My Cold War Fallout Shelter

A 1961 home fallout shelter in Moorhead.

clay county histories

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

In 1957, Civil Defense named Fargo-Moorhead a possible target for Soviet Atom Bombs. Authorities developed a plan: If World War III breaks out, we’d all get the heck out of here!

People were instructed to put 50 miles between them and Fargo-Moorhead. Civil Defense hung 20 signs around Moorhead detailing the evacuation routes. North Moorhead would take Highway 75 to Ada, the central downtown corridor would go east on Highway 10 to Detroit Lakes, southwest Moorheadians would take 75 to Breckenridge and those living in the southeast part of town would take Highway 52 to Fergus Falls (this was before Interstate 94 reached us). Everyone living in Clay County would be evacuated.

In the fall of 1961, however, Civil Defense changed tactics. President John F. Kennedy began encouraging people to build their own home fallout shelters. Clay County’s sheriff and head of Civil Defense, Parker Erickson, said “Evacuation is out. Shelters are in.”

Which brings us to my basement. On November 3, 1861, the owners of my house applied for a building permit for a home fallout shelter. The home was owned at the time by sisters Signe and Selma Lee. They paid $785 for what looks to be a quarter slice of a grain silo tipped on it’s side with 8.5 inches of concrete poured on top of it. It takes up a big chunk of the northwest corner of by basement, 15’6” long and 7’6” at the widest on the floor (the walls slope up in a quarter circle). The thick concrete walls would protect me from a sizable blast but these shelters were different than the bomb shelters of WWII. This is a fallout shelter. Those thick concrete walls are there to block radiation.

When the bombs drop and the proverbial dust settles, the literal dust will be radioactive “fallout.” Signe and Selma would have sat in their fallout shelter for about two weeks until radiation levels dropped low enough allow them to survive going outside, getting in a car, and driving someplace less radioactive. They would need to stock supplies for those two weeks – books, flashlights, batteries, food, fresh water. Most would also need a bucket with a cover, but the Lee sisters installed a bathroom in their fallout shelter. 

Most people did not build their own fallout shelters. Most would rely on public shelters –buildings with basements big enough to hold a bunch of people and boxes of Civil Defense supplies like food, medical kits, Geiger counters, and instructions for surviving this. I assume most of my neighbors would take shelter at the old Moorhead High (now the Townsite Center), which is a rare building that still has their old Cold War Era Fallout Shelter sign outside.

In 2001, a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, Clay County Public Health donated a lot of their old 1960s Public Fallout Shelter supplies to our historical society. You can see it on display right now in the exhibit Atomic Alert at the Hjemkomst Center. 

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