For 14 years, they were the last resort for protecting the Twin Cities in case of a Soviet air attack.

With 15 minutes' warning, Nike Hercules missiles could be raised from bunkers, moved to launchpads and aimed to shoot down enemy bombers before they reached the metro area.

One of the few remaining deactivated missiles in the country still is standing in the southwest metro city of St. Bonifacius. It has received much greater appreciation recently with the addition of interpretive panels.

"People questioned why we had it, and they didn't know what it meant," said Fred Keller, president of the St. Bonifacius area community development group.

Keller, 72, served in the Navy in Guantanamo Bay shortly before the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, so he's well aware of what things were like when the St. Bonifacius missile base was built in 1958.

It's history familiar to others who grew up during the early Cold War years in the 1950s and 1960s, when Soviet achievements in developing nuclear weapons and launching the Sputnik satellite had the United States worried about defending its major cities, military bases and industrial centers. Schools practiced "duck and cover" drills in case of an attack, and some families built bomb shelters.

The Army built defensive missile bases at dozens of locations, including four that ringed the Twin Cities near St. Bonifacius, Farmington, Bethel and Roberts, Wis.

Defense only

The St. Bonifacius site, on farmland about 25 miles from Minneapolis, was chosen because it's one of the highest points in Hennepin County, Keller said. It contained missiles stored horizontally underground, three large radar units above ground and an administrative building.

The missiles were for defensive purposes only and had a range of about 90 miles. They used the most advanced technology of their time, with missile-tracking radar that allowed the Hercules fins to be adjusted electronically during flight to home in on evasive aircraft.

Jay Gregg, president of the St. Bonifacius Historical Society, remembered how the Army held an open house at the base one day each summer when he was a young man. "They would bring the missiles out of the ground to show them off," Gregg said. "Everybody was quite impressed."

Each base had about 115 enlisted men and officers who served three-year tours of duty, according to news accounts of the time. No missiles ever were launched from any of the four Twin Cities bases, and they were deactivated in 1972. By that time, Soviet priorities had shifted away from bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the United States responded by deploying a new generation of larger, more sophisticated defensive missiles that had faster speeds and longer ranges.

A local businessman succeeded in buying one of the missiles shortly after the St. Bonifacius base closed and stored it behind an appliance shop for a time. Since its installation in the park, civic groups and city workers have repainted the missile's white exterior as needed, and the large black letters that spell "U.S. Army" vertically along its sides.

Explaining history

The missile in St. Bonifacius with its booster rocket stands about 40 feet tall in the city's park, just off County Road 92, which runs through town. It's a peaceful area, framed by mature elm and maple trees, and next to a large picnic pavilion that overlooks the St. Boni Saints baseball field. The Hercules was installed in 1974 with a small marble slab in memory of those who served at the base.

However, fewer and fewer people knew what the missile meant as the decades passed, so Keller spearheaded an effort in 2010 to receive a $14,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society. It paid for research and installation of two large interpretive panels that tell the story of the missile and missile base within the greater context of the Cold War. The money came from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund approved by voters in 2008 and was supplemented by donations from a few citizens and local businesses.

"There isn't a week goes by when there isn't someone down here looking at this," Keller said, standing near the missile last week. That includes history classes from local schools, he said, occasional visitors who knew of the base or even served there, and people riding the nearby regional bike trail that detour a few blocks to see it.

"Folks that have been here for generations are pleased that it gives recognition to that era, that time," Keller said.

It also educates newer generations, long removed from the Cold War and how it relates to conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere, he said.

"I have a son who's about 50 years old, and he didn't realize half this stuff," Keller said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388