NORTH DAKOTA MISSILE SITES: Living in a nuclear world

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The decade of the 1960s was a perilous time in the world, as Cold War tensions intensified between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- The decade of the 1960s was a perilous time in the world, as Cold War tensions intensified between the United States and the Soviet Union.

But they were good times economically in many North Dakota communities, as the U.S. Air Force began building missile wings based at Grand Forks and Minot Air Force bases and sinking nuclear missiles below the farmland.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota is working to preserve that legacy by converting two missile sites near Cooperstown into a state historic site that tells the story of the state's contribution to the country's Cold War history.

Wing VI at Grand Forks covered 6,500 square miles, from the Canadian border south to roughly Interstate 94, and from the Red River west to Devils Lake.

Some 5,500 construction workers built 150 underground missile silos and 15 launch control facilities in eastern North Dakota between 1963 and 1966. Another 150 Minuteman missiles were placed in silos in northcentral North Dakota.


Town booms

Populations boomed in towns such as Cooperstown and Finley, N.D.

"I recall in the days of the missile installation, the trailer parks were full of people," said Don Vigesaa, a Cooperstown businessman and a Republican state representative from District 17. "I was only 10 or 12 years old. But I know those people did a lot of business in Cooperstown."

Vigesaa's father, Ted Vigesaa, started a car dealership in Cooperstown in 1960.

"The timing was pretty good," said Vigesaa, who followed his father's footsteps in the car business.

Cooperstown's population peaked during the construction period, jumping from 1,189 in 1950 to 1,424 in 1960, then to 1,485 in 1970, according to Census Bureau figures.

Finley's population peaked at the time, too, at more than 800.

"I remember a lot of the people building the missiles had people in the school systems. I went to school with some of their sons and daughters," Vigesaa said.


Career doors open

Terry Ellefson credits the missile program with launching his career.

Ellefson was working on the family farm near Cooperstown when construction began in the mid-1960s. He was about 20, and it was his first job off the farm.

He became a crane operator, setting 36-inch pipes deep into the ground. Over the next two years, Ellefson figures he worked on about 95 percent of the 150 missile sites built in northeastern North Dakota.

"There were construction workers from all over -- Texas, Wyoming, you name it," he said.

He remembers working 10-hour days, seven days a week.

"It was good money, oh yeah," he said. "But I couldn't spend any because I was always working."

As construction was winding down, Ellefson started looking for something else to do. So, he took some of the money he had stashed away and bought a backhoe.


"I like construction. Always have," he said. "I like big equipment."

That single backhoe was the start of Ellefson Excavating and Construction, a business he and his son operate today.

"I guess the missiles were pretty good to me," he said.

Living among missile fields

When the construction period ended, the community returned to normal, if normal meant living next to a vast nuclear missile field.

The hundreds of construction workers were replaced by rotating crews of U.S. Air Force personnel living in gated facilities, traveling around the region in dark blue Air Force trucks.

They lived in launch control facilities secured behind heavy-duty chain-link fences.

The launch control center -- the guts of each facility -- was located 45 feet below ground, in a fortress of steel and concrete, suspended in air to withstand a direct missile hit.

What passersby saw from the highway was only about one-third of the complex below. Each Launch Control Center was connected with 10 missile launch facilities in the surrounding countryside, set off main roads and protected by chain-link fences. Security guards patrolled the area, and responded to any alert in the control center.

The Air Force facilities and the communities co-existed for more than 30 years, before the end of the Cold War marked the end of the Minuteman III missiles in northeastern North Dakota. The missiles were moved to Montana in the late 1990s.

Facilities tore down

Most of the facilities have been demolished. Oscar-Zero, the launch control facility north of Cooperstown, has been spared the wrecking ball, at least for now.

"I think that most people knew what that place was all about," Vigesaa said. "We did understand as a community that it was a command center for missiles, and it was a very important part of the whole system."

Few knew exactly what went on inside those single-story buildings secured behind heavy-duty chain link fences.

"They were mysterious," said Merl Paaverud, who grew up on a farm near Finley.

Closing hurt electric co-ops

The closing of the 321st Missile Wing had a major impact on North Dakota communities in the heart of the missile fields.

Sheyenne Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Finley, N.D., served 43 missile silos and four launch facilities. The missile sites contributed about $800,000 of Sheyenne Valley's annual revenue, which totaled about $4.3 million in the mid-1990s.

"That's nearly 20 percent," said Troy Olson, Sheyenne Valley's general manager at the time.

Sheyenne Valley was incorporated in 1944 and was operational in 1947, serving communities and rural areas in Steele, Griggs, southern Nelson and parts of Eddy and Benson counties.

"It had an impact on Nodak Electric, too," he said. "The percentage impact was quite a bit less because of their size, but it had an impact."

Nodak, based in Grand Forks, served 55 missile silos around the region. However, the missile sites represented only 3 percent of the cooperative's annual sales of $26 million, according to a report in 1995.

Sheyenne Valley became part of Nodak Electric Cooperative in 2001, less than three years after the closing of the missile wing facilities.

"The loss of the military load, as well as the decline in the number of rural customers and changes in the industry, eventually led us to propose that to the membership," said Olson, who now serves as energy services manager at Nodak.

Preserving the legacy

The State Historical Society of North Dakota is facing a challenge -- raising $1 million by the end of 2007 to convert two missile facilities near Cooperstown into State Historical Sites.

Paaverud, now director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, is trying to preserve Oscar-Zero, the Launch Control Facility north of Cooperstown, and November-33, the missile silo two miles east of the city. The state agency is attempting to raise $1 million by December 2007 for the project.

The agency has raised $250,000, through a Save America's Treasures grant. Paaverud will ask the 2007 North Dakota Legislature to match that total, while raising the remaining $500,000 through private or other sources.

Following a tour of the facilities this past week, Vigesaa is convinced the project is vital to the state's history.

"I want to bring other legislators to the site," he said. "Until you get down into the bowels of the site, I don't think you can appreciate the scope and complexity of the missile system here."

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