Trailin': Shelter from the Storm

By Tina Turney
Posted 5/27/99

When the prairie states were first opened for settlement by pioneers from states to the east in the mid 1800s, often times their earliest house consisted of a dugout shelter. Besides being quick and …

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Trailin': Shelter from the Storm


When the prairie states were first opened for settlement by pioneers from states to the east in the mid 1800s, often times their earliest house consisted of a dugout shelter. Besides being quick and economical to build, the dugouts offered protection from the extremes of summer heat and the sub-zero temperatures of winter in this part of the country.

These dugouts were often located in the side of a hill with the front portion being constructed of sod blocks, often twenty inches thick. In addition, the dugout shelters provided almost indestructible protection against the wind which on the prairie and plains was at times unceasing. They held up against tornadoes and windstorms, much like our area was hit with during the spring and summer of 1998.

The early rural homes, as well as many in town, included an outdoor root cellar or cave. These “outbuildings”, if they can be called that, were often built into a slope or mound of dirt. While providing a good place to store root vegetables and other foods that required a cool place, they were where the families often went in the event of bad weather.

Often times in the days of early settlement here in Iowa, towns and farmsteads sprang up in a hurry and there was not the means or the time to dig a basement under many homes, schools and churches. If the buildings had no basements, these storm cellars most likely saved many lives.

From the book “The Settlers’ West”, in a letter to folks back home, one young farmer described the house he was building as such: “Staked two corners of my claim this morning…Looking for a place to make our dugout.” and two days later he went on to say: “We got through digging. The hole is 10 x 14 feet, and in front 4 feet deep, 4 1/2 feet behind. On Monday we must look for a ridge pole and dig steps so we can get into the place.” After the roof was constructed of timbers it was covered with straw and a layer of sod and then more dirt.

This first home was later replaced by a frame house. But the first house, a dugout, was kept and served a useful purpose for many years.

Many older farmsteads in our area have root cellars or caves as they are sometimes called. I recently located two such structures on the Sand Road between Hills and Iowa City. One is fairly flat with only a set of double metal doors and a vent pipe visible above the ground. There is a mound of earth to the rear.

The other storm cellar is more like a small building with a peaked roof which houses the steps and entry way to the cellar below. Every storm cellar is different and reflects the style and needs of the builder, but all have one purpose in common - that is shelter from the storm.

An area business has recently started manufacturing storm shelters. Wilkinson Precast of Riverside has turned out five such structures this spring.

The concrete buildings feature a quarter-inch plate steel door surrounded by a half-inch steel frame. The interior measures about eight and one-half feet long, five feet wide and six feet high. The walls and ceiling are reinforced with rebar every nine inches.

Wilkinson refers to the units as storm shelters, rather than tornado shelters because technically they have not been proven to withstand tornado-strength winds. They weigh five and one-half tons. What makes them so effective as protection is that the wind can’t get underneath them; they can be set into the ground or placed into a side-hill with an earth berm around. The shelters include a roof vent pipe and the owner could add a peaked roof for aesthetics. People can furnish them with chairs and whatever supplies they envision needing to wait out a storm.

Homes without basements and rural mobile homes would definitely benefit from this type of storm shelter. At a price of $1,250 per unit, Wilkinson believes this is pretty inexpensive storm protection. His wife Jane pointed out that there is no maintenance or cost of upkeep once they’re in place.

Wilkinson Precast has been in the Riverside area about five years, moving to Iowa from Hamilton, Ontario. For the first three years, while getting the business established, the Wilkinsons lived in an apartment on Riverside’s Main Street. In November of 1997 they moved into a new home, located on the business site, which also includes the business office.

Ken Wilkinson knows the concrete business well having grown up in a 45-year family operation of the same kind. Jane does the books for Wilkinson Precast and the couple’s two daughters also have helped out in various ways. Eldest daughter, Rebecca, who works in human resources law in Canada, is currently putting together an employee handbook for the business. Lindsey helps keep things going when Ken and Jane are away from the plant. She is a student at Kirkwood and also works at an Iowa City medical clinic.

Wilkinson’s main line of products include septic tanks, utility tanks and culverts. They manufacture a 6,700 gallon capacity septic tank that is used for restaurants and campgrounds.

To the person unfamiliar with concrete work, like me, most of it looks not too interesting. But the large boxes at Wilkinson Precast labeled STORM SHELTER definitely caught my eye, especially this time of year here in Iowa when everyone’s eyes are on the skies.