About 40 miles outside of Washington, D.C. is Vint Hill, VA, which sits in a peaceful and rural area of Virginia called Fauquier County. In 1942, a farmer in Vint Hill discovered that he could pick-up radio signals from Berlin on his little hand radio. At the time, a friend of the farmer happened to be in the Army Signals Intelligence Corps, which led the Army to investigate and conclude with a surprising discovery - Vint Hill is one of the top four places in the world to hear radio signals. Almost overnight, Vint Hill became a top-secret signals intelligence base that would operate throughout the duration of The Cold War before closing in 1997. News of the Japanese Surrender came through Vint Hill. Vint Hill is now the site of The Cold War Museum.
The importance of Vint Hill and its top-secret intelligence facility would prove vital through-out the Cold War, making it the perfect place for the Cold War Museum. The museum was founded in 1996 by Francis Gary Powers Jr., (yes, that Gary Powers) and John C. Welch to honor and tell the entire story of the Cold War. On the outside, the museum may not seem as much, though you are greeted with Cold War era signs that “imply” you are entering a secure area. While the building seems small, it is actually a two-story building packed with Cold War history and artifacts. A volunteer docent greets visitors upon arrival. The volunteers at the Cold War Museum include former career CIA operatives, a retired Airforce pilot, and more, all of whom had careers during the Cold War, and now share their incredible in-depth knowledge and first-hand experience with visitors.
The Cold War era that plagued the world from 1947-1991 in my opinion, is the most misunderstood and underrated historical periods of the 20th century. We speak of its pieces, such as the Korean War, the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War, etc., but do not speak of it in its entirety. The Cold War was more than fragments of events, but rather, it revolutionized intelligence gathering and catapulted the world into modern warfare.
As the world began to heal from the devastation of World War II, countries entered a “secret war”, a war led by two superpowers that were once allies, and now, global enemies. As tensions grew between Western countries, led by The United States, and Eastern Countries, led by The Soviet Union, the war of espionage and nuclear weapons began. The children of many WWII veterans spent grade school practicing their “duck and cover” while companies such as Lockheed developed programs like Skunkworks that thrust America into a new age of aviation. Planes like the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, all became synonymous with The Cold War. Gone were the days for the bomber and fighter planes, and soon came the need for stealth and reconnaissance.
Vint Hill and the Cold War Museum thus serves as a place on US soil that educates audiences about the complexities and technological innovations of the complex era that was the Cold War. To the left of the museum’s entrance is a small room packed with WWII era machines, photos, and artifacts telling the story of Vint Hill. The rest of the first floor has items like CIA reconnaissance films (declassified, of course), pieces of a missile, parts of the Berlin Wall and more. On the second story, there are artifacts such as Cold War era uniforms from various countries, pop-culture history, and a working computer to input War Games. While the museum is not grouped in special exhibits, they have done a remarkable job of showcasing as much as possible in a small space. The collection is much more than what they can fit into the museum, and a traveling exhibit has been making its way around the world with the history and artifacts related to the U-2 incident from 1960. The mobile exhibit Cold War Crisis: The U-2 Incident has been to several government agencies such as the CIA,FBI, NSA, as well as various museums in the US, and the Bodo Aviation Museum in Europe. The traveling exhibit acts as a catalyst for the creation of a permanent Cold War Museum, and is available for bookings for other museums.
Visitors can see this vast array of objects for free on Saturdays from 11am-4pm. Although the museum is free, it relies on volunteers and donations, so all support is welcome. Visits on Sundays or any other day are by appointment only, which is great for groups who want to visit. The Cold War Museum is working towards a more permanent, larger museum, which the public can be a part of through their vital support. To make a donation or to become a member, visit http://www.coldwar.org/membership-mb.asp
Although the museum seems small, there are a variety of activities in Vint Hill for visitors to make a day trip. Immediately surrounding The Cold War Museum are other small businesses, like the Covert Café, a small winery, and another small brewery. All businesses in the area play into the Cold War theme, whether by name or location. For example, the Vint Hill Craft Winery is in the building that intercepted important German codes in 1944 that would help us at D-Day, and the museum also partners with Old Bust Head brewery to hold speaking events.
While Vint Hill and The Cold War Museum seem like they are off the beaten the path, it is a guaranteed unique experience that shouldn’t be missed!
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Larisa Moran is passionate about engaging more people with history. You’ll find her on Instagram (@History_Dame1776) where she delivers “history in under a minute,” and as a volunteer organizer at History Camps around the country. She’s also a regional editor for The History List. Larisa has a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University.