My Easter Basket

I received one of the coolest Easter gifts ever last Sunday. We had the whole family up for dinner at our home, and my father-in-law says, “come out to the car and help me with something.” First he hands me a small, glass tabletop and then the big surprise. He pulls out a 1962 Civil Defense water barrel/commode. Wow, what an awesome gift that only a historian could get excited about!


These steel barrels were stocked in public fallout shelters during  the early 1960s. The Office of Civil Defense was preparing supplies in the event of nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. The barrels  were lined with a plastic bag, and then 17.5 gallons of water could be placed inside and sealed. When the water was gone, the barrel was re-purposed as a toilet. Could you imagine?! Check out the Civil Defense Museum for more information about this and other fallout shelter supplies.

Inside the Fallout Shelter


In 2010 some homeowners in Neenah opened a backyard fallout shelter that was built by the previous property owners in 1960. Inside were ammo boxes filled with supplies (from food and games to medicine and radiation meters) to last a family of four for about 2 weeks. Some artifacts from the shelter were donated to the Neenah Historical Society. A group of people, myself included, have spent the past 5 months researching and writing an exhibition that highlights the history of what lead to the construction of this shelter. The exhibit features different aspects of the Cold War History, including civil defense, popular culture, and politics. My contribution to the exhibition was the panels written on U.S., Wisconsin, and Winnebago County civil defense. In addition, items recovered from the shelter are on display for people to see. We even managed to build a replica of a family fallout shelter, and used items found in the real shelter to stock it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had a second opportunity to venture back into the fallout shelter, but this time I brought my camera. I made the 11’ climb down the ladder and back into the  8’ x 10’ concrete room. Here are the pictures of what I saw.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Neenah Shelter


My first TV interview

This past Wednesday was a big day for our exhibition. The local news stations came to stories, and since then the story has gone national! How exciting that the exhibit is starting to pick up that kind of attention. I had my first appearance on television as well. It is amazing how USA Today, Huffington Post, and many other media outlets have picked up the story of the shelter.

Panels already in place

Panels put in place

The final touches are being made for the opening day of the exhibition. Some of the panels are already up, and more are going up today. The replica shelter is stocked and ready for visitors. As one of the exhibition content creators, believe me when I say that the items they found down there are stunning. Handling some of the shelter relics, like the  CD survey meter,  was a field day for this young historian.

CD Geiger counter found down in the shelter. Still works!

A CD survey meter found down in the shelter.

We created a replica shelter for our exhibit to give people an idea of the space. I actually had the opportunity to climb down 11′ and walk inside the dank shelter. When I ventured in, the shelter was filled with 14″ of water. There is still some debris down there in the corridor leading to the shelter space. As you enter the shelter there is a vault door with a bolting mechanism. You then enter the 8′ x 10′ shelter space where remnants of the bunk beds are still anchored to the wall. There are metal shelving units still standing in place. All of these are very rusted over from sitting in feet of water for decades. A metal pipe runs out of the shelter and up along the side of the house. At one time there would have been a hand-cranked blower to pull in fresh air from outside. Here are some pictures of the shelter hatch right before I went down. I will be posting pictures and a video later of my experience in the shelter.

Take Cover Neenah! My First History Exhibit Project

Our Exhibit Poster

As May approaches the opening day of Take Cover Neenah! exhibit at the Neenah Historical Society gets closer! It has been a great opportunity to work with fellow historians to assemble an amazing exhibit about Cold War history in the United State and in Neenah, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Humanities Council awarded a grant to the historical society to help fund the exhibit.

Hours of research and planning have gone into putting this together. What prompted this exhibit to become reality? It just so happens that a fallout shelter was found in the backyard of a Neenah residence. The current property owner is also a key member of our team. When the shelter was opened by them it was filled with water and also waterproof ammo boxes filled with supplies from the early 1960s.  The former resident had built a fallout shelter in the early 1960s as Cold War tensions rose.

I enrolled in a history seminar class where I was writing my senior paper on Wisconsin’s civil defense preparation. My professor asked if I would be interested in a exhibit that was in the works, because the paper I was working on would correlate with the exhibit. During our time working on this exhibit, I have learned a lot. My professor has been an astounding mentor and I am really glad he gave me the opportunity to be involved and collaborate with this project.

Winnebago County Civil Defense Article(Newspaper Archive)

Winnebago County Civil Defense Article 2/02/1963
(Newspaper Archive)

Some of the areas of research for my part of the exhibit focuses on civil defense in the United States, Wisconsin, and Winnebago County. The Wisconsin Historical Society Archives has several boxes with state information on civil defense and the UW-Oshkosh Archives and Area Research Center was able to get them for me to look through. The UW-Oshkosh archivist also assisted with the exhibit and helped me find the documents I was looking for during my research. A few other resources that we utilized were:

Visitors to the exhibit will be intrigued by the different aspects we have incorporated to tell the story.  We invite people to learn the history of the Cold War and how it affected American life. Visitors can observe the attempts of the national, state, and local government  to prepare and educate the public about nuclear warfare and see the objects hidden in a fallout shelter for nearly 50 years. People today may not be able to imagine what life would be like living in a fallout shelter after a nuclear war, but our exhibit will give you a glimpse of it. You will just have to see it!

Mapping Wisconsin Shelters


I have been working on a history project that I hope will get some of my fellow Wisconsinites involved in. I started a page on Facebook that is geared towards the Wisconsin experience of the Cold War. There are publications and scholarly works done on the Cold War, but I would like to hear the first-hand stories from Wisconsin experience. The page is new, but I have big plans ask that people involved with the project.

One of the first projects I am trying to get in motion is mapping where fallout shelters were in Wisconsin using the Google My Maps app. This app allows you to customize maps by adding pins, descriptions, and pictures. Using the map feature, I began pinning the locations of fallout shelters I know of in the state. I made the map open to the public, so individuals can go on and share locations that they know of.

Fallout shelters are not the same as bomb shelters. Fallout shelters were intended to protect people from the deadly fallout radiation dispersed from a nuclear blast, not the blast itself.  Some people built private shelters to hold their family. Public shelters were in buildings where anyone could go in if the situation called for it. These shelters could be in banks, libraries, schools, office buildings, churches, etc, and were marked with a black and yellow sign , which designated that the building had a fallout shelter. The Federal Government stocked them with two weeks worth of supplies (Water, food, medical supplies, radiation monitors, etc) to support the designated capacity of people. These shelters were marked all over the United States.

Fallout Shelter Ad
(District Fallout Blog)

This is one of the many projects I am up to right now. I am working on something big related to fallout shelters…more on that later. I hope you will take some time to check out my Facebook page and get involved with the project. For some of my seasoned followers/readers, what do you remember about fallout shelters? Did you know someone who built a private shelter in the yard? Or maybe you remember seeing public fallout shelters stocked and ready to hold people? Comment with your experience.