly to the person’s identity and influences life choices they make. 

And the influence of the shack experience has spread wide. Even though he paints from the Hudson River Landscape School, Murray Zimiles is never far from his uncle’s dune shack: “I continue to absorb the space, the light, and the feel of the Cape’s undulating landscape detectable in my paintings,” he writes.

The Cape Cod National Seashore has been a mixed blessing for the shacks. With the rate of growth of Provincetown and the wealth that has spurred it, this land might well have been developed into something unrecognizable had it not become federally protected.

But when the Seashore was created in 1961, there was some question about that protection. This was unlike other parks: a dynamic coastal setting, home to quirky people and tight-knit communities. The Seashore, said National Park Service historian Bill Burke, initially regarded the dune shacks as “a blight on the landscape. The Seashore in the first 20 years was really very sensitive, and mission-driven, to returning to nature as much as possible. The dune shacks were just one of the things that the park was very anxious to take down and return back to nature.”

All but one shack were purchased by the NPS and former owners given long-term leases. Several lawsuits ensued and a significant number of shacks were demolished. Public outcry arose when, at the death of “Dune Charlie” Schmid, a dune-dweller who had devoted himself to chronicling the behavior of tree swallows, the NPS bulldozed his shack, his belongings and personal papers “left scattered on this hillside,” says McQueeney. “The inhumanity triggered a grassroots movement to protect the shacks.”

In 2012, the National Park Service issued a plan “for the preservation and use of the Dune Shacks of Peaked Hills Historic District,” stopping the demolition of the shacks and aiming to maintain both the development of arts and literature while protecting the privacy of shack dwellers.

Several of the shacks are available to artists, writers, and community members through the Peaked Hill Trust Residency Program for Arts and Science, the Outer Cape Artists in Residency Consortium, and the Provincetown Community Compact.

Despite the fact that none of the shacks has electricity or running water, they still exert a strong allure, and the waiting lists for occupancy are always full. “It’s like a magical village,” says McQueeney. “The mystery of the shacks is what’s so appealing.”

And hopefully will continue to be for years to come.

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