A Farmer’s Fallout Cave

Bomboozled / Pointed Leaf PressIn September 2014, CAIRN was asked by the Missouri Department of Conservation to conduct a cultural resource assessment of a cave entrance in Western Missouri.  The Missouri Speleological Survey (MSS) records noted artifacts reported within the cave entrance during cave survey.  The cave entrance, 200 feet in length, sits within a bowl depression, 10 to 15 feet in depth, in the middle of a cattle field.  Water drains into the cave during rainstorms.  During CAIRN’s reconnaissance, prehistoric projectile points were found within the entrance washing into the cave.  Shovel tests were conducted along the outside perimeter of the cave depression to determine where the prehistoric archaeological site was located.  Historic artifacts such as porcelain door knob, saucer and plate fragments, and old tractor parts were also washing into the cave from an old homestead which is no longer standing.  The only evidence of the homestead was an old hand pump for water.  A records search at the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office indicated no known prehistoric or historic archaeological sites reported within a mile radius of the cave.  According to the landowner, the only known history of the cave was its’ use as a potential fallout shelter during the Cold War.  The idea of caves becoming fallout shelters during the Cold War was not uncommon.

In the 1960s, Missouri civil defense authorities approached the MSS regarding potential caves for fallout shelters.  Once civil defense authorities inventoried the cave list, a Missouri Mine and Cave Fallout Shelter Survey was released identifying two hundred and twelve wild caves as fallout shelters in thirty-eight Missouri Counties (Weaver 2008).  Designated caves received “Fallout Shelter” signs which were posted at the cave entrances.  The sign also specified holding capacity of people in the specific cave.   Dwight Weaver states in his book, “Missouri Caves in History and Legend”, that luckily no one immediately rushed out to convert the caves into fallout shelters (Weaver 2008).

Survival in a fallout shelter was based on if the shelter was easily accessible to hide in, plenty of supplies were stocked, and circulating air was available.  Communication would be through radio communication, but any caver can tell you that phone or radio reception doesn’t work unless an antenna is installed through the cave ceiling to the surface.  Depending on shelter size, the supplies could range from few to well over a hundred items.  Survival medical kits, helmets, Geiger counters, household needs, family games, or kid’s toys such as Marx Toy Company dollhouse with fallout shelter were common fallout shelter requisites (Green 2011).  A dosimeter was also a necessity, which was the shape of a pen and used to check levels of radiation outside during the two week stay in the shelter.

Partial electrical pole found at the cave

During reconnaissance, a partial wooden electrical pole, wire, and broken insulators to the west slope of the cave were the only remnants of Cold War artifacts.  The cave did not appear modified with concrete walls for a fallout shelter.  Susan Roy’s book, “Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack”, explores survival shelters and inventory kits for nuclear holocaust.    Roy’s book illustrates the extremes families took to try to prepare for a nuclear attack.  Government propaganda was a large factor in causing hysteria, which Roy’s book demonstrates while examining various artifacts and architectural features of fallout shelters of the time.

Girard B. Henderson’s bomb shelter

The challenge for the archaeologist is determining the type of bomb shelter.  According to Roy, there was no right way to construct a bomb shelter as they came in pod, rectangle, and or cubes.  The more expensive designed shelters could resemble the likes of businessman Girard B. Henderson’s bomb shelter.  According to Roy, Henderson’s spacious 1970’s ranch house shell was constructed of steel and concrete and sat twenty-five feet under Las Vegas. Inside the house were “…oil paintings, sliding glass doors, and, in the little yard area inside the shell, a guesthouse, a putting green, and a patio barbecue. The walls of the “cave” around it are painted with scenes of New Jersey and of a New Zealand sheep farm—landscapes dear to its owner” (Green 2011).


Over the past 7 years since its founding, CAIRN has recorded historic sites in caves with modifications made, such as for personal entertainment or use as tour caves.  This was the first instance where CAIRN was invited to examine a designated cold war fallout shelter.  To make this site even more fascinating we encountered prehistoric and historic artifact components washing in from other locations nearby.  Only a handful of artifacts (an insulator and wire) along with an archaeological feature (wooden electrical pole) remain as indicators of the role the cave played during a very turbulent period of U.S. history.



Green, Penelope (April 6, 2011).  Susan Roy on Cold War Housekeeping.  The New York Times.

Halvorsen, David (November 24, 1963). Civil Defense Kits in Storage Deteriorate in 2 Warehouses in Chicago.  Chicago Tribune. Section 1.

Roy, Susan (2011). Bomboozled:  How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear AttackPointed Leaf Press

Weaver, H. Dwight (2008). Missouri Caves in History and Legend. Columbia, Missouri.  University of Missouri Press

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