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The Spark of the 1966 UFO Sighting

In 1966, Dexter, Michigan was the epicenter of a series of UFO sightings, that led to the United States Airforce sending J. Allen Hynek to investigate
A rash of UFO sightings across Michigan in the mid 1960s, launched investigations by the highest levels of government, what in the world was happening in the skies? I’m Lara Zielin. I’m the Editorial Director of the Bentley Historical Library, which is the archive of the University of Michigan and many of our collections document different aspects of these strange sightings. Everything from Governor’s Papers to archive newspapers, to faculty correspondence and so much more. It all starts with Frank Manor who was spending a quiet night at home with his wife and his son, Ronald, at their farmhouse Northwest of Dexter on March 20th, 1966
right up until about 8:30 PM. At that point, they started seeing strange lights and they thought they saw an object land in their front yard. I looked to north of me and there were looked like a fallen star, or bigger. It was red, kind of coming down on a 40 about a 45 and so then I watched it and I was gonna to see if it landed and then maybe go down and see what it was. Then when it got to the top of the trees it stopped and a blue and a white light come on it. The Manor’s phoned Law Enforcement to explain what they’d witnessed and instead of being laughed at, the report was taken really seriously.
In large part, because officers on patrol had also been seeing the exact same thing. My men seen most of the UFO’s. The reports came to me naturally in the morning when I read the reports about a UFO being cited by this one and that one and somebody different. And in fact, one of my officers, I remember him coming in and he took some pictures of the UFO. Sheriff’s Corporal David Severance even drew a picture of the object based on eyewitnesses accounts. The sightings even had been happening throughout that entire week.
Actually, when I got home later that evening, I heard a report from a college student 50 miles away seeing UFO’s out their window and it was confirmed by the local police officers. The sightings were so widespread and the witnesses were so credible that Law Enforcement and senators and governors and faculty researchers would all become involved, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas J. Harvey knew the Manor’s and he found them to be absolutely credible and what’s more, he believed his officers. And so he requested help from federal investigators to figure out what was happening but his requests were repeatedly ignored.
So finally, Harvey decided to reach out to his Congressional Representative, Vivian J. Weston and Weston took him seriously. And Weston pulled enough strings to get the U.S Air Force to send out an investigator. A man named J. Allen Hynek, PhD and astrophysicist from Northwestern University. So when he got here, we got in my car, we went to Dexter because this farmer had a sighting in his backyard. We got there and here we, I say we, Professor Hynek and myself observed the grass matted down in a long big circle, where something had landed there and it’s gone.
And this is what that farmer reported that this object came there, it landed for a few minutes and so on and then took off. So, Hynek had been advising the Air Force since the 1940s on Project Sign, which was a government investigation into strange objects in the sky and Project Sign eventually morphed into Project Blue Book, which was officially renamed in 1952. Hynek initially approached all of these incidences with a great deal of skepticism and when he arrived in Washtenaw County on March 23rd, 1966 he really didn’t feel like there was anything amiss at all. In fact, he devised a tidy explanation for the whole thing. Swamp gas.
Swamp gas, a few minutes ago you didn’t know what it was but now you know that it’s swamp gas because you talked to Washington. He says, “I was told to say this”. March 25th, 1966 Hynek gave a press conference where he said that the incident at the Manor farm and the incident at Hillsdale College could all be explained due to rotting dead vegetation in low lying, swamp areas. I’ve had many, many letters pointing out that they as children on the farm had had many experiences with swamp lights and that this was obviously the thing that it was, and they couldn’t understand why the people in Michigan got so excited over swamp lights.
And the illusion of motion frequently is given by the fact that a little bit of swamp light appears here, it goes out, another one appears over here that goes out then but the illusion as viewed from a distance is that the objects have moved back and forth and sometimes as gas will gather into a ball and actually float away. So basically the vegetation would decompose and in the winter, the snow and ice would trap the gasses and then in the spring, when everything thawed those gases would be released. And those gases could explain everything from the strange lights to the strange sounds. And it was fully the explanation for everything the Manor’s had seen.
He also dismissed the photos that the police had taken of objects in the sky, saying that it was simply camera exposure capturing the light of the moon and the transit of Venus. He basically said that a dismal swamp would be the last place that a UFO would ever land. And as you can imagine, this explanation was really unsatisfying to a lot of the people who were invested in this. Among the skeptics were Sheriff Harvey, who continued to believe the Manor’s and who also continued to believe his officers who had seen something. And I said, “Nah, my deputies weren’t looking for notoriety and they didn’t want it, and they weren’t out just purposely looking for flying saucers”.
“They just encountered it because we had people calling up spotting these things.” And I believe that young man, or that man, that farmer in Dexter, he seen something. He said, “It came down”. I believe him. Following requests for a congressional inquiry, The U.S Air Force convened a committee of 11 scientists and they were headed by a man named Edward Condon, who was a physicist. After two years, the Condon Committee concluded, “Nothing to see here”. They said that there was nothing of scientific value in any of the documented UFO sightings. This includes the witnesses at Hillsdale College, it includes the Manor’s and it includes the police officers who’d also seen something.
Interestingly, Hynek himself would completely change his tune about UFO’s over time. He eventually came to believe witnesses and he started investigating UFO’s himself. He even created a classification system for UFO encounters. You may have heard of Close Encounters of the First, Second and Third Kind. In his book, “The Hynek UFO Report. The Authoritative Account of the Project Blue Book Cover-Up”. Hynek basically says that, “Sure, I mean there’s a chance that everybody’s lying, insane or having a collective hallucination”, but he certainly doesn’t think so.

In 1966, all eyes were on Dexter, Michigan, as the United States government representative Dr. J. Allen Hynek arrived to investigate UFOs reportedly seen by dozens of witnesses.

Lara Zielin, Editorial Director of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, tells the story of a series of sightings that took place only a short distance from the university. She is joined by two guests, former Sheriff Douglas Harvey and former Deputy Roy Couch.

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