Atomic Boscawen

map_of_boscawen_nhIndulge me this week while we depart from the 19th century and enter the 20th, to one of my pet projects: rural civil defense. Today, Boscawen is a lovely community of about 4,000 people, a twenty-minute drive north of Concord, New Hampshire. Eighteenth century homes line the main street, anchored on the north side of town by the Congregational Church. But in at the dawn of the Cold War, many believed the town was of strategic significance.

In a letter to the community dated January 29, 1951, Boscawen’s defense leader, Ralph W. Pillsbury, noted that the town “lie in almost a direct line between a known Siberian base for air-ship launching and Boston and New York.” Though he was “not silly enough to believe we are going to have bombs wasted on us except by chance,” Pillsbury believed Boscawen would be a destination for urban refugees. Because city people were helpless in an emergency, he recommended that the small town folks tap into their hardscrabble know-how. All families should have adequate firewood and stockpiles of food. Rather than rely on canned goods, Pillsbury recommended planting potatoes, beans, apples, squash (he preferred Butternut), and carrots (a much hated, but nutritious vegetable). Finally, he advised townspeople to keep one or two hogs (two will do better and conveniently consume kitchen scraps).

As if my visit to the Boscawen Historical Society wasn’t interesting enough, Elaine Clow, Librarian and Secretary of the Boscawen Historical Society, and a number of volunteers had just set up an exhibit featuring local civil defense gear. This is where I read Pillsbury’s letter, at a small display in the museum at the former school house:

Rural civil defense is a topic I’ve explored bit by bit for more than a decade. For a time, I wanted to write my dissertation on the subject, but the case studies weren’t forthcoming. Yet when I least expect it, civil defense finds me. At this point, I’ve seen some crazy Cold War artifacts, like caves in south west Missouri designated as fall out shelters, and a massive emergency readiness center in the tiny town of Roanoke, Illinois. But when I asked Elaine where the Boscawen artifacts came from, she showed me the holy grail of civil defense facilities: an intact public fall out shelter.

On our way out of town to find Emily Price, Elaine stopped here, the former public library:


Elaine writes:

“This Colonial Revival Boscawen Library and Hall of Records was constructed and dedicated in 1913. Noted Beaux Arts architect Guy Lowell felt that this building was his ‘little gem.’ This gorgeous small library with its beautiful interior, original woodwork, and detailed features is undergoing T.L.C. as a result of result of a state Seven to Save designation, and a matching grant to the town from the NH Land and Community Heritage Program. Several members of the Historical Society Executive serve on the committee to preserve this unique building and determine future use. The current, modern lending library was moved to a new location two miles south. This National Historic Site has served many town purposes over its century of use including a court, library, hall of records, selectmen’s’ office, WWI Red Cross workroom, town vault, and a well-stocked fallout shelter.”

Much of the Civil Defense equipment has been brought upstairs to determine its potential for future displays.




Then Elaine took me downstairs, where it was clear that the head of Civil Defense in Boscawen, Kenneth Marshall, took advantage of military surplus post WWII.


The fallout shelter itself was protected by an additional wall in front of the door:


Not exactly spacious, this shelter would not have adequately protected everyone in town. But you can see they were ready for mass feeing of survivors and refugees. You might also note the window that would have hardly provided protection from radiation.


Wanting to calm the crowds though education, hand-made posters and lessons on fallout were still available:


So what does all this mean? Were the people of Boscawen paranoid? Not at all. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal grants allowed communities to prepare for nuclear war, and facilities like these were common in countless small-town post offices, libraries, and civic buildings. What is unique about Boscawen is that their shelter stayed intact for so long. It is a real treasure and I’m glad the artifacts are in good hands with the historical society. In the majority of small communities, most of this stuff ended up in the trash. But in Boscawen, they’re already taking steps to preserve and display materials that tell the story of how ordinary Americans experienced the Cold War.


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