ESKRIDGE — A Cold War-era missile silo in rural Wabaunsee County that housed a nuclear warhead 65 years ago and later was converted into an underground mansion by a Topeka schoolteacher is finding a new lease on life as an Airbnb location, welcoming guests from across the nation and around the world.
The Subterra Castle Airbnb, at 15513 Missile Base Road, about 15 miles southwest of Topeka off K-4 highway, opened for business about six months ago.
Matthew Fulkerson, who is serving as host for the Subterra Airbnb, said people are finding out about the opportunity to stay at the one-time missile silo through social media channels like Facebook. Reservations are taken over the Airbnb website.
Fulkerson, 37, is a neighbor Subterra’s owners, Ed and Dianna Peden, who have lived in the underground, converted missile base since 1994.
Fulkerson, who holds a college degree in hotel management and hospitality, said it was his idea to turn Subterra into an Airbnb. He pitched the idea to the Pedens, who came on board.
More than being a quiet place for people to stay when passing through Kansas, Fulkerson said he has a bigger vision for Subterra: “I see it as becoming a destination,” he said matter of factly.
Certainly, it is unique. So much so that it has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including National Geographic, Discovery Channel, CNN and even “Oprah.”
Airbnbs are privately owned residences that serve as a kind of bed and breakfast, where people can go online and book overnight stays of varying lengths.
In addition to a spacious main-floor bedroom, Airbnb guests at Subterra will have a full kitchen for preparing meals. They will also have a private bathroom, along with a washer and dryer for those planning longer stays. There is also a small fireplace which gives a “nice, cozy feeling in the fall and winter months,” Fulkerson said.
Should Subterra’s Airbnb traffic pick up, Fulkerson said, “we are considering using both apartments upstairs and down, especially because some people really want the experience of sleeping underground.”
Fulkerson said Subterra is the first — and to date only — Airbnb located in a converted missile silo. He said missile silos date back to the Cold War-era of the 1950s and early-’60s and were scattered across much of the Midwest, as well as parts of both the west and east coasts of the United States.
Fulkerson said the Subterra Airbnb site was one of nine missile silos that formed a ring around Topeka.
Though it was no big secret, there also was scant publicity about the nine underground Air Force bases in the Topeka area, which were a part of the Strategic Air Command.
When the threat of nuclear warfare began to diminish in the mid-1960s, the missiles and their nuclear warheads were removed and the missile silo bases were shut down, then abandoned.
“This place was build in 1959 and was in operation from ‘61 until ‘65, so only for four years,” Fulkerson said. “But it was during the height of the Cold War. The guys who lived here thought they would have to launch this missile at any moment.
“Then, after it was abandoned, it sat here vacant for years. Ed Peden, a schoolteacher who lived in an old schoolhouse and worked in Topeka, bought this place and started transforming it into what you see today.”
By all accounts, the missile silo was completely uninhabitable when Peden began working on it. More than eight feet of water filled its lower level, necessitating Peden to pump out more than a million gallons of water.
Then came the arduous task of transforming the open spaces that had thick concrete walls and ceilings into something resembling a living space.
After years of work, the underground missile base — named “Subterra” — began to look and feel like a home. Various rooms were built — including bedrooms, bathrooms, a large kitchen and a living area known as the “Great Room,” where weddings and drum circles have taken place.
One of Peden’s favorite rooms includes sacred objects from various world religions. They point to the possibility Peden sees of people coming together rather than staying apart because of their differing beliefs.
For Fulkerson,who grew up about three miles from the missile silo, Subterra holds a long history — one dating back to when he was a boy.
“I first came across it when I was about 10 years old.,” he said. “I was exploring the Flint Hills and all of a sudden I came to this paved road in the middle of nowhere — high security fence with barbed wire on top. And then this road comes down to a 47-ton blast door, and I was so intrigued.”
Fulkerson said he opened the blast door, which is down a ramp about 20 feet underground, then went inside the darkened underground area. Just like in a movie, the door slammed behind him.
Fulkerson said he ran home and got a flashlight and came back the next day. He thought the place was abandoned. Then he met Peden, who welcomed him to the property and gave him a tour of the underground missile base, taking him through the tunnels that connected the various rooms.
A lifelong friendship ensued.
As he walked into a cavernous underground room recently, Fulkerson said Subterra was the site of one of about 72 Atlas E missile silos and bases spread throughout the United States.
The underground Air Force base housed “an intercontinental ballistic missile that had a nuclear warhead 32 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima,” Fulkerson said.
The missile was stored horizontally in the large underground room. In the event it was needed, the missile would be moved automatically to an upright position, then lifted through a large trap door so it could blast off.
Other bases, like an Atlas F base Fulkerson owns near Salina, stored missiles vertically.
“There were some on the East Coast and some on the West Coast,” Fulkerson said of the missile bases, “but most were right there in the middle of America.”
The thinking, Fulkerson said, was that housing the missile bases in the Midwest — “where there’s less population density” — would serve as a safeguard for millions of American citizens who lived on either coast.
If Russia were to strike the United States defense system, he said, the attacks would center in the Midwest, where most of the missile silos were located.
“So they were hoping that if they were trying to take out our missile system, they wouldn’t be taking out our population centers,” Fulkerson said. “You know — all the millions of people who live on the east and west coast.”
Fulkerson said long before the Airbnb concept was launched in 2008, visitors have been finding their way to Subterra on a fairly regular basis. Many come for tours or special events.
“But doing the Airbnb — this is something completely new to Ed,” Fulkerson said. “He has never been involved in hospitality or anything like that.”
Fulkerson, who also works in a custom woodworking shop, said he comes by often to help Peden on projects around the missile base.
He said he saw an opening for an Airbnb and mentioned the idea to Peden, who agreed to it — but only if Fulkerson and his wife, Leigh Ann, were handling the hosting and business aspects.
As host, Fulkerson takes care of welcoming guests and will chauffeur them around the Flint Hills area if they want to do some sight-seeing.
Meanwhile, his wife handles correspondence with prospective guests, taking questions or reservations on her SmartPhone, and attempting to answer any inquiries within 30 minutes, so as to help Subterra get high marks from Airbnb — something that could help attract more guests to the site.
Fulkerson, who traveled the world in his late teens before attending the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., decided to come back to his home area in Wabaunsee County in his early 20s, working at his father’s custom woodworking shop based near Eskridge.
He wasn’t necessarily planning to stay in the area long. Then, on a trip to visit Peden, he met a woman who had come to stay at Subterra for the weekend. That guest was to become his wife, Leigh Ann.
Now, Fulkerson is a big proponent of the beauty and the tranquility of the Flint Hills, and the message of peace and hope that he sees coming from Peden’s work at the one-time missile base.
“I’m trying to show people that Kansas isn’t just a fly-over state,” he said, “that it really does have a lot to offer. Right here in the Flint Hills, you have all the beautiful native stone. You have alpaca farms, wineries, local cool places like the Somerset Cafe in Dover — they’re known for their pies — and there’s a new steakhouse called the Nextgen Chophouse in Maple Hill, where they grow their own beef.”
To top it off, Fulkeson said, Subterrais located just off the K-4 Scenic Native Stone Byway in a serene setting that captures the best of northeast Kansas.
“Ed just turned 70 this year, and this has been like a life’s work for him, but it’s almost becoming overwhelming to manage this place on his own,” Fulkerson said. “As a neighbor, I love coming over here and helping out with different projects. So doing the Airbnb is my desire — one, to work in the field that I studied and connected with different people from around the world, and, two, to show people that Kansas does have something to offer.
“And three, you have this Cold War history that’s here. But the great thing that I see that came out of this was even though this place housed a weapon of mass destruction meant for doing damage, fortunately, those rockets were never used for that purpose.
“Instead, the Atlas rocket launched the first four American astronauts into space, into orbit around our planet. It set up global communication satellites and made supply runs to the International Space Station, bringing us together with our enemies.
“So, really, the Atlas was the first of our rockets that could really take things into space, and it’s been used for humanity’s benefit instead of its destruction.”
Peden, who taught at several Topeka schools including at Boswell Junior High School and Topeka West High School, said he was getting used to the idea of others sharing his space in his home through the Airbnb arrangement.
“If they come, I think they’ll enjoy, it, “Peden said. “It really is different.”
For more information, visit https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15758095.
Follow Phil Anderson live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/
Matthew Fulkerson stands in front of Subterra, a residence built out of a converted Cold War underground missile base near Eskridge that recently has become an Airbnb. (Phil Anderson/The Capital-Journal)
This is the area where the intercontinental ballistic missile with its nuclear warhead was kept in a horizontal position until needed. When the missile was needed, the roof was to be retracted and the missile was hoisted into the vertical position for firing. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)
Mathew Fulkerson and his wife Leigh Ann, stand on top of the bunker that once housed an intercontinental ballistic missile that had a nuclear warhead 32 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. The couple runs the Subterra Airbnb at the site -- making it the first and to date the only Airbnb located in a converted missile silo. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)
For those arriving at the Subterra Airbnb, this is the reception area known as the greenhouse. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)