Exactly 50 years ago, I met Charlie Schmid, or Dune Charlie, as he was known. He was what might have once been called a hermit, living by himself with his old dog, Beauregard, in a shack out in the dunes. He prospered in the dunes but did not do well when he came into town, due to a fondness for drink and a disregard for convention.
Over the years, as his shack was inundated by shifting sand, he simply built another on top of it. He showed me his old subterranean shack, where he climbed down a ladder to store his food in the cool deep sand. Charlie was rather casual about housework. “I don’t use a broom,” he said. “I use a rake.” He craved privacy and did not take well to intruders. When sightseeing planes from the local airport flew over his shack, Charlie was known to climb on his roof with a shotgun and take a bead on them. He never fired, but the pilot would radio back to the station and Charlie would get a visit from the rangers. His shack sported a couple of derelict Jeeps and 39 nest boxes for tree swallows, which he studied and for which he maintained detailed records for almost two decades.
I had lost touch with Charlie by 1980 when I moved to California for graduate school, and he died in 1984. Only days after his death, his beloved shack, with many of his belongings and records, was bulldozed by the Cape Cod National Seashore. Officials said the shack was a “fire hazard,” as if the dunes would somehow burn down. It was not the first instance of such vandalism. In 1967, the Vevers shack had been burned down by the Seashore.
The truth is that the Seashore had no use for dune shacks and would have preferred that the thousands of acres of dunes be uncomplicated by human habitation.
But the Province Lands, like all of Cape Cod, has a human history intertwined with its natural history. Most of the 18 surviving dune shacks were built in the early 20th century by Coast Guardsmen stationed at Race Point, Peaked Hill Bars, and High Head for their wives or sweethearts to use. Subsequent shack dwellers included many notable artists and writers and some eccentrics like Charlie. Decades of people living out there, mostly seasonally but sometimes year-round, had created a legacy, a way of life, a culture. (For a history of dune shack life, see Josephine Del Deo’s The Watch at Peaked Hill.)
Enter the Seashore in 1961. The establishment of a national park here undoubtedly saved the Outer Cape from overdevelopment and ruin, but how could a large bureaucratic government agency ever be expected to deal with the nuances of culture, tradition, and history?
From the start, there was an uneasy relationship between the shack dwellers and park managers. How do you balance the rights of shack dwellers who do not actually own their shacks with the public’s right to access? Progress of a sort came in a 2012 agreement, but, as Paul Benson wrote in the May 11 Independent, that agreement has been pretty much ignored.
We are in the midst of a housing crisis on the Outer Cape. Why worry about the concerns of a handful of dune dwellers? Because the proposed leasing process is not right. It commodifies something ineffable, disregards the human dimension, and puts profit over preservation. We live in a democracy. We abide by laws and regulations that have been deliberated by our elected officials. But in this case, we are living with a big neighbor, headquartered in Philadelphia, who sets the rules.
The dunes are an integral part of this town; they remind us of our beginnings, of the stalwart people that made a life here before our modern comforts. Those who choose to spend time out there now deserve our respect — or at least fair treatment. They have been, and continue to be, good stewards of the land. Will the highest bidders do the same?
I can only imagine what Dune Charlie would have to say.