NEENAH, Wis. (AP) — When Ken Zwick and Carol Hollar-Zwick bought their Neenah home in 1999, they knew the backyard contained an underground fallout shelter built during the height of the Cold War.
What they didn’t know — and wouldn’t discover until they ventured into the shelter more than a decade later — was the bunker was fully stocked with food and survival supplies from 1960 by the previous homeowner.
“We assumed it was just this empty space,” Hollar-Zwick said.
When the Zwicks unlocked the heavy, metal hatch, they found watertight Army surplus boxes floating in 5 feet of water that had seeped into the shelter. The contents of the boxes were in pristine condition.
A few of the boxes bore labels suggesting they might contain explosives, so agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded to investigate, but nothing dangerous was inside.
“It was Hawaiian Punch,” Hollar-Zwick said. “It was all of what you would expect to find in a 1960s fallout shelter. It was food, clothing, medical supplies, tools, flashlights, batteries — items that you would want to have in a shelter if you planned to live there for two weeks.”
The Zwicks found no use for the food and supplies, so they donated them to the Neenah Historical Society, which is putting them on display on Sundays in May and June, Post-Crescent Media of Appleton reported.
They resisted the temptation to sample the food. “It looked fine, but you just never know,” Hollar-Zwick said.
Jane Lang, executive director of the historical society, said receiving the contents of the Zwicks’ fallout shelter was like unlocking a time capsule.
“It’s interesting that you can open up something and find 1960 inside of it,” she said.
The federal government promoted fallout shelters during the 1950s as a means to escape the fallout of radiation that would be released into the atmosphere from a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Stephen Kercher, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said people commonly understood no one would survive a direct nuclear hit, but they thought they could survive the radiation fallout from a blast elsewhere.
“The idea, at least for people in Neenah, was that if there were an attack in Madison or Milwaukee or Minneapolis or Chicago and the radioactive contamination spread over this part of the state, people would be able to hide in their shelters for a period of two weeks,” Kercher said. “That was the suggested interval of time.”
If people had sufficient food and supplies to survive for two weeks, the government said, they could re-emerge.
Kercher said although civil defense agencies promoted the use of fallout shelters to avoid radiation, their primary strategy in the 1950s was evacuation. That’s because fallout shelters were expensive to build and equip.
In August 1961, as tensions heightened between the U.S and Soviet Union over West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy gave an address that triggered an effort to build and equip more shelters.
“That was really the start of the fallout shelter craze,” Kercher said. “It lasted about a year until the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.”
The fallout shelter on the Zwicks’ property on Congress Place was built in 1960 by the late Frank Pansch, a physician and surgeon, according to city records. The timing puts him ahead of the shelter craze.
“This Neenah family was equipped and ready to deal with Armageddon before Kennedy’s speech,” Kercher said.
Pansch excavated his backyard for the concrete shelter and equipped it with a filtered ventilation system, electricity and a telephone line.
Kercher described the shelter as “the Buick of fallout shelters, not quite the Cadillac, but certainly a respectable place to inhabit for two weeks.”
The shelter was built according to a 1959 government publication titled “The Family Fallout Shelter.” Lang said such educational materials were common during the Cold War.
The government told the public, “You should build your own shelter. You’ll be safe if you build a shelter,” Lang said. “I’m not sure if this was just to calm the population or they really felt you could save yourself this way.”
To enter the underground shelter, a person opened the hatch and climbed down a metal rung ladder into a narrow corridor, which made a left turn and led to an 8-by-10-foot chamber.
The shelter contained military-style bunk beds, a cot, 5-gallon pails of water, a camp stove, a camp oven, a hot plate, a coffee pot, utensils, a space heater, a lantern, floor lamps, a folding toilet with attachable bags and trash cans.
Inside the watertight boxes were clothing, bedding, food, cups, plates, napkins, tools, flashlights, batteries, candles, medical supplies, personal care products, a phone book, an appetite suppressant, hunting equipment and a handheld Geiger counter to measure radiation.
Family shelters were rare because they were expensive.
“People didn’t broadly advertise that they were making a shelter,” she said.
Kercher said many people questioned whether it was good policy or pure folly for Americans to construct fallout shelters.
For starters, it was unknown whether radioactive contamination from a nuclear attack would subside enough to allow the resumption of normal life, even after a two-week waiting period.
“What kind of world would you be living in if you managed to survive?” Kercher asked.
Moral and ethical issues were debated as well because private fallout shelters were only within the means of the upper class. Critics said they encouraged selfish behavior and divided the community between the haves and have-nots.
Kercher said some of those issues could return with the nuclear threat of North Korea.
“It’s a history that ended with the Cold War, but it’s a history that somehow manages to resurface every once in a while,” he said.
The “Take Cover Neenah!” exhibit will immerse visitors in the sights, sounds and issues of Cold War America. The historical society wants to use the discovery of the Neenah fallout shelter to spur people to think about U.S. history as being local.