So Why Not Weave an Atomic Bomb?

So why not weave an atomic bomb?


Generations ago, Scandinavian weavers created symbol-rich hangings, coverlets and cushion covers.  It’s an academic exercise these days to parse out the designs in old pieces and understand the meaning they might have had to the people who created them. To our modern eyes, the patterns are beautiful geometry.  When our Scandinavian Weavers Group launched a study of Swedish art weave techniques, I decided to weave a piece with more contemporary symbols. I grew up during the Cold war and these images of atomic bombs, Russia, and fallout shelters were all familiar.


To a child growing up on a farm on the flat expanses of the Red River Valley in northern Minnesota, Russia was on the other side of the world.  Yet early on, a few things seemed certain.  Russians were bad and dangerous and might drop an atomic bomb on us. When I see the familiar fallout shelter symbol, I think — potato warehouse.


My father’s warehouse in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, became part of the Civil Defense program of public fallout shelters, probably around 1961 or 1962.  By 1966 there were nearly 2500 designated fallout shelters in Minnesota.  Those businesses with walls thick enough to guard against nuclear fallout who agreed to provide shelter to the public were stocked with barrels of necessities, including high energy crackers, portable toilets,  and radiation detectors. The goods were replaced after seven years. I was probably around twelve or thirteen when I was at the warehouse with Dad one day, and he told me about discarding the barrels.  I wanted to investigate them for possibly interesting contents, but he told me that was against the law.  I think he was probably just ready to go home; my mother remembers him bringing home perfectly good first aid kits from the expired barrels.

The only photo I have of the interior of the potato warehouse. It might have been hard to squeeze in citizens escaping a bomb, if all the potatoes were there!

The Minnesota Department of Civil Defense was created in 1951, and in the first years there was true concern about possible nuclear attacks.  In 1960 the Legislature proposed, and the citizens ratified, a constitutional amendment regarding succession for the governor in the case of a nuclear attack.  In conjunction with national plans, the state developed elaborate systems, first of plane spotters, and then of fallout shelters.  In 1962, the Minnesota Operational Survival Plan included a detailed program for food rationing in the event of war, and even rules that suspended the sale of land following a nuclear attack.


The Minnesota Department of Civil Defense Annual Report  from 1960 included information on what was happening in various parts of the state. The “Mobile Support Area III Biennial Report” covering our county stated, “There is a woman’s program in which preparedness of the home is stressed. Several countrywide women’s councils were organized and are developing strength through programs.” When I asked my mother recently if she was aware of this program, she wrote, “Sorry, I was too busy raising kids to pay much attention!”

My mother didn’t have time to attend civil defense meetings for women, but she did have four children, sewed our clothes, canned fruit and vegetables, went to graduate school, and worked as a dietitian. OK, cut her some slack.

falloutshelterThe fallout shelter program had three prongs; to include fallout shelters in new building construction, to designate existing buildings as public fallout shelters, and to educate the public and encourage private fallout shelters in homes.  I distinctly remember reading a special flyer from the Sunday Grand Forks Herald about building a shelter in your home, but my parents would pay NO ATTENTION TO ME.  I knew just the spot that the fallout shelter should occupy in our basement. I imagined the shelving where the bottled water would sit. And you were supposed to remember games,  for the family to while away the hours after the sirens went off. (This seemed doubtful, based on how well we four children got along on car trips.)


The dire language of the first Civil Defense reports softened within a few years. By 1964 the report to Governor Rolvaag noted that people increasingly believed that a nuclear attack was was unlikely, citing a a national survey on the public’s attitudes toward civil defense.  “Since most people feel that the government has a responsibility to protect them, they favor public rather than home shelters.”  Maybe this is why my parents ignored my admonishments to build a shelter in our basement.


I was aware of the “duck and cover” concept, but only remember being skeptical.  After seeing horrific photographs of Nagasaki bombing victims, with skin that looked melted, it was difficult to believe that just turning over and covering your neck was going to make much difference.  I was too young, by a couple of years, to experience under-your-desk school drills personally.


Born in 1954, I wasn’t aware of nuclear escalation during the most ominous years of the 1950s. By the time I learned about fallout shelters, the excitement of worrying about an international incident seemed exotic and desirable, but no adults around me were fearful.  Life on the farm seemed tame, and I didn’t really believe we were in danger of bombs. What really scared me were the filmstrips shown at Sunday School in the darkened basement of Bygland Lutheran Church, of missionaries in Madagascar.  A parasite in the river caused elephantiasis, and you could push your finger in an infected person’s swollen leg and the indentation would stay, as if in a loaf of rising bread dough.  What if that insect came here?  Should I stop playing in the nearby coulee? A plague of insects seemed more likely than bombs. (And with climate change, in Minnesota that still seems true.)


reportBy the end of the 1960s the Minnesota Department of Civil Defense was less focused on possible nuclear attacks and more involved in natural disasters, like floods, tornados, and snow emergencies, and it became a division within the Department of Public Services. As a teenager, even though I read that the nuclear facilities at the Grand Forks Air Force base meant our area was a top ten nuclear target in the nation, my concerns turned elsewhere.  Like, could I take the car to town?


Post scripts:


Tomorrow I will post more detail photos and much discussion on the actual weaving techniques.


attackAlso, I enjoyed reading documents about the Cold War era during the 1960s, when I was becoming aware of it.  The U.S. Department of Civil Defense published a booklet in 1961, “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do about Nuclear Attack.”  It includes fallout shelter plans (one is pictured above) and lists of items to stockpile.  There are also some very scary instructions on how to take care of vermin.

“Measures to control vermin would be vital in the event of an attack, but some measures can be taken now. The shelter area should be painted or sprayed with a five per cent solution of DDT or other insecticides containing chlordane, dieldrin, Diazinon, or ronnel—taking the usual precautions against in-halation or skin contact. Repeat every few months. Lice and other body-infesting insects can be eliminated by dusting with a 10 per cent DDT dust which should be kept on the body and in clothing for 24 hours. The shelter should be stocked with screeningmaterial, a fly swatter, mouse and rat traps. D onot use spray insecticides in an occupied shelter; there is danger of explosion or of injuring eyes and lungs.”


  1. Wonderful article and tapestry! Your last paragraph explained to me why you would be so prepared in Minnesota. Growing up and then having young children not far from Washington, D.C. and Norfolk naval base, I could really identify with your experiences. Thanks for sharing. Nanette

  2. The houses across the street all were built with bomb shelters in the early 60’s. It took the 1965 Fridley tornado before I was able to get inside of one. Home alone with my sister, I thought that was a better place to be. I was very disappointed once inside – held the canoe and we didn;t stay there very long. I asked my mom when I was older, why they didn’t build a bomb shelter – she replied” I wouldn’t want to be left if a nuclear bomb had hit us” – very pragmatic. We had many drills in grade school to duck under our desks or go to the hallway – I couldn’t understand how that would do any good. My sister lived in Switzerland 2004-2011 and homes there are still being built with bomb shelters and can be inspected any time by the government to see that they are well-stocked. My friend in Estonia told me part of their drills in school included cleaning their rifles ( in case the US dropped a bomb and then invaded them)

    1. I loved your response, and I have thought of the Estonian schoolchildren many times since I read it. I really hadn’t thought of children in other countries worrying about being bombed by the US, even though bombs and attacks were probably more likely in an Estonian town than in the Red River Valley.