Last Thursday, the first steps were taken to save what might be the one of the last remaining Quonset huts from the WWII Navy Homoja Housing Program. Those steps only took the hut about 100 yards south, but that’s enough for now to keep it from being demolished.
“We know what to do, the key is finding the final location,” said Wil Shellenberger, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation, the group leading the effort.
The hut, which is thought to be the last Homoja hut in its original configuration, is safe from demolition, expected to start this month.
The foundation is working to secure property that will become its final destination and a site for a new museum.
Shellenberger said the memorial foundation has collected about half of what it needs to save the structure.
The building mover company Nickel Bros hauled the hut to the adjacent property on Thursday morning and gave the foundation 90 days to pay for the remainder of the costs.
This first step came together in about two weeks.
“Timing was everything,” said Jim Woessner, who has been heavily involved in the project.
The building movers had a cancellation, which allowed them to come to Whidbey Island in time to save the hut from demolition, Woessner said. This set into motion a flurry of activity from community members and businesses to prepare for the move.
Volunteers spent five days hacking through blackberry bushes to make way for the heavy equipment and trucks. A crew from Reeds Construction used its backhoe to clear the remaining brush and trench around the hut, so beams could be placed under it to lift it up.
A community member paid to haul away the debris and junk found inside the structure. Wayne Tilson, the owner of the property next door agreed to let the foundation store the building on his property temporarily. Custom Logging volunteered its equipment to clear a path between the two properties.
Shellenberger said the Island County Historical Society has agreed to help furnish the hut once it’s ready to be turned into an exhibit.
The Homoja Program began in 1943 to house active duty sailors and their families temporarily. People like Dolores Meisch, a current Oak Harbor resident, who moved into a hut with her husband when they were 17 and 19 respectively. She said they lived in one for a month in 1946 soon after getting married.
“We were just kids,” Meisch said. “We were just happy to have a roof over our heads.”
After moving out, Meisch returned to Anacortes to live with her family and her husband was sent to Alaska. Later, the Navy sold of many of the huts and they were used as storage on farms, as camps for Boys Scouts and as classrooms until the mid 60s.
Shellenberger said now that the hut is safe, the foundation is trying to do more in-depth research on the history of the Homoja Program in Oak Harbor. He said it is also in the process of applying for grants to pay for its eventual restoration. The plan is to return one of the hut’s two units to its original configuration when it was used for housing and arrange the other side into how it was when it was used as a classroom.
“This all had to happen so quickly, we haven’t had time to really build up the historical background,” he said.
He said the foundation has been working with the base and school district to find historical documents that might lend insight for the effort. He is also still looking for more stories from people who either lived in one or used one that had been repurposed.
There are a number of other groups and individuals who have committed time, money or resources into the project, Shellenberger said.
“This is exciting,” he said. “And really heartwarming how people have stepped in to help out and make this happen.”