Little Quonset Huts on the Prairie

A couple of months ago Omnibus! with Ken Jennings and John Roderick did an episode on Quonset Huts.

You’ve probably heard this term before - it shows up in movies and books, particularly if they are about or adjacent to the military - e.g. you might read a line like "the base included row after row of Quonset Huts..." But while I know I’d heard the term over and over again growing up, and I did periodically make the connection between it and what it was referring to, I most often did not. Reading that name in a book did not typically evoke an image of what it was specifically referring to.

This is a somewhat odd disconnect, given that they are literally all over the place out here on the prairie. If you have spent any time on country roads or rural highways I can just about guarantee that you’ve seen them too. But I think for me the term “Quonset Hut" throws me - both because the first part is somewhat exotic sounding, and because the second part evokes an image that is significantly different than what the actual thing is. When I think of a hut, I think of something like this:

Now this is a hut

Very different from the reality of the actual thing:

But this is a Quonset hut

There. Now that you’ve seen that picture you probably realize that you’ve seen these before and, if you didn’t know what they were called, simply thought of them as sheds or workshops; and aside from the half-cylinder shape, likely otherwise found them to be nondescript and perhaps rather uninteresting. They certainly are not a hut, and they don’t deserve an exotic name like "Quonset". And what is a Quonset anyway?

As John explains in detail in the Omnibus! episode, it’s not really an exotic thing. They were designed and developed in the US and produced by the military during World War II at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center, which is on Quonset Point in Rhode Island. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) says that Quonset is an Algonquin word meaning "small, long place".

The Wikipedia article also says that the place name is now widely known because of its association with the Quonset Hut. It’s an odd route to minor fame (or at least recognition), but there it is.

So now we’ve cleared that up - it’s an oddly shaped, exotically/non-exotically named military building. There are good reasons behind the design, and it has a history going back to Britain in World War I, all of which John Roderick goes through in detail in his inimitable and delightful way - I highly recommend you listen to the episode for all of that (and frankly, just go ahead and subscribe to Omnibus! - it comes out twice a week and it’s never not good)

But if it’s a military building, what the heck is it doing all over the Midwest? Because it _is_ all over the place. I see variants of these when I’m riding around the countryside, from classic versions like the one above, to modified versions put to different purposes:

Three-quarter hut - shed

Hut as hay shed

They are very common on farmsteads, and they often seem to be put to similar purposes as what I think of as a machine shed - large buildings with corrugated steel siding - and naturally so. But the thing is, they also show up in town. The first picture above is within the city limits of my hometown, as are both of these:

Town hut

Schimmer’s old building

The second of the two pictures was the home for Schimmer’s car dealership for a sizable portion of my childhood, and apparently for some time prior to that:

Schimmer’s Newspaper Ad)

(That pic posted on Facebook by Edie Frizol on September 4, 2019)

They cleverly hide the shape of the building with a facade and a careful selection of the angle with the newspaper picture. But coming from either side, and certainly when you were inside, you always knew the building was a half-tube.

If these are military buildings, what are they doing all over the place here in the heartland? Well, I suspect that it’s because they were sold as military surplus after the war. I’d imagine that if you were a farmer looking for an easily erected, relatively inexpensive shed, or even a car dealer who needed space to house cars, a repair shop, and even (why not) dealer offices, this might have been an attractive option.

And clearly it was. And they turned out to be durable options as well, given the number of them that are still standing, mostly in relatively good condition - or at least so it appears from the outside. It’s not at all uncommon to see sheds with rusty metal roofs out here, but I cannot recall seeing a rusty Quonset Hut.

With any luck, and with the instruction of the guys at Omnibus!, maybe now I won’t have to do an extensive mental search to make the connection between the name and the picture.