Forsyth Central Library's Past Evokes Fallout-Era Memories

Forsyth Central Library's Past Evokes Fallout-Era Memories

2:24pm Dec 19, 2013
Melton J. Sadler, Director of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Emergency Management, in his office at Smith Reynolds Airport
Paul Garber/WFDD


After years of delay, Forsyth County Commissioners this year took up the task of finding the site for a new library. They've taken one informal and one formal vote that would designate the library's current site at Fifth and Spring streets as the location for the new library. But it’s not a done deal yet and some are still hoping to sway commissioners to move the library to the old sheriff's office on Third Street.


Regardless of the library's final destination, commissioners have promised a state-of-the art new facility, with new spaces and new technologies. Yet even if the library stays in its current location, there is at least on part of its historical past that won't be coming with it.

(Audio of air raid siren)

If you're old enough, you may recognize that sound as an old civil defense siren. That's right - for years, the library served as a fallout shelter for downtown residents. It was one of more than 120 local buildings so designated, and among the most public. Winston-Salem was believed to be a high-priority Soviet target because a Western Electric plant that made defense applications was here, and also at the time the city was a major industrial base. 

Fam Brownlee is a historian in the North Carolina Room at the Central Library.

"We're on the ground floor of the original Central Library, which was built in 1953," he said. "The entire ground floor was designated as a fallout shelter."

You can still here the hum from the heating and cooling system in the basement where the luckiest survivors would have hunkered down. The library's sub-basement was stocked with necessities for waiting out the fallout, including basic medical supplies, water, and the fallout shelter rations - graham-cracker-like wafers known as "survival biscuits." At the height of the cold war, visitors to the library would see the black-and-yellow signs alerting them that if there were ever a nuclear attack, they could seek shelter in the bowels of the building.

Brownlee, a Winston-Salem native, said he remembers the paradox of preparing to survive a nuclear strike that, in their hearts, many people understood was not survivable.

"I mean it was kind of a scary comedy," he said.  "We were in one sense afraid that it was gonna happen - in fact it almost seemed inevitable. On the other side though, at least some of us knew that the measures were being taken to so-call protect us, were not going to work."

In the 1970s, more and more people came to understand what Brownlee and his peers already knew about the dim prospects of living through a nuclear attack. As a result, public sentiment about the shelters began to shift. There was a growing recognition that should a nuclear attack occur, the shelters would provide minimal protection, most of us would be doomed anyway, and the ruined world that would remain for the survivors was hardly worth emerging from the shelter for. Over the years, the shelters were decommissioned, supplies were sold as scrap, and the survival biscuits were discarded or used for livestock feed.


The Civil Defense offices transitioned into what we now call Emergency Management. Mel Sadler is director of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County  emergency management agency, located at Smith Reynolds Airport. Sadler said the shelters are part of such a bygone era that there's no record in his office of where the old shelters were. And yet relics of that old era still exist in plain view. Some of the old black-and-yellow signs are still left on the walls of buildings whose shelters were long ago decommissioned. They hang there, faded and forgotten, as if to say "In the event of a nuclear attack….eh, don't bother." Sadler said the nuclear threat – while perhaps diminished for this area -  is still real.  But it’s a different kind of threat now and is treated in a different way.

"We're talking now about terrorism as opposed to one government attacking another government," he said. "One of the big problems with that is the amount of time and notification - we will not have an advanced notice, we don't believe, for a nuclear attack now  as opposed to what we would have had should international tensions build up and some of the other things that would have happened in the old days. So it's going to be quick, it's going to be dirty and it's going to require a quick response." 

Sadler said that although some of the old thinking may be ridiculed today, good things did come out of the fallout-shelter era. For example, the emergency alert system we use today descended from a radio alert system used during the Cold War. Sadler said the biggest change has been one of mindset, that things aren’t the same now as they were in the age of the air raid siren.

Paul Garber, WFDD News.



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