IGLOO | They came from Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Indiana and New York, all for the chance to put $5,000 down on one of the hundreds of concrete bunkers in a cow pasture on the remote southern edge of the Black Hills.
Kenneth Young drove his Mercedes Benz from Rockaway Beach in Queens. When he stepped out of his car on the deserted grounds of the former Black Hills Army Depot, his iPhone and cigars fell in the mud.
Though he looked out of place in his yellow cardigan, his designer ball cap and his green cargo pants, he came prepared with an umbrella and mud boots, which proved useful Friday on a cold, rainy and muddy day on the plains of southwestern South Dakota.
But why was he there?
"I believe the government is in contact with aliens, and they're lying to us," he said.
His wife, meanwhile, never got out of the car as he drove around the sprawling complex, got out to inspect a bunker labeled B-201 and talked to other early attendees at xFest, a three-day gathering for people who want to convert the site's bunkers, which formerly housed bombs, into shelters for protection against tyranny, anarchy, nuclear war, the end times or any other calamity that might befall civilization.
The project is the brainchild of Robert Vicino, a California entrepreneur who has an agreement with a local ranching company to offer 575 of the site's estimated 830 bunkers for lease. The price is $25,000 upfront, and then $1,000 a year thereafter, plus $99 in monthly dues to cover security, well water and other services. The work and the cost of converting the barren, earth-covered bunkers into livable spaces will be the responsibility of the tenants.
Vicino figures he needs 50 to 100 clients to reserve bunkers with $5,000 deposits before he can start turning the abandoned former military installation into a community. People will not be allowed to live there full-time, at least initially, but Vicino said they will come for periodic stays to work on their bunkers. He wants to provide a medical clinic, a general store, a bring-your-own-beverage bar and other facilities and amenities, both to serve the tenants when they visit and to be ready for their full-time use if doomsday ever arrives.
The people Vicino wants to attract are often called "preppers," or "doomsday preppers," terms that have become shorthand for anyone who is unusually devoted to preparing for disasters. On the more than 20 square miles that comprise the old Black Hills Army Depot, Vicino has found a prepper haven.
The site’s unusual history dates to 1942, when the U.S. government selected a big patch of rolling western wheat grass and buffalo grass about 10 miles southwest of the small town of Edgemont — about 85 miles southwest of Rapid City — for what was then called the Black Hills Ordnance Depot. Until 1967, the military stored, maintained and destroyed ammunition at the complex, including bombs, grenades, mines and rockets.
The government built more than 800 concrete ammunition storage bunkers across the sprawling site and covered them with sod. Because the bunkers resemble igloos, the town full of military and civilian personnel that sprang up next to the depot became known as Igloo.
For the past 50 years, the depot has been abandoned and Igloo has been emptied of all but perhaps a dozen residents. One of those is Robert Chubb, who was putting some finishing touches Friday morning on a large shed he built recently to store military surplus and survival gear. He has started a business selling the stuff, and he hopes to pull some customers out of the stream of preppers that could soon be passing his way.
In Igloo and on the depot grounds, hundreds of administrative buildings and other structures have been reduced to ruins by the passage of five decades, but the igloo bunkers remain as sturdy as ever. They are now under the control of local owners who pasture their cows in and around them.
Vicino has an agreement with one of the local entities, S&S Land and Cattle Co., and its partner corporation, Fort Igloo Bunkers. The agreement covers 575 of the 830 bunkers and allows Vicino to market them for lease through his own company, called Vivos. His plan for a massive prepper community, which he is calling Vivos xPoint, has attracted worldwide attention.
The 6-foot-8 Vicino was on site Friday in a camper with several helpers for the beginning of his xFest gathering, a meet-and-greet for potential lessees that is scheduled to last through Sunday. Perhaps a half-dozen prospects had arrived Friday morning despite a heavy fog, a steady mist, temperatures that rose only into the 40s, and an abundance of thick and sticky mud that clung to tires and shoes.
Vicino said he expected as many as several hundred people to tour the xPoint grounds by the end of the weekend. Friday’s initial arrivals were a diverse mix of personalities.
Besides Young, the alien-fearing New Yorker in the Mercedes Benz, there was Mark Bowman, a working-class, plaid shirt-wearing tradesman from Indiana who came in a pickup with a trailer full of tools and gear. Bowman said he has visited other potential doomsday shelter sites and immediately liked this one better. As he walked in and around one of the igloo bunkers, he talked rapidly and excitedly about his plans to convert it into a living space.
His reason for wanting a doomsday shelter?
“Something’s gonna happen,” he said while sweeping his arms wide, indicating a world full of potential catastrophes.
There was also an older, well-dressed couple who grew up in Columbia and now live in Pennsylvania. The husband, who requested that his name not be published, said it was his wife’s idea to look at the bunkers. He formerly worked in New York City, he said, and was five blocks away from the World Trade Center towers when they were attacked and felled by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
The trauma of witnessing that event, and of being cooped up in a congested city while the world seemed to be crumbling around them, led the couple to seek less-crowded confines in Pennsylvania. The husband alluded to their 9/11 experience as one reason his wife grew interested in the psychological and physical insurance against disaster that a doomsday bunker represents.
Friday’s visitors were struck, as all visitors to the site are, by the eerie silence and isolation of a place that once bustled with activity. The bunkers sprawl across the area, each one with a small ventilation pipe that sticks out of the top like a sentry.
Inside, the bunkers have semicircular ceilings like a Quonset hut. They are 13 feet tall at their highest interior point, their width is nearly 27 feet, and their lengths alternate between 60 and 80 feet, which means the floor space ranges from about 1,600 to 2,100 square feet.
Vicino has published a schematic drawing that depicts a bunker outfitted with all kinds of luxurious modern amenities, but there is nothing in the bunkers now — no water, no electricity and no restroom facilities, let alone beds or furniture. Vicino said the site has two deep wells that provide water for cattle but will eventually be used to bring water to the bunkers. He also envisions wind power for electricity and composting toilets instead of septic systems.
Some symbols of modernity were already on site Friday in the form of two food trucks that Vicino’s company convinced to travel down from Rapid City for the weekend. The cooks inside the trucks were hoping for more customers over the weekend, as was Vicino, whose determination to succeed was obvious.
“Others have thought of things to do here, but nobody else has made it work,” Vicino said. “We will.”