Atten-HUT! Reviving WWII Quonset Huts

Building at Camp Hastings Living History Museum

We’ve all seen, and many of us have completed, restorations of HMVs, everything from Cushman scooters to jeeps and M-series Dodges, from CCKWs and DUKWS to the random Sherman tank. But how many of us can say that we ever completed a frame-off restoration of a WW II military building?
by John Currie

Reprinted from THE RED BULLetin, newsletter of the Red Bull Historic Military Vehicle Assoc. © 2010 Red Bull HMVA. Website: www.redbullhmva.com All photos courtesy of Jack Kane and Gary Wirth.

There’s real estate and there’s real estate. There are cabins and chateaus, castles and bungalows, grand edifices and humble homes. Men have built skyscrapers and monuments, complexes of brick & granite, limestone & oak, copper & mirrored glass.

They have constructed mazes of angles and lines, pyramids and obelisks and geodesic domes. But is there any building as simple and iconic and memorable to millions of men and women as the long and low, ribbed and curved, simply purposeful demi-tube of a Quonset hut? For the men and women of the Camp Hastings Living History Museum in Minnesota, the answer is no. And now they can prove it.

Harold Bottolfson, Gary Wirth, Jack Kane, Warren Klein and friends have built a striking new Quonset hut at Camp Hastings. As new as can be, the carefully resurrected bits and pieces of three old, battered, vintage Quonset huts are now salvaged and straightened and carefully assembled as one. It’s together now, ends in place, windows closed, sealed from the elements and ready for the next 70 years.

 

It’s an easy process. First, you simply find a Quonset house, fairly intact after standing for 70 years. You sweet talk the owner. Then you get a buncha guys, a crapload of tools, and start taking apart what decades of rust and crows and mice and foraging kids didn’t.

Then you find a generous guy to say, “Hey, why don’t I donate the land and let you build it here? And can I grade the ground and pour some footings for you?“ Then you get more friends and erect the dinosaur bones.

NOT JUST A CURVED SHED

Twelve years ago, Harold saw one hut in Cottage Grove, Minn., a silent hulk, rattling and rusty, scheduled for demolition. He chased down and found the owner, and secured the hut, free, in exchange for tearing it down and hauling it away, and storing it for some future day. Hard work, yes, but a pleasure.

Several years later, after starting Camp Hastings, someone told him about two more. He and other volunteers dismantled a second one and hauled its galvanized skin and weathered steel ribs to Gary Wirth’s shop, along with bits and pieces from the third.

Gary volunteered his shop for cleaning it all up, pounding out the dents, cleaning off decades-old mastic, grinding off the rust. An inch was trimmed off the bottom of many of the ribs where years of ground contact had eaten them away. More metal was welded in place to make each rib its original length. Numbered and stacked, they were piled one upon the other, gradually accumulating enough to build one complete structure. And that happened after discovering a manual on the Internet from a man in Missouri.

Home was to be at Camp Hastings, sited within the Little Log House Pioneer Village in Hastings, Minn., and owned by Steve and Sylvia Bauer. The Living History Museum already has one building there and Steve volunteered to have concrete footings poured as the foundation for the hut.

Play “Lego” with two hundred numbered pieces of corrugated steel. Easy.

Steve built a wooden deck on those footings, the way that all Quonset huts were built. The frame went up next, topped piece by rippled piece with the corrugated steel skin. Thousands of sheet metal screws, nuts and bolts and nails held them all in place, plus some creative filling of the holes left from the screws and nails and rust from seventy years ago. The other necessary ingredient was patient and understanding wives.

Original huts had their wooden end walls made from the lumber of the packing crates. These ends are new wood and cedar siding, along with new doors and both old and new wooden window frames, each filled with the original glass. And puttied. And painted. The hut was closed in by Nov. 7 and rain-tested three days later when a big storm blew through.

Then you say, “I’m too old to worry about silicosis”, and get out your compressor, plus a zillion tons of sand and start blasting away the rust and corrosion and mastic. And because you happen to have a cherry picker, you haul your butt up there and take some aerial pictures. Heck, why not?

A few windows, some bondo and the incredible restoration machine known as “Gary Wirth” and you’re pretty much done. This project was Harold’s baby, but its successful completion was due in great part to Gary’s efforts.

Gary Wirth is a force of nature. He can tear down just about anything, mend and fix and replicate the pieces, then put it all back together and smooth it and paint it and wrap it up with a bow. A favorite tale about him is the time a guy drove in an M20 armored car for a brake job and left with a fully restored show piece, albeit a few months later than he thought it would take…

RENEWED LIFE OF A QUONSET HUT

Perhaps the group will store some of its vehicles there: a 1942 Ford GP, an M38A1, M37, several M100 trailers, an M7 Snow Tracker and a 1943 Opel Blitz truck. They are currently stored in various buildings around the Little Log House Village site. By the time spring arrives, the hut should be essentially complete, ready to serve again.

The volunteers who built the hut included Steve Bauer, Harold Bottolfson, Gary Wirth, Jack Kane, Warren Klein and Todd and Ivy Hintz. If your name isn’t there, it ain’t because your work isn’t valued; it’s because the editor has a little brain and can only handle so much information. Thanks to Dan Thorsen for giving me the initial heads-up that this bad boy was built. I spoke with Harold and Gary at Kevin Kronlund’s fall get-together about the idea of doing this––the next thing that I knew, it was done!

During WWII, soldiers, SEABEES and engineers constructed the endwalls from the lumber used for carting the Quonset hut parts. Someone had misplaced the crates over the last 70 years, so Harold and Gary and crew completed all new carpentry.
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