By Eric Levin Maria Wilhelm
July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

The impact of glasnost may still be debatable in Moscow and Leningrad, but in the Ozarks it’s nothing short of profound. That has been a decidedly mixed blessing for John Hay, who is paying a high price for what once passed as foresight.

Back in 1983, after sitting goggle-eyed through ABC’s nuclear holocaust movie The Day After and hearing from a friend in the government that the Soviet military was plotting a coup d’état, Hay concluded that Armageddon was imminent and that “the best way to survive was to get far away and wait it out.” Hay, who was living in Boulder, Colo., could afford to do more than wring his hands, since he and a partner owned Celestial Seasonings, the herbal tea company they had founded in 1971 and would sell to Kraft for $36 million in 1984. When a friend in Arkansas told Hay about a vast limestone cave on 240 acres of hilly woods nd farmland in the Ozarks, Hay bought the property, about 150 miles northwest of Little Rock, for $146,000. Then he spent almost $2 million converting Beckham Creek Cave into a 10,000-square-foot, blastproof fallout shelter with its own internal freshwater spring, a hydroelectric power supply and all the appointments of an underground Xanadu.

Even as work proceeded, though, international tensions were easing. “When Gorbachev came in, I really began to lighten up,” says Hay, 43. By last October, Hay had decided that a fallout shelter was something he could survive without. He originally wanted $4.5 million, but was advised by his real estate broker to put it on the market for $3.3 million. Still, only one prospect, a California biotech executive, even bothered to look at it, which is surprising given the fact that this is a cave up to the standards of even the most demanding multimillionaire recluse.

“I didn’t want to come through the war like Tina Turner in Mad Max,” Hay says, “so I created Tinseltown.” First, 20 laborers removed 250 million years worth of silt from the subterranean chamber, one wheelbarrow at a time. The cave’s mouth was then covered with three-foot-thick concrete walls and faced with quarried stone. Openings were left for windows for the oak-paneled kitchen and living room and for an arched, walnut-framed entrance way; in the event of holocaust, all these openings can be sealed with concrete blocks, which are at hand for the purpose.

Inside, Hay followed the cave’s natural, high-roofed contours (“The architect was God,” he says), sandblasting the rock walls and waterproofing them with 11 coats of clear, shiny epoxy. Hay also epoxied the stalactites that descend like canine teeth from the ceilings. But his most spectacular effect is the 2,500-square-foot living room. He covered its floor with gleaming, green and white tiles and christened the whole “the Fred Astaire ballroom.” Colored lights play along its walls, while behind a set of sofas water trickles down a tiered rock formation. A passageway leads back to three of the five bedrooms and four baths, and polished wooden stairs ascend to a walnut-paneled library and viewing room.

The son of a decorated World War II bomber pilot-turned-airline executive, Hay grew up on Long Island’s wealthy North Shore and worked briefly on Wall Street after graduating from Adelphi University in 1970. His mother’s father, Herbert Dillon, was a famed Wall Street financier. His father’s mother was related to the founder of Coca-Cola. Such capitalist antecedents notwithstanding, in the summer of 1971 Hay took off for Colorado, where he began picking herbs with a friend named Mo Siegel. Family legend had it that Coke was launched with the simple command “Bottle it,” and Hay and Siegel decided the concept might apply to the herb trade. Almost as fast as you can boil water, they had created Celestial Seasonings, giving the world Red Zinger, Sleepytime and dozens of other herbal blends for steeping.

If the cave proves a bad investment, it will be Hay’s first. In 1979 he bought a ranch in Colorado for $900,000, and in 1981 sold it to Phillips Petroleum for $1.8 million shortly before the domestic oil market collapsed. He is convinced he will sell his cave too. But there may be one or two problems. For one thing, the cave features a pitchdark “backyard” more than two miles long and inhabited by crickets, albino salamanders and bats. Most of the bats exit the cave through an aqueduct under the floor, but sometimes a small bat finds its way into the living quarters. “When one slams you in the face in the middle of the night,” says cave caretaker Betty Ashworth, 18, “it’s kinda scary. I start screaming.”

—By Eric Levin, with Maria Wilhelm in Arkansas