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UFO or swamp gas? MI’s “close encounter” 50 years later

Courtesy Michigan MUFON

The vernal equinox came and went quietly yesterday on a clear, blue Sunday in mid-Michigan.

But fifty years ago, the first day of spring in Michigan was not so quiet.

On March 20, 1966, dozens of people claimed to have spotted a UFO hovering around Dexter, MI, near Ann Arbor.

The next day, a similar report came out of Hillsdale.

The rash of sightings made national news, and even caught the attention of veteran newsman Walter Cronkite.

But what was the thing all those people saw?

Current State reporter Kevin Lavery went to Ann Arbor this weekend for a conference commemorating the anniversary of the sighting to try to find out.

“The call came into the Washtenaw County Sheriff around 8:30 that evening,” says Harry Willnus, ufologist and former director of the Michigan UFO Network.

On the line was a local farmer named Frank Mannor. He said he was on the porch trying to calm down his barking dogs when he saw a bright object falling from the north.

“He described a football-shaped object, about the size of a small car,” says Willnus. “He also mentioned a mist that seemed to hang from the bottom, which is common in UFO sightings.”

The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s police report described an object with blue, green and white flashing lights. The lights would often change colors.

News reports from Hillsdale the following day would describe similar sightings.

“I think what made these cases unique is their relation to each other in time – one day after another – and the huge number of witnesses involved,” says historian Will Matthews.

“We’re talking 50-100 witnesses in Dexter – and close to that number in Hillsdale.”

Such an uncommon sighting was bound to bring outside attention, and suddenly, Walter Cronkite wasn’t the only one interested in the Michigan farm town.

J. Allen Hynek, renowned astronomer and an authority on UFOs during the 1940s, was brought in by the Air Force to investigate.

Hynek’s probe concluded that people were probably just witnessing a natural phenomenon called “swamp gas.”

“They needed someone to come in and say ‘here’s what you probably saw that night’,” says Willnus. “He was convinced that these were crackpots, visionaries – people who were seeing things or had too much to drink.”

The Mannor family had a rough time after the government denounced the UFO sighting.

Cars lined up around their property for weeks after. People unnecessarily tromped over their lawn. Frank Mannor even had his car windshield smashed by a beer bottle.

Years later, Hynek’s skepticism about UFOs would subside. He and Willnus would eventually work together at the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago.

Even with an official investigation – and explanation – those few nights in 1966 remain clouded in mystery.

But it’s not so mysterious to Harry Willnus.

“I’m absolutely a believer,” says Willnus. “What I really enjoy- and this has happened several times in my life- people who just laugh at me, they’re just so, ‘what is wrong with you?’ And then, guess what? They have their own sighting. They have their own close encounter and, oh my god, I’ve seen the eyes become like saucers.”

Article by Ethan Merrill, Current State Intern

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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