The war was over, but the fears still remained.
In the decade after the end of World War II, the relationship between former allies United States and the Soviet Union grew tense. Both countries were locked in an arms race, each trying to top the other by building a more destructive nuclear weapon, according to History.com.
In response, at least three fallout shelters were built in downtown Elkhart in case of a nuclear attack in northern Indiana or its surrounding states. One of them is beneath the PNC Bank, a former post office, at 101 N. Main St, according to previous reporting by The Elkhart Truth.
Jane Burns was only a teenager during the ’50s, but even she saw the need for fallout shelters. But she never had a reason to enter a shelter until she was adult in 1978, when she helped to clear out the basement of the St. Joseph Valley Bank at the corner of Main and Marion streets when it was converted into the Midwest Museum of American Art.
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There was a black-and-yellow fallout shelter sign hanging above the stairs that descend into the basement of the museum. The faded marker once told visitors that, in case of a nuclear attack, the shelter could accommodate up to 168 people, said Burns, who is the director of the museum.
The shelter makes up the entire basement of the museum, from the front stairs to the boiler room in the back. Concrete ceilings top the narrow corridors that wind through the windowless rooms in the shelter, which Burns said would have protected occupants against nuclear radiation.
The basement is also stocked with simple amenities, such as heat, water and bathrooms. There’s also a kitchenette at the corner of the shelter, complete with stovetops, an oven and a mini fridge.
Burns said there are still boxes of rations still unopened and stacked in a small room at the back of the building.
The sides of the brown cardboard boxes dated 1962 read “survival ration biscuits.” When Burns first opened up these boxes with a knife, she found that each contained two large silver tins and a can opener.
“So we opened up one of the tins, and I’m talking at least a gallon, a gallon-and-a-half-sized tins,” she said. “They called them biscuits, but they were nothing more than, like, saltine crackers. Lots of them.”
Burns gave the biscuits a try. They tasted like “old stale crackers” but were still edible, she said.
There were also 17½ gallon barrels for storing water, buckets to be used as portable toilets and plastic sheets for people to sleep on.
The building was first built in 1921 and opened as the St. Joseph Valley Bank a year later. The Midwest Museum of American Art opened in the building in 1979.
With Cold War fears waning in the decades since the ’50s, the shelter is now a storage space for paintings and sculptures to be used for future exhibitions at the museum. Canvases are stacked upon shelves and propped against walls behind the thick, metal vault doors that once housed the bank’s valuables.
“As a museum, we found that while you have exhibition space all around, you better have an equal square footage of storage,” Burns said. “So this old building that was the civil defense site is perfect for a museum.”
It’s been decades since Bill Van Patten Jr. was the public relations officer for the Elkhart Civil Defense Department, but his geiger counter still clicks with life at his home in east Elkhart.
In his personal study, he picks through a number of objects that contain radioactive material and tests them using a silver, metal rod. Some barely register a few clicks per second, while others create a wall of noise.
“That’s hot,” he said, testing a flight approach indicator made during World War II.
He was the city’s go-to person for information about how to protect yourself against a nuclear fallout if there was an attack in northern Indiana or its neighboring states.
While Van Patten Jr. can’t say for certain how many shelters there are in Elkhart, he helped engineer at least a dozen for businesses and the public in the city. One of those shelters is between the Elkhart Public Library and the Elkhart County Prosecutors Office, which used to be the First National Bank, along High Street.
In case of an attack, 220 bank employees and their families could hide underground and wait until it was safe to re-emerge, according to a 1961 article in the Mid-Continent Banker. That wait could last anywhere from a few weeks to a month, Van Patten Jr. said.
One-foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete walls, ceilings and floors would have protected the occupants from the radiation. Added baffle walls were going to be installed at the time the article in the Mid-Continent Banker was published.
Fresh water could be drawn from a shallow well in the shelter using a hand pump, according to the Mid-Continent Banker. If the power went out, there was an electrical generator to keep air ventilation and the lights going. The shelter also had sleeping cots, recreational equipment, first-aid facilities and emergency rations.
Van Patten Jr. also helped to build shelters for private individuals, which would have been much smaller in scale. These rooms would have 10 by 12 feet with walls and a cap made out of cement blocks or poured concrete, he said.
Since the shelters were built in the basement, the surrounding earth also helped protect against radiation.
“You’d try to stock enough food to last either during two weeks or a month,” Van Patten Jr. said. “And your water, water should have been changed every 90 days. Put fresh water on board.”
The threat of a nuclear attack was very real for many residents then, said Van Patten Jr. But, of course, there were still some who thought that it couldn’t happen. Not in Elkhart.
“There were a percentage who thought it was poo poo,” he said. “They thought nothing would happen. I think that even today, not everybody would know that perhaps ISIS is a threat. There would be a group of people who would say, ‘Nonsense, nothing would happen.’ I think that’s normal.”