Potato Chip Factory Goings-on Remain a Mystery

Potoato chip factory still a mystery.

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
July 1, 2012

President William G. Durden ’71 unlocks the steel door, notes the periscope-like devices affixed to it and steps inside. Downstairs, he strides past a hidden exit, accessible by a rusted-out ladder, and reaches a windowless chamber with floor-to-ceiling soundproofing. “This would be a perfect room for an interrogation,” he says. Like many alumni of his generation, Durden is intrigued by this sleepy cinderblock building, which some suspect was once a spy-debriefing site or CIA communications facility.

Nestled behind the President’s House on Church Avenue, the 750-square-foot structure known as the “white building” or “potato-chip factory” was built in 1949 to house the Edison C. Nickel chip factory. It was a nuisance to neighbors like President William Wilcox Edel, who complained about the malodorous scents wafting from it and across his back lawn. Four years after its first bid, Dickinson purchased the building in 1957 with intent to convert it into an ROTC rifle range. Instead, it was leased to federal agencies, including the International Communications Administration (ICA) and the General Services Administration.

Officially, the building was used as an agency relocation site in case of nuclear attack. The tenants used Dickinson catering, maintenance, health-center, custodial, switchboard, housing and laundry services during visits and drills, causing headaches for College Treasurer George Shuman ’37, who had to send all invoices in triplicate. But a review of his paperwork reveals there may have been more afoot than just records storage and emergency drills.

Asserting that “security is all-important,” the Department of State’s A.W. Saari wrote that the agency’s equipment was “very noisy.” The ICA later paid $50,000 to block windows and doors, refashion the interior and install acoustical tiles, and the agency’s John Shurman declared that flooding caused by clogged gutters might “seriously affect” a “communications system.” (That system could have been a wall-sized, heat-emitting computer; heat discoloration is still visible on the ceiling of the innermost room.) The ICA also rented a “special typewriter” and darkroom equipment for “Operation Alert 1956.”

So much was happening on site that Dickinson supplied secretaries to lend a hand. In an internal 1963 memo, the college announced that “a confidential government installation” needed additional help.

The workers were screened and trained, but one letter describes a major snafu. According to the Office of Security director, a Dickinson employee committed a security violation on Oct. 29, 1964, by relaying a combination on request. To the director’s further alarm, the employee communicated via telephone—an insecure device—and waited five hours before reporting the incident.
That letter is the fieriest item in Archives & Special Collections’ bulging potato-chip-factory business-document folder, which corrals a mind-numbing assemblage of blue- carbon-paper-blurred invoices and memos. A slimmer file reveals students’ attempts to unravel the mysterious goings-on.

Demanding disclosure, students staged at least two protests. In March 1968, Dickinsonian editor David Totaro ’69 reportedly interviewed a federal official and toured the building. He confirmed it was an agency safe house, but rumors continued to swirl. In 1970, Students for a Democratic Society pressured the college to investigate.

“Being Dickinsonians, we were curious,” says Durden, who joined ROTC buddies in a stakeout one Friday afternoon that spring, hiding in the bushes behind his current home.

But for many who worked here then, like Executive Secretary Marie Baker, the questions are best left unasked. Pressed for information, Baker illuminates the seismic cultural shifts between the McCarthy era, when the building was first leased, and the Vietnam era, when students demanded to know what happened behind that peri-scoped door.

“We aren’t supposed to discuss it,” she says.

Published August 2, 2013