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Seattle inventor and manufacturer Frank Hobbs is awarded army contract for prefabricated Pacific huts on September 6, 1942.
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On September 6, 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awards a contract for Seattle-built prefabricated Pacific huts. These wood huts save war-critical steel, cut shipping costs, and provide comfortable troop housing. Frank Hobbs (1895-1972), the Pacific-hut inventor, acts on a shortcoming he recognizes and quickly designs an alternative to the steel Quonset hut. Hobbs has a track record of designing cost-effective alternative products; in the 1930s he developed Colotyle, an enamel- coated hardboard used in place of tile.
Warmer, Lighter, and Wooden
The contract awarded to Pacific Huts, Inc. called for the company to produce 1,000 prefabricated huts for troop housing in Alaska. By the end of the war, Pacific Huts (named after the Pacific Northwest) had delivered 12,000 of the structures, which resembled the famed Quonset huts (made of corrugated steel and named after Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, where they were first erected).
The significant difference between the two was that the Pacific hut was made of wood and thus saved 180,000 tons of steel, a critical war material. The lighter wood hut also saved on shipping costs, and with less thermal transfer, it provided a more comfortable barracks than the Quonset hut.
Frank Hobbs: Man of Ingenuity
Frank Hobbs came to the United States from London, England, as a young boy. He grew up in California, his father a contractor. Having wanderlust, he traveled and did not finish high school. He left California to seek opportunities in Portland, Oregon, where he became operator of a Firestone tire dealership. He went into the army in World War I as a private and served in France. During his military tour he was promoted to Master Sergeant and ran a motor pool. Towards the end of the war he received a promotion to captain and became head of a supply depot. His ingenuity contributed to this success. While managing the supply depot, Hobbs created supply bins out of shipping boxes, converted a Ford automobile to a small, depot locomotive, and turned a balloon hoist into a trench digger.
Following his discharge in August 1919, Hobbs came to Seattle and sold used cars for a couple of years. Next he went to Everett, Washington, where he owned a Buick dealership. He married in 1923 and he and his wife, Florence (1896-1988), were together 49 years until Frank Hobbs death.
Disenchanted with the control and oversight from Detroit, he left Buick. Hobbs at this point realized that his greatest skill was ingenuity, designing or inventing solutions. In 1934 he formed the Colfonite Company to produce Masonite wall board. He experimented with applying super-hard paint finishes to hardboard, a low cost alternative to tile. Hobbs perfected the process and opened a factory under the trademark name of Colotyle. The product sold well and many homes had Colotyle bathrooms or kitchens. Ship builder Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967) purchased large quantities for use in ships. Hobbs also teamed up with George K. Comstock (1898-1970) , a Seattle neon- and electric-sign company owner, to form business ventures.
Pacific Huts Incorporated
During the spring of 1942 Hobbs noticed the shipment of Quonset huts to Alaska. These huts used considerable quantities of steel and were shipped across country and then to Alaska. He believed a hard-coated wood hut would save war-critical steel, and be lighter to save on shipping costs. He built a model in 21 days, and the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers liked it and ordered 85 test examples. These test versions impressed the Corps, which then contracted for 1,000 huts. They would be half-cylinder shape huts built of Masonite (pressed wood), with spruce or hemlock ribs and plywood floors. The huts provided usable floor space of 16-feet by 36-feet with nine feet of headroom in the center. As prefabricated units, they had the electrical wiring installed at the factory, and in the field a Pacific hut could be erected by five men in eight hours.
Hobbs, and Comstock as Pacific Hut vice-president, located a factory and raised $100,000 to equip it. They found an abandoned shipyard at 6901 Fox Avenue S, in an industrial area one-half mile north of the Boeing Plant. In 60 days they converted the plant to an assembly line to fabricate the huts. Pacific Huts employed 500 men and became nationally known for an exceptionally low absentee rate. Frank Hobbs earned the reputation as an effective manager who got great results from his employees. Time magazine, in its March 23, 1943, issue, related Pacific Hut’s success in retaining workers, and its low absentee rate and high productivity. Hobbs attributed his success to keeping the labor force at 500 or fewer, no more than one person could handle on a personal basis. Also, he had the men working on parallel lines in team competition. The two teams turned out a completed hut every 15 minutes. The factory would turn out 12,000 huts during the war. Most would go to Alaska, but some provided wartime housing in Richland, Washington.
Pacific Huts recognized its employees with advertisements in Seattle newspapers, identifying workers and their contributions to hut production. For example, in a September 1943 advertisement, Pacific Huts bragged that it was two months ahead of schedule and that through worker suggestions productivity had doubled. Names and photographs of 27 outstanding workers who helped make this possible were shown. The leading photograph featured Seth Roland (1906-1990), a machinist who recommended machine-shop changes that reduced production times. Workers who streamlined the process received war bonds as rewards.
Colotrym and Postwar Production
There was little demand for Pacific huts after the war ended. A greenhouse and summer home based on the Pacific Hut did not attract mass interest. Hobbs returned to his wall-board production, heading four related companies: Colotyle, Tyle-Board, Colotrym, and Hobbs Industries.
In 1946 Colotrym started producing aluminum molding, replacing the more expensive stainless steel moldings. By 1964 the firm was producing 2,000 shapes and lengths. During the 1950s Frank Hobbs obtained a number of patents for moldings and aluminum products, including abrasive stair threads, display cards, and other devices. In 1964 Hobbs decided to retire and sold Colotrym to the Futura Corporation of Boise, Idaho, a firm that still manufactures moldings and other products.
Frank Hobbs in Retirement
After retiring, Hobbs built his dream home, using his ingenuity to create a special, state-of-the-art home. The 3,000-square-foot house, at 1150 Alki Avenue SW in Seattle, was completed in 1968 and incorporates many innovative ideas. The home was one unit of a fourplex, and Frank and Florence Hobbs enjoyed its unique features, including a 1,000 square-foot master suite with a reading area to catch the best natural light.
The home had exceptional views of Elliott Bay and two lanais for outdoor enjoyment. Hobbs carved two Tiki’s that stood at the door. Stone surrounds at the entrance came from a gold mine near Wenatchee, Washington. The house had an elevator, security cameras, cushioned vinyl flooring in the kitchen, an electric barbeque, and many other extras.
Durable, Sturdy, and Abandoned
Many of the 12,000 Pacific huts erected in Alaska remained after the war. The military bases in the Aleutian Islands were abandoned in place. For 40 years they stood silent, subjected to winds, rain, and neglect. By the 1970s these neglected camps, some containing over a thousand huts each, had become environmental eyesores. Congressional action led to a federal program to remove the debris.
The Army Corps of Engineers managed the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, still active, to clean up military debris. Interestingly, when the abandoned military bases were surveyed in the 1990s the Pacific huts had survived in much better condition than the Quonset huts. They were weathered but intact. In areas such as Dutch Harbor most of their deterioration had come at the hands of vandals.
"Frank Hobbs, Barracks Builder, Dies," The Seattle Daily Times, June 27, 1972, p. 42; Polly Lane, "Dream House? You Bet, It’s Part of Fourplex," The Seattle Daily Times, March 24, 1968; "Army’s Need for Shelter Brings New Industry and $1,000,000 Contract," The Seattle Daily Times, September 6, 1942, p. 14; "Hutmakers Extraordinary," Time, March 23, 1943, Time magazine website accessed March 10, 2010 (http://www.time.com); "The Hut That Hobbs Builds," The Oregonian, May 9, 1943, p. 96.
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on August 26, 2011.
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A Pacific hut, recently completed, Aleutian Islands, 1943
Courtesy National Archives (Image No. 80 G 349504)
A Pacific hut, replacement for tent camp in background, Aleutian Islands, 1943
Courtesy National Archives (80 G 349521)
Soldiers celebrate Christmas in a Pacific hut, Aleutian Islands, 1944
Courtesy National Archives (Image No. 80 G 283259)
Four vandalized Pacific huts (foreground), Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 1985
HistoryLink.org Photo by Duane Colt Denfeld