Close encounters of the Kiwanis kind

The town of Exeter, New Hampshire, takes UFOs seriously—and has a fun festival to prove it.

Story and photos by Curtis Billue

When walking in the heart of Exeter, New Hampshire, one feels the past at every turn, where famous forefathers of U.S. patriotism left their mark on the town. George Washington ate breakfast at Folsom Tavern. Paul Revere came from Boston to meet with the New Hampshire Congress and returned to his foundry to cast the town bell. Captured gunpowder used at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution was stored across the river at the Powder House. Around every corner, historical markers stand guard before charming colonial buildings and declare each architectural gem’s significance on the U.S. calendar.


But if you ask passersby, they’ll say September 3, 1965, is just as important to the town’s identity.

That’s the night a handful of Exeter residents say they saw an unidentified flying object in the sky above Rockingham County. And it’s a night they still acknowledge 50 years later.


Aliens in the streets

The “Exeter Incident,” as those extraterrestrial encounters came to be called, was considered one of the best documented UFO accounts on record. A half century later, the event is celebrated with fun, wonder and curiosity. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the past, townspeople had been a little reluctant to celebrate such an interesting slice of folklore, but in recent years, something has changed.

And today, it’s obvious.

Shop owners display aliens in their store windows. Kids and adults alike tuck green beings under their arms as they shop along Water Street, strolling from Whirlygigs Toy Shop, past D Square Java and on to Stillwells Riverwalk Ice Cream. The Groove Lounge Cantina Band plays at the historic bandstand. Residents and visitors proudly display sci-fi-themed T-shirts and buttons—all to celebrate what happened here on a cloudless September night in 1965. All for the 6th Annual Exeter Kiwanis UFO Festival.

Some people, according to Exeter Area Kiwanis Club President Bill Smith, feel the festival is total bunk and embarrassing. Smith, however, has a more pragmatic perspective.

“I believe in raising money for local children’s charities,” he says. “So if you believe, then buy a hot dog from Kiwanis. If you don’t believe, then buy a hot dog from Kiwanis anyhow. Help us raise money.”


The Exeter Area Kiwanis Club has funded Big Brothers, Big Sisters programs, built a climbing wall at the Kingston YMCA’s  Camp Lincoln, and raised money for a helicopter pad at the Exeter hospital and for the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute in Boston. Whether it’s free Thanksgiving turkeys for Head Start families or providing for a family down on their luck, Smith says the club distributes the money where the needs are the greatest.

“Our most recent project is the End 68 Hours of Hunger program, which we were introduced to through our Builders Club at the middle school,” he says.

Exeter store owners recognize the value of having Kiwanis in their community and readily support its festival.

“We love this weekend,” says Kathy Lemerise, owner of Trends Gift Gallery. “It’s out of this world, and Kiwanis is a great cause.”

On the other side of the Squamscott River, directly across from Lemerise’s shop, children and parents roam an alien “crash site” in Founder’s Park, sifting through empty egg cartons, cardboard tubes, rolls of tape and other recyclables. They’re looking for anything that can be reassembled as robots, extraterrestrial figures or some other sort of celestial model. A plastic cherry tomato container, for example, becomes an interdimensional spaceship. One dad, visiting with his two kids from nearby Newfield, says he has come to the festival for the past couple of years.

“And I’ve made a rocket,” he says. “I’m quite proud of it actually.”


Open doors

Inside the town hall, there’s a serious buzz of excitement. Some of the preeminent speakers in UFOlogy are there: Stanton Friedman, the granddaddy of UFOlogy; historian Richard Dolan; and award-winning documentarian Jennifer Stein, to name a few. And it doesn’t take much to get in on the fun. For a small donation to Kiwanis, you can hear two days’ worth of discoveries, figure out equations on gravity and propulsion, test theories about UFOs, watch films, dabble in government secret operations and cover-ups, and share in the belief that life might exist outside of Earth. Curious skeptics sit next to confirmed believers.

Kiwanian Dean Merchant started this festival six years ago. He’s become somewhat of a local expert on UFO phenomena, so he knows that the mysteries of Exeter don’t stop at the “incident.” He guides groups on tours of the different locations where sightings have been reported. During the Cold War, he tells his audiences, there seemed to be a connection between UFO sightings and nearby military bases.

“I call this UFO alley, because from Amesbury, Massachusetts, on the Merrimack River up into Exeter, no place has more sightings,” he says.

Next time you’re in Exeter, who knows? With an open eye and open mind, maybe you’ll see your own version of the unexplained zipping around in the inky night sky.


The Exeter Incident

As told by Dean Merchant

Exeter, New Hampshire, Police Officer Eugene Bertrand was on patrol at 1 a.m., September 3, 1965, cruising through and around the town beneath a clear sky. Out on the bypass, he discovered a car parked on the side of the highway. Inside, he found a young woman visibly shaken, too upset to drive. She said a bright, flying object with flashing lights had followed her car for several miles. When she stopped, it disappeared.

Around 2 a.m., 18-year-old Norman Muscarello saw a bright light moving toward him while he was hitchhiking south of Exeter on Route 150. Afraid he’d be hit, Norman jumped into a ditch. The “thing,” as he later called it, turned and vanished behind some trees. Muscarello caught a ride to Exeter and burst into the police station to tell his wild tale. Bertrand, who’d been recalled to the station, suggested they return to the scene.

The squad car pulled up to an open field with its headlights reaching out into the darkness. Nothing unusual. Bertrand and Muscarello walked toward a corral. The horses seemed agitated, and dogs could be heard barking and howling. From behind a row of pines, a large object rose like a silent, floating leaf, a hundred feet above them. Bertrand instinctively went to one knee with his revolver drawn, yelling, “I’ll shoot it!” But thinking it unwise to fire at an unidentified object, he grabbed Muscarello and both ran back to the car and called for backup.

Fellow Officer David Hunt arrived, and the three men watched the object float and wobble in the sky. Bertrand, who served four years in the U.S. Air Force, later would say he saw the craft “do things that no plane could do.”

As quickly as it appeared, the craft darted over the trees toward the city of Hampton.

The U.S. Air Force issued a series of statements, attempting to explain the lights, including twinkling stars and military air operations.

The Exeter incident and a rash of mid-1960s sightings propelled UFOs—and the government’s investigations—into public debates. A U.S. congressional hearing convened. CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite moderated a one-hour program titled “UFO … Friend, Foe or Fantasy?” Journalist John G. Fuller launched his own investigation into the New Hampshire encounter and published interviews and findings in the May 14, 1968, issue of Look magazine. His book, titled “Incident at Exeter,” became a best-seller and put the charming New England town of Exeter in the center of a unique history.

Video: To watch, click on the photo below.

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This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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