In the Fallout Shelter: Civil Defense in Stillwater

by James Gregory, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Registrar

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Cold War era is the black and yellow sign with the words “Fallout Shelter” that we’ve all seen on older buildings as we grew up. Now faded or removed, the occasional glimpse of these signs merely brings up curiosity or memories of searching the basement to find the green barrels of water and survival crackers. As a child of the ‘90s, I do not have memories of the Cold War, only the knowledge of its history. Here in Stillwater, a few Fallout Shelter signs can still be seen scattered across OSU’s campus or around town. The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is currently featuring an exhibit on the history of these shelters and the Stillwater Civil Defense agency (now Stillwater Emergency Management Agency), which will be on display through summer of 2018.

On July 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), tasked with overseeing the nation’s civil defense program. The Berlin crisis gave Kennedy renewed urgency to improve civil defense in the United States, and he emphasized the importance of fallout shelters as a means to save lives from the harmful effects of radioactive fallout. Fallout is the dust and debris that is picked up into the air after a nuclear bomb explodes. This dust is made radioactive by the nuclear explosion, and is blown miles downwind until falling back to earth. It then releases radioactivity until it decays. During this decay period, people must remain shielded from the harmful radiation. Therefore, fallout shelters were made to provide protection, supplies, and medical needs until it was safe to emerge.

Identifying and stocking appropriate shelters with food and medicine became a priority. The goal was to provide maximum protection for the lowest cost by both using existing buildings as well as incorporating shelters into new buildings. The OCD began a nationwide survey of all existing buildings that had enough space for at least 50 people, included one cubic foot of storage space per person, and had a radiation protection factor of at least 100. The Department of Defense furnished shelter supplies to local governments, who were then responsible for stocking all shelters in their regions.

By 1961, Stillwater was already a national leader in Civil Defense. Ten years prior, in 1951, Oklahoma A&M was the very first school to teach Civil Defense courses. The school taught technical training in two-week courses. The first course started on July 30, 1951. The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) gave quotas to Midwestern Civil Defense directors who assigned trainees to attend the school. The school started with enough facilities for 120 trainees. The students were to take their knowledge back to their neighbors and friends and teach them the essentials of defense and survival. This included health, welfare, rescue, police, fire fighting, and other services.

Disaster City circa 1950s.

In early 1952, the school was opened to all who wished to attend. It offered reduced classes from 2 weeks to 5 days. A cost of $18 covered the 5-day room and board. In August, the FCDA decided to close the school due to lack of funds. However, the state Civil Defense Agency decided to take up its operation, allotting $2500 to pay trainer salaries. Through the rest of the ‘50s, the school gained popularity. More classes became available every year and aimed to attract new groups. In 1956, for instance, PTA groups were asked to send representatives to the school because of the large number of inquiries from those groups for presentations. In 1957, the role of women in Civil Defense was promoted. The school offered a class from October 7-11 to teach women practical rescue work. By 1959, around 4,000 people had attended the training school.

In 1961, the Stillwater Civil Defense agency again spearheaded the national effort. The task of surveying and stocking shelters was not easy; however, Stillwater’s CD Director, Bill Thomas, pushed ahead. While surveying and stocking, the public was educated on what to do in case of emergencies. They were still taught at the Civil Defense school at Oklahoma State University and educational pamphlets about fallout were distributed. In March of 1963, supplies arrived to stock the newly surveyed fallout shelters. Water barrels, carbohydrate supplements, survival crackers, and sanitation kits rolled in to Stillwater for volunteers to store in their homes.

Mobile Hospital

Through the ‘60s, Stillwater’s Civil Defense continued to grow. A mobile hospital was stocked and staff prepared. The school continued to teach courses in all matters of CD related areas. The Stillwater Civil Defense program became the shining example to the nation of community preparedness.

The Museum of Stillwater History’s new exhibit, “Inside a Fallout Shelter: Civil Defense in Stillwater” showcases both the history of Stillwater’s Civil Defense Agency as well as giving visitors a glimpse of being inside of a fallout shelter.

The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and presenting Stillwater’s history. The Museum is open Tuesday-Friday 11am to 5pm and weekends 1pm to 5pm and closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is free. Visit the museum online at and follow them on facebook and twitter: @SheerarMuseum.

Fallout Shelter Map of Stillwater, Oklahoma.