With an influx in enrollment after WWII, Northern State Teachers College responded to a student housing shortage by adding a group of Quonset huts that became a community all their own.
After World War II, Northern State Teachers College faced a severe housing crisis. An increase in enrollment of G.I.s, or Norvets as Northern’s veterans would later be known as, catapulted the college’s census number to over 844 students in 1946. This drastic increase left Northern severely unprepared, as student enrollment during the war years was only around 210. It was cramped living, with three or sometimes even four students sharing a room that had a maximum occupancy of two.
At the time, the only dormitories on campus were Graham, Seymour, and the recently built Lincoln Hall. Depending on the flow and demand of students, each dormitory would be assigned to either males or females and would never be co-ed unless a floor was assigned as family housing. The solution to this new housing shortage came in a form the Norvets were already familiar with. Quonset huts and military style barracks were converted into family houses and kept on Northern’s campus.
In 1945, Northern applied for 35 emergency housing units from the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA) in Chicago. In April 1946, construction started on the housing project, with Henry H. Hackett & Sons of Rapid City federally contracted to build the huts. The project began with only ten huts being built due to supply limitations on building materials. The whole country was still recovering from WWII, and excessive amounts of steel were not readily available. It was almost a full year before the first 18 huts were completed, and it wouldn’t be until 1948 that 30 huts would be finished, housing 60 families in total.
In Mark C. Bartusis’ book, Northern State University: The First Century, 1901-2000, the agreement made with the FPHA required Northern to build sewer and electrical lines from the Central Building to these huts and ensure they were heated and had running water. Northern also had to provide a laundry service on campus. The laundry hut was one of the busiest buildings during its operation. It was located in the area that is referred to as the campus green today. It housed six washers that operated from six in the morning to ten at night. In 1948, The Exponent reported that the facility was upgraded with two new Maytag washers and a new clothesline for students to use.
The Quonset huts were family housing units. Only veterans and their families, through an application process, could live in them. Each hut consisted of two units. Each unit contained two bedrooms, a living room, bathroom, and a kitchen that had a cook stove and an ice box. Some Quonset huts had a fuel locker, too.
The barracks style houses were modeled in the same style as the huts, but instead of having curved sides and roof, they had straight sides and a traditional, gabled roof. The barracks style houses also had the exact same setup inside as the Quonsets. Rent was paid monthly, and it was based on the income of the veteran. Families had the option to furnish their huts themselves or rent furniture from the college.
The huts were supposed to be a temporary solution to the housing problem. They were federally contracted to be on campus for only three years with the contract expiring in 1949. However, in 1948, Northern requested to purchase the federal contracts from the government. The huts were deeded to the state through the Board of Regents. After this transaction, the Board of Regents received all the money that the huts brought in and the structures remained on campus for nearly two more decades.
The Exponent reported in October 1946 that the first 10 families to live in the huts were the families of Jack Hurst, Francis Brewer, John Tillotson, Wallace Webb, Robert Rhombs, Charles Parrott, Miles Egset, Vernon Zick, Albert Cranston, and Willard Forester. The huts these families occupied were built in the area behind where the Mewaldt-Jensen building stands on Northern’s campus today. The other 20 huts were built around Seymour Hall (where Great Plains East is) all the way to the edge of the avenue near Kramer Hall and McArther-Welsh Hall.
As mentioned in the Bartusis book, the most striking feature about the Quonset huts was the goal of self-government. The families who lived in the huts quickly renamed the community to either “Norvet City” or the more popular “Quonsville.” It was in Quonsville that many of the families wanted a place that they felt represented themselves. This led to the creation of a city charter, a mayor position, and a council for the Quonset huts.
The first mayor of Quonsville was Joe Shelley, and he was elected in 1947. A council of five Norvets were also chosen to represent the five wards of Quonsville: Ralph Johnson and Francis Brewer were mentioned by full name. The other three were only listed by their last names: Colossi, Hilgeman, and Aman. The mayor and council would work together with an elected student manager under the guidance of Theodore Rozendahl, who was superintendent of buildings and land at Northern.
Not much can be found on the Quonsville mayor position or what activities the council did specifically. As reported by The Exponent, the primary objectives they focused on were increasing subsistence payments and general housing maintenance inquiries.
The families that lived in the huts varied from young married couples to growing families. One such family was that of Ralph and Bernie Johnson. Ralph was in the Navy, and after the war ended, he married Bernie when she was just 17. Ralph enrolled at Northern in 1945, and he and Bernie were the first to occupy Quonset 23, located in the southwest corner of Quonsville. While at Northern, they had their first child.
The Johnsons only lived in the hut for just over a year before Ralph transferred to MIT in Boston, MA, but Bernie still remembers fondly what life was like living in Quonsville. “I was only 17, and it was just after the war time, so it didn’t take much to please me. Anything you had you appreciated. If we would have stayed any longer, we might have had problems because there wasn’t an awful lot of storage and in the summertime it would get hot.”
The kitchen and living rooms were open concept by design, and the cupboards were built onto the slope of the curved walls. Bernie had purchased fiesta-themed dinnerware, and her mother-in-law had gifted her handmade yellow, green, and blue striped curtains that gave her kitchen a Spanish theme. The personal touches didn’t stop there, as Bernie also grew morning glories on one side of the hut and moon flowers on the other on built-up flower beds. To beat the heat during the summer, the Johnsons would run a hose over the top of their hut and let the water run down the rounded sides into the flower beds to cool the metal and water the flowers.
Bernie described the cookstove as having four burners that used coal or wood for fuel. It also had a reservoir that channeled water through it, and that was how occupants heated their water for the day. “If you started early in the morning, you would have hot water by the end of the night. It also heated the big water tank for showers, so if you didn’t take your shower right after you heated those stoves up, you had to take a cold shower.” Bernie laughed, speaking from experience.
Bernie was one of the few wives who didn’t attend classes while living at Northern. Her Quonset hut became a regular meeting place for the other wives in between classes to meet up and have coffee. She jokingly called it the “Coffee Hut.”
While living in Quonsville may have seemed idyllic and the short-term answer to Northern’s housing problem, it was not the harmonious community that many college kids experience today. Bernie explained it as being “very clique-ish.” According to her, it was the old service rule. “The ones that were officers in the service stuck together, and the ones that enlisted stuck together. Of course, these guys were studying hard to get going again so there wasn’t a lot of socialization. You mostly just stuck to your own little group.”
By the time Bernie and Ralph moved into their hut, the people who had already been living in Quonsville were well-situated in their houses. “We were kind of the underclassmen, not in the class itself, but they were more established than we were. We were living off $110 a month. That was G.I. pay,” Bernie said. “Rent was $18, and we rented one chest of drawers for 75 cents a month instead of buying a brand new one.”
Of course, Bernie and Ralph had some good times living in Quonsville. On their first Christmas living in their Quonset hut, their little dog got into some real trouble with the Christmas tree. “Our first Christmas we had a little dog. Our Christmas tree was decorated with angel hair, which I don’t think they make anymore. The dog knocked the tree over and took some ornaments into the closet where our shoes were, and of course that angel hair went right along with it. For a long time, we had ground glass in our shoes!”
Over the years, Northern’s campus grew exponentially with buildings coming and going. To make room for the building of Kramer Hall, the Quonset huts were gradually sold off. The Aberdeen Daily News reported in 1961 that units 5 through 16 were sold through sealed bids. Marvin Dombrowe of Huffton bought six huts and a metal clad frame for the total sum of $1,285. The laundry hut was also sold to Harvey Howell of Aberdeen for $20.50. In 1963, the Aberdeen Daily News also noted units 17 through 36 were sold through sealed bids. At the time, these huts were being used as classrooms. The gabled roof huts were sold as metal clad frames and consisted of units 41 through 60. These were sold through sealed bids as well. The new owners were responsible for removing them and any damages made to campus.
By 1965, there were only five huts left on campus and all were repurposed as different buildings. Two huts were converted into the Reading Center and the Northeast South Dakota Mental Health Center. Two more huts were used as a storage shed next to the Garage, or what is now known as the Physical Plant, and the last one was used as a physics lab. This physics lab was later converted to one of the only three Physics Space Tracking Laboratories in the United States in 1967.
Regardless of what happened to the huts, they provided a home for many families, including Clark Swisher for a brief period in 1950 while his house was being constructed on Melgaard Road. Although their presence was brief on campus compared to buildings like Graham Hall, which has been around since Northern’s founding, the Quonset huts were an integral feature to the university’s burgeoning campus and history. // –Karlie Spiry
We would like to acknowledge and thank those that assisted with this story: Bernie Johnson, JoAnn Cunningham, Brown County Assessor’s office, NSU Librarian/Archivist Stephanie Cossette, Yvonne Warne, and Tracy Steele. Do you have an Aberdeen Quonset hut story or pictures? We’d love to hear from you.
Ghosts of Quonsets Past
The Aberdeen community also features a few Quonset huts as homes. During the post-war era, Quonset huts became a popular choice for housing. Several were built on site in the 900 block of North Penn Street in 1945. One is still in its original curved shape while the others have been converted to box-style homes. JoAnn Cunningham and her late husband Calvin “Bud” Cunningham bought their Quonset in 1963. Bud systematically added on, dug a basement by hand, and added a second Quonset as a garage, leaving no traces of curved roofs or ceilings. One Quonset was located at 315 N. Third Street, but has since been replaced with an apartment. There is also one Quonset hut still standing in West Hill, just north of Steven Lust Automotive. One of the Northern Quonset huts was purchased by the Country Club but was later sold to the Aberdeen Board of Education for $500 and placed on Simmons Field to be used as a concession stand and storage shed.