What was in the sky over central Vermont?
By Paul Heller
For The RUTLAND HERALD | September 03,2013
The year 1966 was notable for memorable fads and trends. On TV, “Batman” was a campy hit, and cigarette packages first carried health warnings. LSD and the Beatles were fodder for tabloid journalism, and sightings of UFOs had reached epidemic proportions. That spring a series of reports of unidentified flying objects made headlines from Michigan to Maine.
Even Vermont was not spared.
The tiny town of Hillsdale, Mich., lies halfway between Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario. With a population of fewer than 9,000, Hillsdale is anchored by a liberal arts college and neighborhoods of stately Victorian homes. On an evening in March 1966, more than 100 eyewitnesses, including seven police officers, reported the sighting of a football-shaped object hovering over several locations around town. Some witnesses reported red and green flashing lights. The March 14, 1966, occurrence was followed by more extraterrestrial manifestations on March 17 and March 20.
On March 22, 1966, 20 more residents reported seeing UFOs, and an Air Force expert, J. Allen Hynek, was sent to Hillsdale. After an investigation lasting less than three hours, Hynek dismissed the eyewitness reports of the phenomena as “swamp gas.” “Swamp gas,” he said, “has no smell but sounds like the small popping explosions similar to a gas burner igniting. The gas forms from (the) decomposition of vegetation. It seems likely that, as the present spring thaws came, the gases methane, hydrogen sulfide and phosphine, resulting from decomposition of organic materials, were released.”
The Michiganders were offended by what they perceived as ridicule by the Air Force investigator.
William Van Horn, civil defense director for Hillsdale County, challenged Hynek’s findings in a 24-page report discounting the notion that swamp gas was an explanation for the sightings. Van Horn had watched the phenomenon with 84 students from Hillsdale College, where a UFO hovered outside a dormitory for four hours on March 21. The Air Force report was, according to Van Horn, “very incomplete and merely a token appearance sort of act.”
Van Horn refuted Hynek’s swamp gas theory by listing wind tables that indicated that there was too much wind March 21 to allow swamp gas to form. His report included a chemical analysis that offered the following information: “The area contained an abnormally high amount of radiation from some unknown source. The area also strangely contained boron, which was found in both water and soil. These two facts are the only ones which would substantiate the presence of a UFO.”
As reports of UFOs continued to be announced in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, the first sightings in New England were recorded in Exeter, N.H., and Bangor, Maine.
John King in Bangor said he fired his pistol at the object four times. “I could hear the elderberry bushes scraping as the thing came toward me,” he was quoted as saying. After he fired his weapon at the 60-foot-long object, it zoomed skyward. The police indicated King was “visibly distraught when he related the incident to them.” The event was reported publicly March 24.
By the end of the month, there were two more UFO manifestations reported in New England. In New Haven, Conn., police were swamped with calls from locals who had spotted “a stationary object with red and green blinking lights.” At the same time, a farm family in Castleton “watched three round objects hover over their dairy farm before speeding off making ‘zinging’ sounds.”
Within a few weeks, there were sightings in Graniteville that were the subject of an extensive report in the Barre Times-Argus on April 19, 1966.
“Strange things were reported to have happened last night in the Upper Graniteville area. An odorless and soundless but not shapeless unidentified flying object was reported in several locales of the area between 8 and 10 p.m.,” The Times Argus reported. Two teenage boys who had been playing ball saw an object at dusk.
“David Blouin, 15, and Steven Gilbert, 16, said that a thing that looked like a shooting star, brilliant white and giving off sparks, came toward a large rock pile in the back of the ball field, made a half circle around the pile and then went straight up until it was out of sight.
“The boys ran to a house to tell adults about the sighting.
“Mrs. Russell O’Hara called state police after she had gone back to the scene with the children. She said that she didn’t see anything but that the kids were scared. She called the state police about 9:15.
“A sheriff’s deputy, Donald Denko, was dispatched to the area, and in the course of questioning residents found that several people had witnessed the event.”
Janice Donahue, 13, was playing outside with her brothers and sisters when she saw it. She said she saw a large oval-shaped object heading along a ridge coming from the direction of Orange. She watched the object for half an hour and reported that it had white and red flashing lights that would alternately dim and brighten as the object moved along at a slow rate of speed.
“She watched the object climb to the microwave tower that is on top of the hill. She said that the thing hovered directly over the tower for several minutes and then seemed to grow dimmer and finally disappeared over the hill. The tower is plainly visible from the Donahue house.”
Janice Donahue drew a picture of the flying saucer that was published in the newspaper.
Forty-seven years after the event, Donahue is still steadfast in the belief that she saw an unexplainable aircraft. She recalled that some days after her initial sighting, her father, a constable in Barre Town, as well as an armed forces veteran with experience in aviation, was notified of a second appearance in the vicinity of Tower Road. She accompanied him to the microwave tower, where a small crowd had assembled to watch quietly as a large object moved slowly from the east.
“It had flashing lights,” recalled Donahue, who also remembered windows around the perimeter. “It was in the shape of a large saucer and had the approximate size of a large commercial aircraft like a 747. It moved slowly over the tower, picked up speed and continued east.”
Despite an assembly of numerous witnesses, she said she never heard a report of an investigation of the incident.
Fifteen-year-old Betty Rogers, of Graniteville, was walking along the road with her 6-year-old brother when they noticed a “mysterious object with a blinking light on top approaching high in the atmosphere from the direction of Orange. She said the light turned from blue to red and was moving slowly until it turned sharply and speeded up as it passed over a wooded area. Rogers added that there was a ‘whizzing’ sound like a snap in the air,” the newspaper reported.
The following day an object was seen over East Hill in Barre, the first sighting reported during daylight hours. Mrs. William Payne said she saw it about 400 feet from her house at 11:50 a.m., and her account was reported in The Times Argus: “The white object was about tree top level and moving slowly with a vibrating movement up and down.
She couldn’t estimate the actual size, but said the object came from the Orange or Graniteville direction, then traveled by the side of the house.
“She said the object was longer than it was wide and that it looked as if it had been hit or had run into something because the front of the object had been dented. The object stopped about three times in the two or three minutes that she watched it. It traveled in a straight line, but every time it stopped it would turn all the way around until it was headed in the same direction that it started from.
“She was talking on the telephone at the time the object came into her view, with Mrs. Fred Wheeler, also of East Hill, but about one-fourth of a mile away. Mrs. Wheeler hung up the phone and went to look. She saw the object outside.
“Mrs. Payne said that she didn’t hear any noise, but that her chickens must have seen it because they were upset and making a lot of noise in the yard.”
Mrs. Wheeler called the Barre-Montpelier Airport and gave her account of the sighting. Later that afternoon, a major with the Intelligence Division of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base called both women. They said the major seemed most interested in the size and shape of the object, its distance from them, and any markings it might have had. When he was contacted the next morning by The Times Argus, he would not make any comment except to confirm that he had talked to the two women.
That evening, an object was seen hovering over Montpelier’s Hubbard Park by Washington County Sheriff William McSheffrey. “It was bright with red and green lights,” he said. “I didn’t watch it long because I was headed on assignment.”
While the phenomenon of UFO sightings dwindled in central Vermont, they heralded the greatest wave of reported sightings in world history. The reports from 1966 through 1967 have never been equaled in number or geographic scope.
The events in Barre are also notable for these lines written by Granite City poet Pat Belding in The Times Argus on April 21, 1966.
Flying Saucer Question
Flying saucer blinking there,
Are you swamp gas or a
Are you fact or fabrication,
Real or just hallucination?
Are you gathering dope
Using saucer scope on us,
Filing data on our planet
As you hover low to scan it?
Were you born in outer
Or is Earth your starting
We would really like to
Are you friend or are you
If you’re cordial, come on
Land your ship somewhere
Then why not drop in for
U.F.O. — R.S.V.P.!
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Vermont.