| 4 min read | by Doug Marrin, |

Photo: Ann Arbor District Library archives

There was a UFO incident in Dexter in 1966 that sparked a national panic over an imminent alien invasion. The event was the climax of a hysteria that had been mounting for decades. Once over, fear of UFOs faded, making room for other national worries. However, UFO sightings continue to this day in Washtenaw County and around the state, but nobody gives them a second thought or even a first.

“We got a call that the Mannors out in Dexter seen a UFO,” says Doug Harvey who was the Washtenaw County Sheriff at the time. “So I went out there and the grass was down flat in a round circle…and they said they definitely seen an object come down and lift off.”

UFO hysteria first began in the late 1940s. It coincided and was quite probably fueled by the start of the Cold War and its paranoia as well as the emergence of the Golden Age of Television and its entertainment. By the mid-1960s, the collective American imagination was fertile for end-of-the-world scenarios, either manmade or alien.


But what has happened since then? Fifty years later, we’re not scared anymore. And except for a few over-cooked and half-baked UFOlogists storming Area 51 in the Nevada desert, we’re not taking the idea of visiting extraterrestrials seriously anymore. The whole idea is a thing of fiction, for entertainment purposes only.

Dexter’s UFO incident

It all started out of nowhere late one evening in 1966. Right at the moment when the earth was at its Spring Equinox as if in response to the University of Michigan’s advanced radio telescope probing space the final frontier on nearby Peach Mountain, strange but colorful lights suddenly appeared over a family farm in Dexter Township.

The owner, Frank Mannor, along with his son Ronald, ran after the strange, hovering craft over his wooded swamp. Oh to have been there with a smartphone.

“We got to about 500 yards of the thing,” Frank later told reporters. “It was sort of shaped like a pyramid, with a blue-green light on the right-hand side and on the left, a white light. I didn’t see no antenna or porthole. The body was like a yellowish coral rock and looked like it had holes in it—sort of like if you took a piece of cardboard box and split it open. You couldn’t see it too good because it was surrounded with heat waves, like you see on the desert. The white light turned to a blood red as we got close to it and Ron (his son) said, ‘Look at that horrible thing.’”

The Mannors weren’t alone.

The police report stated: “Frank Mannor and his son, Ronald [plus 40-60 others including 12 policemen ?] saw hovering over a swamp about 1,500 ft away a brown luminous car­ sized object, with a “scaly” or “waffled” surface, cone-shaped on top, flat on bottom, or football­ shaped, and 2 bluish-green lights on right and left edges that turned bright red and helped illuminate object in between. Lights blinked out and object reappeared instantly across the swamp 1,500 ft away. The whole object lit up with a yellowish glow at one point and also rose up 500 ft then descended again. After 2-3 minutes of viewing, when 2 flashlights appeared in the distance the object seemed to respond by flying away at high speed directly over the witnesses with a whistling sound like a rifle bullet ricocheting. Object remained in the swamp area for 1/2 hr.

Sketch of the object seen at the Mannor farm. Photo: Ann Arbor District Library

As soon as the report was made, the press pounced and suddenly there were sightings everywhere. Sheriff Harvey’s office was bombarded with reported sightings of UFOs faster than they could respond and the news got out. It didn’t stop there. Extraterrestrial incidents quickly spread throughout the Midwestern states with reports as far away as Kansas. 

Dismissed at first as a hoax gaining momentum, then as a mass delusion of some kind, the sightings continued pouring in by more and more credible witnesses. Something strange was happening and it couldn’t be denied. The government sent in Dr. J Allen Hynek, an astronomer from Northwestern University to investigate the matter. Dr. Hynek, who would go on to make a career in UFO investigations, the first ‘Man in Black’, or maybe that was just the photography then. Anyway, he arrived in Dexter and found what he later described as “near hysteria.”

“A professor Hynek came to our jail and introduced himself,” recalls Sheriff Harvey. “He said, ‘I’m from Washington and I’ve come down to inspect that site about the UFO.’ So I drove him out there and he looked at it and talked to the Mannors. He got back in the car and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘You know, I really don’t know. I really don’t know. Something was there.’”

The public had been primed for this moment. The hit TV series Lost in Space had premiered a few months prior. And before that, shows like My Favorite Martian, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Day the Earth Stood Still terrified people of what might come from the depths of unexplored space. UFO and alien mania were already sweeping across the country. Just a few miles from Dexter, University of Michigan students laughed it off playing prank after prank of strange pulsing lights and alien sightings. But pranks only work when there is a preexisting fear.

“As soon as we got back to the jail, he had a call from Washington,” continues Sheriff Harvey. “He went in my office. Twenty minutes later he comes out of my office and he says (the press was there), ‘We have definitely discovered that it was swamp gas.’”

Hynek had suddenly gone from ‘I really don’t know what it is‘ to ‘it was swamp gas‘ in a matter of minutes. “And that’s where it died,” says Harvey.

Everybody went home, including the aliens. It was over.

Or was it?

Photo: Ann Arbor District Library archives

Modern-day sightings in Washtenaw County

According to the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), there have been 78 Michigan UFO sightings reported in 2019, 3 in Ann Arbor, 1 in Dexter. Just this past summer, Dexter had another UFO sighting.

Aug. 01, 2019, 22:40, Dexter

“I saw a bright and pulsing amber light above my garage. It caught my attention because it was too big to be a plane, and was brighter than summer Jupiter. I watched it pulse for a while when I noticed two smaller blinking red lights. It stayed hovering over my garage for a few minutes, then suddenly took off over my house and into the distance. When it flew over my house, it made a sound similar to a low-flying plane, but it was very much not a plane.”

Since its inception in 1974, NUFORC has cataloged almost 90,000 reported UFO sightings worldwide, 3,073 in Michigan. It’s not like encounters have gone away. We’re just not bothered anymore.

We’ve lost a certain innocence

Downtown Dexter in the 1960s. Photo: City of Dexter

There are more sightings reported now than ever, but we aren’t jumping on board like we once did, and in a way that’s a little sad.

Sure, we are desensitized. You can’t wring your hands over Chicken Little forever. At some point you give up and move on. There are probably rational explanations for most of the sightings, especially with the rapid advancement of modern technology. And when something familiar is seen out of context, the first impression is something strange and alien. As a kid, my friend’s mom was taking us home from somewhere one dark night. Suddenly lights appeared out of nowhere in the sky above the road, moving slowly, almost hovering. She flipped out. My friend quickly explained it was a pick-up truck driving across a bridge.

Or, maybe ‘from another world’ is actually from a future world where somebody figured out time travel and is selling tour tickets. Maybe that explains why UFOs have been reported throughout history. We can have fun wondering at the possibilities, and that’s kind of a point here.

As a kid growing up in Holland, MI, I remember the 1966 Michigan UFO scare. Unencumbered by grown-up life, my friends and I totally believed in visiting egg-headed aliens with laser guns. Warning Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! Like a lot of folks, kids and adults alike, our imaginations slipped their collars and misbehaved. It was thrilling and just a little bit scary when the branch tapped the window in the night breeze. It was a world without walls.

I’m not scared of UFOs anymore. There are too many other threats more immediate that preoccupy my thoughts these days. However, I did recapture a bit of that lost wonderment a few years ago when a friend of mine told me his first-hand account with a UFO sighting, fairly up close. He was one of those sheriff’s deputies who witnessed and reported a strange craft with colored lights more than 50 years ago. It was chilling to hear. If I was a cat, I would have arched my back and hissed.

But for the most part these days, we’re unbelievers, which may tell us something about believing – it has to be compelling.

But then again, just because you don’t believe, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.