Tucked into the dunes of Provincetown are a number of small shacks with a rich history. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with WGBH Managing Editor Sean Corcoran about the shacks, and how they seem to have outlasted the test of time. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: So how many are there, before we get into the history of these, and where are they exactly?

Sean Corcoran: There are 19 dune shacks, or artist shacks, as they're also called. And they're all within the national seashore, on the back shore of Provincetown and Truro in what's called the Province Lands. So if you think of Cape Cod as a bent arm, they're up there near the fist. They're all within nearly 2,000 acres of protected, incredible sand dunes — just hills of sand. Thoreau walked through there and he said, 'A man may stand there and put all America behind him.'

Mathieu: These are pretty rustic. How would you describe them?

Corcoran: They're rustic. That's a good word. Primitive, small, weathered. Most of them [are] about one story, some are a story and a half. Driftwood was used to make some of these. Most of them now use more contemporary construction materials. No running water [and] no plumbing. In terms of amenities, you've got a composting toilet and maybe an outdoor water pump [and] that's about it. They require constant maintenance, because you've got all that sand constantly moving, so they're using plants and sand fences to protect them a little bit. But they really blend into the landscape.

Mathieu: It's really a shack. It's a shed, basically?

Corcoran: It's a shed. Some people use the word cottage, which is nice.

Mathieu: Very cute. Though they're not new and far from. Artists have used them for generations; that's how most of us hear about them. But they have a long history before the artists ever showed up.

Corcoran: You can really go back to the colonists and Native Americans fishing in that area and creating domiciles. But typically we look to the 1800s. And at that time, along the coast of the Cape, there was shipwreck after shipwreck. That's why they created the Cape Cod Canal, in order to avoid all these shipwrecks. So before we had a Coast Guard we had what we called surf men, who would walk the beaches looking for shipwrecks [and] looking for people who essentially [had] been marooned on Cape Cod, in the middle of nowhere. And they built these shacks. These surf men would walk from shack to shack, and they'd stock them with food and other items so if somebody was shipwrecked they could stay in one of the shacks, or the surf men themselves could stay in the shack. And particularly when it was bad weather they were out there all the time. After the canal was built, we didn't need these surf men walking because boats weren't going that way. So the artists came and they found these shacks. By the early 1900s, Provincetown was America's first art colony. It was filled with artists, and they started to do work out there in the Province Lands. They would use these shacks. And from the early 1900s into the 1950s they started to build their own shacks.

Mathieu: So these are not the original shacks?

Corcoran: No, they're not the original shacks.

Mathieu: This is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. That plays into this story as well.

Corcoran: It certainly does. So John F. Kennedy had the idea in working with Sen. Saltonstall, to create a National Seashore, to protect the outer Cape beaches. And the artists of Provincetown fully supported that, they fought for it and it went into place. And so in 1961 the seashore was created. But then a fight emerges, because the National Park Service wanted to get rid of the shacks. They weren't used to this. They would take over land that was typically wild. This was a place with houses, these shacks, [and] we start to see this debate between the artists who use the shacks and the Park Service, and it ebbed and flowed for decades. So I had spoken to this writer, Josephine Del Deo. She's married to the sculptor Salvador Del Deo. [They're] real fixtures in Provincetown. Josephine died a few years ago, but I spoke with her for a long time and she told me about these shacks and the fight with the Park Service:

Clip of Josephine Del Deo: "The superintendents gladly would say to you, and I have quotes from them that they couldn't deny, their whole purpose was to eliminate these cottages as soon as the stipulations ran out or as soon as the people died. They would take them down to the ground, they would destroy them. And then we would be back to 'wilderness.'"

Mathieu: But they're now protected.

Corcoran: They are now protected.

Mathieu: So the Park Service changed its position?

Corcoran: It took a while. People like Del Deo fought to get the dunes where the shacks exist into the National Register of Historic Places. The Park Service [was] like, 'Nope, they don't qualify. That's that's not going to work.' But the state got involved. [The] Massachusetts Historic Commission came in, they supported this bid and said this area does qualify for the register. So even after the area was found to qualify for the register, Del Deo told me that the Park Service still fought on, still arguing that the properties needed to be improved to meet certain standards. Here's Del Deo again:

Clip of Josephine Del Deo: "It's a total contradiction. We were out there as unregistered properties because we didn't have these things. Because we represented a survivalist relationship with nature."

Mathieu: Turn them into condos.

Corcoran: Well, if it wasn't for the National Seashore, that's what people say, we'd have the Jersey Shore down there. The developers were, you know, chomping at the bit to get to Cape Cod.

Mathieu: You'd have high rises on the outer Cape.

Corcoran: Absolutely. Not shacks.

Mathieu: Some of the residents of these shacks have been pretty famous.

Corcoran: Oh yeah. They helped promote [and] protect the shacks. Eugene O'Neill worked in Provincetown. He wrote some of his famous plays right there in a shack. [Painters] Jackson Pollock and Ross Moffett, another resident of Provincetown. Norman Mailer [and] Jack Kerouac. Tennessee Williams ...

Mathieu: And they'd stay out there for weeks or months, right?

Corcoran: Yes, they would stay out there. They would do their work in the solitude.

Mathieu: Well, that's the thing. You have actually seen a couple of these shacks, right? They're not easy to get to.

Corcoran: No, they're not easy to get to. They used to be easier. They used to have Jeep trails that you get in there. Right now, the Park Service does allow a Provincetown-based tour group to take people through there and see them. I hiked in there, and you can do it. It's a challenge. Right at the trailhead off Snail Road, people cast aside their shoes and their boots to make their way through the dunes. I did that [and] walked over a couple hills, and you see them. I didn't go up into them or anything like that [because] I wanted to just let those people enjoy their solitude. But it's an amazing place. It's like another world.