by Francisco Almenara-Dumur, Multimedia Journalist
ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — The Cold War.
The Cuban Missile Crisis.
A time of uncertainty and fear.
“People were afraid about the possibility of a nuclear war,” Larry Dobson, a fallout shelter salesman in 1961, said. “It really seemed like a possibility at the time.”
The U.S. had made it all possible, of course, by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII.
With this very real fear of nuclear annihilation, there was a need to be prepared, at all times.
“You would have the duck and cover drills at John Marshall so that you would all be underneath your desks so that you could all be a molten mass together,” said John Kruesel, a Rochester historian.
Fallout shelters became commonplace.
“We had various places for people to go,” Kruesel said. “One was Central High School, one was Saint Marys Hospital, Assisi Heights.”
Assisi Heights was one of the biggest nuclear fallout shelters in Olmsted County, meant for around 10,000 people.
“But this one was established as the medical fallout shelter,” said Sister Judi Angst, prepped to work in the shelter in the early 60s.
The shelter was well equipped, and the sisters received some training, but they weren’t very confident of how it would actually work.
“Although this looked like a large space and Rochester was not as large as it is now, how are we going to accommodate everybody that’s coming in,” Sister Judi said. “In reality it could have been total chaos.”
In Mantorville, there are still tangible reminders of those times.
The Hubbell House restaurant also hosted a well stocked fallout shelter. It is still used to this day for protection in severe weather in absolute emergencies.
“If we have tornadoes, we do have two basements, we have a newer basement we bring people to,” said Alaina Pappas, whose family owns the Hubbell House. “Otherwise they can come to this basement as well.”
While almost nothing is left from the 60s here, the dark cellar still holds some surprises.
“Maybe someone found another one,” Pappas said after finding a relic, long thought lost. “I’m pretty sure that this is a Geiger counter.”
Those devices measured radioactivity.
They would have been used after a nuclear blast to test the surrounding area for lethal radiation.
Some people even decided to put shelters in their own homes.
A big shocker for a family in Neenah, Wisconsin back in 2013. While digging their garden, they discovered an underground shelter in their backyard, still fully stocked. And they weren’t alone.
Larry Dobson sold one model that was basically a tube in the ground.
“I suppose it was kind of like being back in mom’s womb, you know,” Dobson said.
While he was confident in their abilities in 1961, thinking back, he’s not so sure.
“There wasn’t room in there to store enough food to be in there for six months to a year,” Dobson said. “And really, if you were in a community that was hit by a bomb, you’d be looking at long term.”
He only sold one in his three months on the job–mainly because people questioned if it was all worth it.
“If your city got wiped out, do you really want to survive?” Dobson wondered.
And there was even an uncertainty whether or not the national preparations were more than just a placebo.
“It was an exercise in giving people hope that if they were far enough away from the blast area that you might have some chance for survival,” Kruesel said.
Whatever it was, there was comfort in being prepared.
“So I’m thrilled that we made that choice to invite people here for safety, for whatever they might need, for their own well-being,” said Sister Marlys Jax, who worked with Sister Judi. “However, I was thrilled equally to make sure that it moved out of here.”
Even though most of the fallout shelters might be gone, some feel a subtle fear creeping back.
“Some days as I listen to what’s happening today,” Dobson said, “I think we’re vulnerable to that kind of fear.”