Staff photo by Phil Wright
Staff photo by Phil Wright
Pat Kennedy saw Pendleton hosting a UFO festival as plain as stars.
After all, the Eastern Oregon city had a hand in the birth of modern UFO culture.
Sure, Pendleton boasts a world-famous Round-Up, but this also is where Ken Arnold of Boise on June 25, 1947, told East Oregonian reporter Bill Bequette and editor Nolan Skiff that he was flying the day before near Mount Rainer and saw nine strange craft zipping through the sky at 1,200 mph.
The EO men pushed out a four-paragraph story before lunch that day and the paper’s afternoon deadline, and the rest, as they say, is UFO history.
History that Kennedy, former manager of the Pendleton Convention Center, wanted to capitalize on.
“The opportunity is just laying there for Pendleton,” he said.
Kennedy said over the course of 20 years he tried to start a UFO event, but he knew little about the topic and needed someone who did.
“My idea was, you got to bring in some first-class speakers from all over the world,” he said. “I don’t want some carnival attractions.”
Tim Hills faced a similar dilemma and had a similar desire. Hills is a historian for the Portland-based craft brewer McMenamins, which in 1999 renovated the old Hotel Oregon in downtown McMinnville, near where famous UFO photographs were taken 50 years prior.
Evelyn and Paul Trent lived on their farm just outside Sheridan, about nine miles southwest of McMinnville. They claimed on the evening of May 11, 1950, they saw a large, metallic, saucer-life craft near the farm. Paul Trent took photos of the object and on June 9, 1950, the News-Register (then the Telephone-Register) ran the story and Trent’s photos on the front page under the headline “At Long Last—Authentic Photographs Of Flying Saucer[?]”
“As a historian, I was like, we have to so something for that and to recognize it,” Hills said.
But he knew nothing about UFOs or even who to talk to for a UFO festival.
“I did a lot of reading in the library and historical society,” he said, which lead him to Bruce Maccabee of Maryland.
Maccabee is a ufologist and an optical physicist who used to work for the U.S. Navy. He analyzed photographs. He even studied the negatives of the Trent photos and determined they show a real object hovering in the sky.
Hills said he didn’t let the lack of a budget stop him from inviting Maccabee to travel across country to give a presentation at the Hotel Oregon on the photos.
Maccabee has name recognition among UFO enthusiasts, Hills said, and he’s “a scientist’s scientist” who talked “over almost everybody’s head” but was believable. That first presentation filled one of the hotel’s halls beyond capacity.
“People were literally standing on the sidewalk trying to hear and see, the crowd was so big on the inside,” Hills said.
The event was “meant to be a one-off thing, really,” but the number of people interested in UFOs caught McMenamins’ attention. The company grew the event, adding speakers and events and drawing more interest. Last month, McMenamins Hotel Oregon celebrated its 18th annual UFOfest, which brought nearly 10,000 people for a Saturday parade.
The fest had six featured speakers along with emcee Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center. The speakers drew 200-400 attendees each, and those people paid to get in the door.
Hills said finding speakers with integrity is paramount, and he is not interested in giving space to someone who would mock the topic. Yet the fest also has a serious sense of fun about itself.
McMinnville downtown businesses set up displays of air-filled flying saucers and green aliens. The fest has “alien lasertag and dodgeball,” the “Abduction Dash 5K and Kids’ Fun Run,” and of course, the UFO Parade and “Alien Pet Costume Contest.”
James Clarkson, director of the Washington State Mutual UFO Network, gave a history of UFOs in the Northwest. He said the fest is his favorite UFO event because it has such a sense of humor about it all. And the parade in particular, he told his audience, serves to show youth that talking about UFOs is OK.
Hills said the combination of whimsy and serious-mindedness evolved organically, and folks who came for the fun sometimes took in the presentations, and the true believers joined in the fun.
Kennedy said he was not able to find the right person to put a Pendleton UFO event forward, but he came close.
He had his sights on something for 1998 and the 50th anniversary of Arnold’s sighting. Arnold’s daughter, Kim Arnold of Idaho, would have been the main attraction.
Arnold was working on a biography about her father. According to emails and faxes Arnold and Kennedy exchanged at the time, she was going to introduce the book in Pendleton as the hook to draw crowds and national attention. But she and her ghostwriter, Greg Long of Oregon, ended up in a legal dispute that blew past the anniversary.
Arnold said she did not want to talk about the book situation. Kennedy said the whole thing just fizzled out.
But he remains hopeful for a UFO event. Pendleton has plenty of hotel rooms and facilities for presentations and seminars, he said, as well as entertainment. And it has the roots in UFO history.
“From the marketing standpoint, that’s gold,” he said.
New convention center manager Pat Beard agrees Pendleton is “hallowed ground in some ways” in UFO culture. But, like Kennedy, he said he does not want to go it alone developing a UFO event.
Someone else, he said, needs to step in to head the project and turn believing into doing.