Sunday, December 5, 2021

Flashback 2012: Cold War relics come to light 50 years later

     Twitter gets condemned as a rushing river for loons and liars, a caustic Styx flowing from the heart of our malicious national id, steaming with racism and idiocy. And there is much truth to that criticism. But you also get to pick whose feeds you receive, generally, and mine is laden with salt-of-the-earth Chicago sorts who wander around the city, snapping photos of interesting buildings and beautiful birds, sharing historical stuff, with hardly any vomiting of malice at all. One of those I follow, the Trib's William Lee, tossed up a photo of Schulze bakery, sparking two thoughts, a) hey, that place, I was THERE, a couple times and b) I never shared any of those columns on the blog. I can't fix Twitter. But I can remedy that.

     We were going to blow each other up. The world might come to an end.
     That’s what we were afraid of, anyway. Someone would make a mistake in the war of nerves between the United States and the Soviet Union, the missiles would fly, and civilization would vanish under a funeral shroud of expanding mushroom clouds.
     There was really nothing people could do, except worry, and plan for the unthinkable. So we built bomb shelters — in our backyards, most famously, but also in the basements of public buildings.
     The question arose how people lucky enough to get to a shelter in time were supposed to survive until it was safe to come out. So supplies were laid away — food and water and other essentials.
     Most were pitched years ago. But in a city as big as Chicago — 227 square miles — forgotten places will come to light. Such as when the Chicago Department of Transportation is building new roads. There are often surprises.
     “We always find bottles, interesting things, old foundations,” said Michelle Woods, a project manager for the $300 million reconstruction of Wacker Drive. “Things you don’t expect. This was something that blew all of us away. No one’s seen anything like this.”
     “This” is a large cache of civil defense provisions, forgotten since the early 1960s, tucked between a basement wall of the Miller-Coors Building, at 250 S. Wacker, and the outer wall of the drive itself, discovered in late January as crews used a mechanical claw to tear out the old bridge deck at Jackson and Wacker.
     The provisions were stacked, still, after 50 years, though some were scattered by the time I got there. Dozens of green metal water drums — rusted and empty now — designed to be turned into commodes. Boxes of toilet paper and medical supplies. Some had been broken open by looters. Tongue depressors lay scattered. Some 50 cardboard boxes contained large square tin cans marked “SURVIVAL BISCUIT” bearing a packing date of “Aug-Dec. 1962.” The height of Cold War tension.
     “Everyone was fascinated to find something like this,” said Woods. “We said, ‘Let’s see if we can find someone who can use it.’ . . . There is a Cold War museum at the Minuteman Missile National Site in South Dakota, we’re going to send them a bunch of stuff.”
     Many of the supplies were produced in Chicago. The water cans were made by Rheem Manufacturing, 7600 S. Kedzie. Rheem opened in 1941 as a war munitions plant and ended up making water heaters. The survival biscuits, wrapped in cellophane cubes and packed 18 pounds to the tin, were made by “Schulze and Burch Biscuit Company — Chicago, Illinois.”
     Rheem closed its Kedzie plant in 1988. But not only is Schulze & Burch still there, but a few of the same workers who packed the tins of biscuits in 1962 still work at its factory at 35th and Racine.
     “I remember them, yes,” said Annie Hall, 76, who joined the company as a packer in 1958. “We packed them, then they wrapped them. Then the tin would go down, there was a pool of water, and we’d test it, we’d submerge each can, to see if any leaks were in there.” She laughed. “We used to call it the ‘baptismal pool.’ ”
     Schulze & Burch got its start in the 1920s — Paul Schulze began baking Butternut bread, sold that company, then went into business again with his son baking crackers. “The very first saltine that was ever made in the world came out of this facility,” said current company president Kevin M. Boyle. “It was trademarked.” During World War II, Schulze & Burch began to sell biscuits to the government for military C rations, which led to selling civil defense provisions.
      Today it is the largest producer of toaster pastries in the world, except for Kellogg’s. “Pop Tarts are number one and we’re number two,” said Boyle. “Ninety percent of all store brand toaster pastries are produced by Schulze & Burch.”
     Boyle walked me through the factory. Toaster pastries are the bulk of its business, “our bread and butter,” Boyle said. Tuesday they were making strawberry, “by far the most popular flavor” he added (followed by brown sugar cinnamon and chocolate fudge) — all frosted of course.
     “The unfrosted don’t sell,” Boyle said. “You need the frosting to sell to kids.”
     The bakery, which employs 500, makes toaster pastries by kneading dough in 3,600 pound batches, then rolling it in sheets through a line that must go faster as the sheets get thinner, machines cutting them into four-inch rectangles, air holes punched to let the steam out, then jam, which they make themselves, is spread, and the pastries — which Boyle calls “pies” — are baked in gas ovens as long as a football field.
     I watched an amazing Bosch pick-and-place machine as it paired fruit bars to be wrapped — its four carbon fiber arms a blur as they plucked two bars and set them on a moving belt. It paired eight bars a second, something Annie Hall used to do by hand.
     “You won’t remain in business in Chicago without investing in technology,” said Boyle. “We’re the envy of the industry.”
     I thought back to another use of technology: the unexploded hydrogen bombs that brought me here.
     Leaving the Wacker Drive civil defense treasure trove, lugging an 18-pound can of Schulze & Burch Survival Biscuits, I stood in the commotion of the Wacker Drive construction site, jackhammers chattering away in the distance, soaking in the surreal scene of Lower Wacker with the Upper Drive removed, all dust and rubble, the sky above framed by broken concrete and jutting rebar. It looked for a moment like a ruin, like the city as it would have been had the unthinkable occurred that we were trying to plan for with our pathetic little shelters and cans of crackers.
     We commemorate the wars fought, the heroes who died in them. And rightly so. But maybe we also should celebrate the wars we didn’t fight, the people who didn’t die — we should honor the rationality that pulled the United States and Russia back from the brink in 1962, 50 years ago this October. To recognize the great blessing we enjoy, to use technology to make frosted strawberry toaster pastries at a very fast rate, right here in Chicago, and that the biscuits we set aside for the end of the world went uneaten.
     Well, until now — how could you not? Not bad, really, dry of course, a blend of a saltine and a graham cracker, almost tasteless, with perhaps a slight off flavor of smokiness. They held up. Annie Hall and her co-workers did their job well.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2012


  1. My musical partner in Bloomington, IL has a Rheem air conditioner. He and I had a colleague in the Central IL music scene BITD who had a little red Rheem organ. Indeed, the company apparently dabbled in the Farfisa Knock-Off organ craze of the mid-60s started in part by ? & the Mysterian's single "96 Tears," abetted by the Doors' Ray Manzarek, who grew up here. A portable little brother to the Sears (& thus Chicago) Silvertone guitars. And Ludwig made high-quality drums at 1750 N. Damen. But I digress.

  2. But the toaster pastries Schulze makes are made at the one story plant at 35th & Racine. You used to be able to buy seconds of them 24 hours a day, as the security guard would sell them to you. They often came in broken pieces in a huge clear plastic bag.
    But others came in the boxes, & I saw at least a dozen different brands. I'm pretty sure Aldi's are made there.
    But the building in the photo is their former building, at Garfield & Wabash, which made Butternut Bread until maybe 10 years ago.
    I got to go inside the first floor about four years ago on Open House Weekend & it was a total wreck, with wires hanging down & water dripping all over the place.
    It was supposed to be turned into a massive internet hub, but that fell through at the time.
    There is now work going on again & it has some amazing polychrome terra cotta on the outside.

  3. Another remnant of the cold war era are those fallout shelter signs
    that still can be found on large buildings. Given the current state of human intelligence, if such infrastructure was still a necessity, how many people would see the resemblance to the radioactive sign and refuse to take shelter? There is the old choice Ginger, Mary Ann, or Mrs. Howell, and its corollary Gilligan, Skipper, Professor, or Thurston Howell? Which begs the question, would you want your descendants to be Morlock or Eloi?

    1. Mrs. Howell? Holy moly, Bernie, I don't know what kinda crowd you ran with, but the Ginger - Mary Ann debate among my cohort never included that third option. : )

    2. I'm with you Jakash. This is news to me, and not welcome news.

    3. I'll leave you with the old saw, money is the root of all happiness.

  4. a.) Looking at the ingredients of those biscuits elsewhere, they seem pretty mundane. I thought perhaps they'd be injected with space-age nutrients or something. Not that Tang was a nutritional powerhouse, either, but at least it had vitamin C.

    b.) I never quite got America's love affair with Pop-Tarts, though I realize I'm in a vanishing minority. Even calling them a pastry demeans the word. I suppose there are lamer delivery-devices for 30 grams of sugar, maybe... Coincidentally, a pair of strawberry frosted P-Ts evidently clock in at 3.3 ounces. Why, that's the same weight as last Sunday's lovely hunk of cranberry bread. Easy choice there!

    c.) "... are baked in gas ovens as long as a football field." Whoa!

  5. Great piece, and not one I remember.

  6. I keep my garden hoses in one of those 17-gallon steel CD drums. It has instructions on the outside. They were designated to hold "approved tap water" and were not meant for shipping water to their destinations. Polyethylene liners were used in the drums so they would hold water, and not leak or rust. The steel drums themselves weren't intended to be waterproof. There were also boxes of 20 double-bag liners, an instruction sheet, and a bag of twist-ties. Both the drums and the liners had a shelf-life of a decade under normal storage conditions--assuming anything would ever approach "normalcy" again, after a nuclear exchange.

    The same drums and bags were also meant to double as receptacles for collecting human waste products...instant commodes. A bag would be placed underneath a special commode seat. The filled bag would eventually be tied off with a twist-tie, but left in the steel drum and not removed (DUH!)...which meant that each drum could only be used once as a commode. And as long as radioactivity remained high, they could not be moved outside. So you'd be coexisting with an indeterminate number of 17-gallon drums of urine, used TP, and shit--indefinitely. Hey, war is hell.

    We had the fallout shelter signs in my high school. But no way would a basement have held all 3,000 kids. We had disaster drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis in '62. Maybe a third of us crowded into an underground space beneath the basketball court and the bleachers. A thousand scared teen-agers, just standing there, in near-darkness, until we could return to class. Too many opportunities to think too much. About dying like moths in a flame, when the blast and the firestorm came. About dying a virgin. About dying at fifteen...and not yet having lived.

    1. Grizz, I'm glad I looked at the blog today -- didn't get the chance to do so yesterday. I must by a few years older than you: my scared-to-death experience during the Missile Crisis was hearing an announcement on a TV I was walking by at the Naval base where I was stationed that began ominously, "All uniform personnel will report..." Turned out to be a purely local emergency calling in County people, Sheriff's police, I guess. But it was ephemerally heart stopping: World War III, here we come.



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