Bunkers with a view: Nike missile base ready to go on sale

News-DemocratJuly 7, 2014 

— The old Nike anti-aircraft missile site just south of Hecker sits atop a hill offering terrific views of the rolling pastures and farm fields of southern Monroe County.

Which is why, with only five days before the site's planned auction Saturday, so many people are calling real estate broker Wayne Keller to express their desire for building new homes atop the Cold War relic.

The shuttered missile base's three underground 5,000-square-foot bunkers with operational elevators would be "used for storage and sheds, as much as anything else," Keller said.

Or they could double as a storm shelter.

A few people have inquired about restoring the shuttered base and turning it into a museum dedicated to the Nike missile program, said Keller, the broker for Buy A Farm and Auction Co., LLC, of Sparta.

The company that will conduct the auction at the Hecker Community Center has set the minimum bid at $70,000.

But "the main interest has been for a home site," Keller said.

So far, the Buy A Farm web site has had 300,000 hits from interested parties across the nation and around the world. To contact Keller, call 800-357-4020.

During its heyday five decades ago, the base was one of four in Illinois and Missouri that guarded the skies around the St. Louis region. The Hecker site is the only one that was left relatively untouched.

The other three sites guarding metro St. Louis -- in Grafton and Marine, and in Pacific, Mo. -- have either been destroyed or extensively modified, said Mark Berhow, of Peoria, the author of "Rings of Supersonic Steel," a history of the Nike missile program.

Known as Hecker SL-40, it was the home for Nike missiles that weighed five tons apiece and were as long as school buses (41 feet). They were designed to fire 1,100-pound warheads jammed with high explosives at Soviet bombers headed for the St. Louis region.

All told, the Army built and operated nearly 300 Nike missile batteries from 1953-79 that were considered the nation's last line of defense from enemy bombers.

The vast majority of Nike launch sites have been destroyed or extensively re-purposed. None of the Nike sites ever fired their missiles at hostile targets, Berhow said.

"Quite frankly, they were built as deterrents," he said. "You let the Soviets know that we have these. If their bombers came, we had defenses against that. The whole point for them to be successful is not to have used them -- which they obviously did."

Today only a few of the Nike sites remain in good condition, including one at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco known as SF-88 that has been taken over by the National Park Service after extensive restoration efforts by volunteers.

The missiles at Hecker SL-40 were readied for a real-world launch only once -- in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis led to an anxious confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Six years later, however, the Army shut down the missile site when the Soviets reduced their bomber fleets and focused their nuclear strategy on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Career Center of Southern Illinois, formerly known as the Beck Vocational Center, took over the site and used its 5,000-square-foot bunkers as classrooms for its auto body and diesel engine repair courses. But those programs were moved elsewhere more than 20 years ago.

Nowadays, with education funding tight, the career center needs the revenue that the sale would provide, said Mark Stuart, the career center director.

"These are tough times for schools," Stuart said. "And so the timing is good to be able to use the resources from our sale to help offset the costs we have of doing business."

"It is a very useful property. It will draw a good market value for us," said Stuart, who estimated the 14-acre site could "draw well into the six figures."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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