Sponsored by Beloit Auction
By Meghan M.M. Trimm
Beloit is a small city with a hidden history that echoes greater American trends. Beloit Auction has the privilege of sorting out historical items from Beloiters’ everyday lives and helping them find new homes. We sell a lot of houses too. Once in a while, Beloit Auction discovers a piece of history that really tells a story. The house on 2025 Highland Ave. is one such house. Coming up for auction on October 22nd, this home has a bomb shelter in the basement. It’s a message from the Cold War that is surprisingly relevant today.
President Kennedy said Build Bomb Shelters – a Beloit Family Answered…
On October 6th, 1961 President Kennedy told Americans to build bomb shelters to protect themselves from nuclear fallout if the conflict with the Soviet Union – now known as the Cold War – escalated. Then in 1962 President Kennedy narrowly avoided nuclear disaster in the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis.
Americans who had not taken the president’s warning seriously, were then propelled into action. A bomb shelter was not necessarily a huge endeavor. The simplest construction was a thick wooden board laid against the wall in a basement, creating a triangle that would hopefully protect the family if the house caved in. According to President Kennedy’s call for action, municipal bomb shelters were also built so that people out on the go, at school, and even at church could be safe. These shelters were built below ground. They had two entrances – one inside the building and one on the street. They often had entrances that wound around corners and air vents that did the same. The prevailing belief was that fallout radiation could not travel around corners. These basements were reinforced with steel and insulated with sand, iron, and sometimes heavy metals like lead. Kinnikinnick School in Roscoe, IL is one such building.
Some families were fortunate enough to build reinforced fallout shelters in their own homes. The house on Highland Ave. is one example of this.
2025 Highland Ave. in Beloit, WI, was built first as a basement house. The Fraboni family who first built the house used a money-saving common practice in which the foundation of the home was built and the roof was put on without a first floor. The couple lived in the basement until they could afford to add on.
Perhaps that is why, when the mandate came from the president to build a bomb shelter, the Frabonis had the money to build a large shelter below their basement. The house had been added on to at this point and the couple had children. Mrs. Fraboni later told the next owner of the house, Bob Hein, that they built the shelter to protect (and possibly alleviate the fear of) their children.
Bob, the current seller of the home, led Beloit Auction on a tour of the home that included the Cold War era shelter.
The shelter begins as a culvert tunnel with a door a few steps down from the main basement level. The tunnel extends downward a few degrees and t’s. To the right is an escape hatch. To the left is the shelters main room. The shelter itself is made of metal – a large culvert approximately 10 feet high by 10 feet wide by 12 feet long — makes up the main structure. The culvert is sealed at the end. The whole thing is about 10 feet underground.
Hein explained the construction as he had learned it from the Frabonis, above the culvert there is a foot of sand. In the main shelter, tunnel, and near the entrance in the basement there are periscopes that lead above ground. To this day metal bunks hang from the side walls of the shelter. There is a small shelf near where the tunnel meets the main shelter that would have held non-perishable food stuffs and water.
During that time in American history it would have been Mrs. Fraboni’s job to protect the children and get them into the shelter in the event of an attack. Mr. Fraboni would have been expected to report to civil defense activities including rescue and rebuilding.
The Fraboni house is not the only bomb shelter home left in Beloit. However, survivalists tend to keep Stheir shelters semi-secret. For glimpses of Cold War era Beloit, visit the Beloit Historical Society, which keeps Civil Defense artifacts or just take a walk to your local school or church and check out the basement if it was built prior to 1980.
Today, a house like the one on Highland Ave is not as irrelevant as some folks might think. Yes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was over fifty years ago, but what with climate change, global terrorism, and the eminent zombie apocalypse… many people are starting to take this whole shelter thing more seriously again.
The survivalist movement is full of people who identify as “preppers” today.
This might seem a little off the deep end, but actually, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) declared September National Preparedness Month and released a tool kit full of ideas to create disaster plans with your family. FEMA’s main focus is on weather events, but recognizes the possibility of other kinds of disasters.
The 21st century twist to this disaster prepping is the importance of communication with friends and relatives during the aftermath. Whoever the lucky owner of the Highland Ave. house is, they may want to think about installing a phone line and wifi.
If nothing else, Bob Hein says the shelter makes a great haunted house.