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Early-day tornado shelters known as 'storm caves'

Pioneer settlers of Oklahoma would dig ‘storm caves' before they built their homes to protect families from tornadoes.
BY MARY PHILLIPS mphillips@opubco.com Published: May 7, 2012
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Tornado season is upon us, and already we've had two bouts with them, resulting in deaths, injuries and destruction.

Weather experts tell us to take cover in our “storm caves” when a dark cloud appears on the horizon.

Storm cave is a term for tornado shelters that has been used every decade from 1901 to 2008 in The Oklahoman.

Not being familiar with storm caves, I have heard the tornado shelter called a cellar, a storm cellar, a storm shelter, a fallout shelter and, of course, my favorite, the “'fraidy hole.”

Storm caves were most often mentioned in The Oklahoman's classifieds as a selling point for houses and land, but this editorial published June 3, 1947, gives some history.

“Some years ago when the pioneers were moving out into the prairie country in quest of permanent homes many of them (a great many of them) were careful to dig storm caves even before they began to build their houses.

“One reason was there was abundant space for cave digging and the only cost entailed was the labor of the digger, while the material required for house building was back on the nearest railway, some times several days' journey away. Many of the pioneers lived in their primitive dugouts for several years.

“But there was another reason for that pioneer day digging-in operation. The first settlers were well aware of the possibility of an unexpected visit from a spiraling storm cloud.

“So they prepared what the cowboys in their vernacular called their ‘fraid holes,' both as a place of temporary residence and as a safe harbor if a tornado should appear on the scene. And unquestionably many a pioneer survived to a ripe old age who might have been blown into the next county if it had not been for some convenient hole in the ground.

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