There's a pickled alien in a jar labeled "Roswell, July 8, 1947" next to the cash register at Benson's Hide-A-Way, a bar on Long Lake in the town of Dundee, Wisconsin, 50 miles northwest of Milwaukee. A chart displaying spaceship types hangs on the wall and there's a stack of crop-circle photos on the bar. When the bartender abruptly turns off an NCAA tournament game on a Saturday afternoon in the heat of March Madness, slips in a herky-jerky home video of an alleged UFO sighting, and bellows in his best Vincent Price, "It'll make your blood curdle," no one seems to mind.
But when an out-of-towner announces that Dundee's status as the center of the paranormal universe is in dispute, eyebrows go up. "Really," says Kris Hegner, setting down her drink. Pulling a Miller off the tap, Bill Benson, the 61-year-old Hawaiian-shirt-wearing proprietor, nods. "Yeah. There's Belleville and Elmwood."
They're not Roswell, New Mexico, or Gulf Breeze, Florida, or Hooper, Colorado, home of the UFO Watchtower, or even Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway. But Dundee, Belleville, and Elmwood, Wisconsin, all have a yearly UFO fest, UFO burgers, and UFO T-shirts. And all three towns--not one with more than 2,000 people--claim the title of UFO Capital of the World.
It won't be a surprise to people who watch Strange Universe or listen to Art Bell's radio show that America's Dairyland has become America's UFO-capital capital. Wisconsin has a long tradition of paranormal reports; an air force survey conducted during the heyday of UFO sightings, at the peak of the cold war (from 1947 to 1969), famously showed that Wisconsin had more sightings than any state other than New Mexico.
But the grab for most-favored status didn't begin until the 1970s. What triggered the civic braggadocio was the report of a small-town police officer. George Wheeler said he saw a flaming ball the size of a football field hovering over the Elmwood town quarry one day in 1975. A year later, Wheeler, known as a straight-arrow, no-nonsense cop, claimed another encounter: this time a 250-foot-long, two-story-high flaming ball struck his body and his squad car with a blue beam of light. Wheeler died of apparent heart failure six months later, but the story spread, the sightings increased, and after dozens of Elmwood residents reported seeing the flaming ball, the village decided, in 1978, to embrace its unexplainable objects. "So many small towns around us celebrate things like Cucumber Days or Strawberry Days," says village clerk Jodi Pulk. "We happen to celebrate UFO Days."
Elmwood's UFO festival was no big deal at first--a strictly local event, a picnic with a UFO theme. Then in February 1988 Tom Weber, the owner of a small industrial-painting business in nearby Chippewa Falls, declared that Elmwood was "a community fully acclimated to the phenomenon" and chose a soybean field on the outskirts of the town as the spot for a two-square-mile spaceship landing site. The landing pad would beam lights into outer space, welcoming the aliens, and there'd be accommodations for scientists and radio and computer tracking devices. The price tag: $50 million. Elmwood's village president at the time, Larry Feiler, welcomed the idea but stopped short of embracing it. "If it happens, fine," Feiler said. "If it doesn't, well, no one is planning any hotels or motels or starting any other new businesses."
Weber held a press conference, created a nonprofit organization, hired a staffer to man the phones eight hours a day, and embarked on a quest to raise the money. The town immediately found itself in the media's spotlight. Elmwood become internationally famous--Geraldo, Hard Copy, and Dan Rather came to town, and Oprah interviewed residents. In 1990 Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials, a book by former New York Times reporter Howard Blum, devoted 60 of nearly 300 pages to the Elmwood sightings.
But after an initial outpouring of gifts from UFO enthusiasts across the country, the spaceship landing-pad plan was scrapped for lack of funds. Still, people in Elmwood, a town whose high school cheerleaders once chanted "We'll zap you with our ray guns," continue to claim UFO capital status.
About a year before Weber's UFO Site Center Corp. incorporated, folks started seeing strange objects in the sky above Belleville, 250 miles southeast. As in Elmwood, the original source of Belleville's claims was a well-respected cop. Glen Kazmar, on his nightly patrol of the village, reported seeing a clump of flashing red, white, and blue lights in the sky around 3 AM on January 16, 1987. Two months later another upstanding member of the community, longtime legislative aide Levonne "Boots" Freidig, reported almost exactly the same thing. Later the same evening, Harvey Funseth, a surveyor for the state Department of Transportation, reported the same spectacle as he was driving back to town on Highway 69 at about 5 PM. Funseth added more detail: the lights appeared to originate from a rectangular object hovering over the ground, with three smaller, box-shaped objects directly below it.
Word spread rapidly. A television station in Madison, 20 miles north, did a story. That, says Stuart Shapiro, publisher of the Belleville Recorder, started the frenzy. The UFO spotters came, "whole bands of weirdos," says Shapiro, and so did the national and international media. "Reporters knocking on doors, calls at 3 AM from Australia," he recounts. "It was crazy."
Less than a year after the sightings, members of the Belleville Chamber of Commerce donned coneheads and proclaimed the village the UFO Capital of the World. "I think [the capital] is here," Shapiro says. "I don't know what happened [in Elmwood]."
But folks in Dundee were underwhelmed by Elmwood's flaming ball and Belleville's clump of lights. Reports of paranormal oddities and unidentified objects had been almost commonplace in this tiny hamlet (population 673) for decades.
Dundee, which consists of a gas station, a hamburger stand, a baseball field, a scattering of lakeside cottages, and a handful of hole-in-the-wall bars, is tucked at the eastern foot of a topographical anomaly called the northern Kettle Moraine. The Kettle, a narrow swath of hills, valleys, and bogs that is now largely part of a state forest, is wildly different from the flatland that surrounds it. As a result of an Ice Age-era collision, it's pimpled with unusual geographical forms with bizarre-sounding names--there are cone-shaped hills (kames), gumdrop-shaped hills (drumlins), narrow, serpentine ridges (eskers), and dozens of craterlike depressions (kettles) pocking the land.
Reports of paranormal oddities in Dundee can be traced back more than a century. According to local lore, early Irish immigrants to Wisconsin, frightened by the unusual landforms, bogs, and thick forests of the Kettle, claimed that "little people" inhabited the area. Then in 1948 a local farmer named Vilas Ludwig (a distant relative of Bill Benson) reported that "strange lights" were following him as he plowed his fields. Over the next 50 years, locals reported at least 75 oddities--ranging from an alleged crop circle on a marsh to unidentifiable lights in the sky to what is known as the Long Lake Monster, a 45-foot-long Loch Ness-like creature with a head that looks like a football. Several locals also claimed to see what they believed to be air force fighter planes dashing across the lake in pursuit of "strange lights." The Dundee area became a mecca for paranormal enthusiasts, and groups of would-be UFO spotters trekked to the top of the town's Dundee Mountain, which some believed to have a mysterious pull.
In 1976 Bob Kuehn, a retired landscape architect from Lomira, moved to Dundee. Kuehn, who claims to have had an alien encounter at the age of three and a half, started frequenting Benson's tavern. He found a sympathetic ear in Benson, a lifelong Dundee resident who claims several paranormal experiences, including a possible alien abduction on a 1978 drive. Kuehn, now 73, claims to have prevented the Y2K disaster by collaborating with aliens and says he's "working with the ETs to stop the tornadoes," which he believes are manufactured by the government. He also hosts the UFO Bob segment on Fond du Lac's KFIZ.
"Bill's was the one place where you could talk about these things," he says. "I'd never been in a place like it." As crop circles and time portals began to share equal time with fish stories at the bar, Benson, nicknamed "Martian Bill" around town for views that some felt were "whacked," made it official. In 1989, Benson's Hide-A-Way starting calling itself Dundee's UFO Headquarters.
"People are scared to talk about UFO sightings," Benson says. "This is a place where you can talk about these things without being laughed at or scoffed at." Two years later, with some alien kitsch added to the decor and "Out of this World" pizza on the menu, it had become a gathering place for believers. "People were coming out of the closet about their experiences," Benson says. He and Kuehn decided to take the idea further, with an annual celebration: UFO Daze. The first UFO Daze, in 1991, says Benson, the former town chairman, was part community picnic, part discussion of UFO sightings. But the mix didn't work. The presence of the regular townspeople at the '91 event inhibited the UFO people, he says. They didn't feel comfortable talking about their experiences. "The next year," says Benson, "it was all UFO."
If only George Wheeler could see the legacy of his close encounter: UFO burgers, UFO brews, UFO bowling, cars dressed as flying saucers, girls dressed as martians, guys dressed as the Men in Black. Last year Wisconsin's UFO Capitals of the World collectively had two alien queens, two street parades, one boat parade, two UFO 10K runs, and six days of "out of this world" fun.
"It's a circuit," says Bonnie Meyer, who hosts the Lightside, a UFO and alien discussion group in Neenah, 55 miles north of Dundee. The season begins with Dundee's UFO Daze the third Saturday of July, then moves to Elmwood's festival the third weekend in July, and wraps up in Belleville Halloween weekend.
"Our thinking is that it would be good for business," says Shapiro, the newspaperman in Belleville, where the chamber of commerce gives promotional coneheads to local proprietors. "The parade seems to be getting bigger every year." Roughly 4,000 people attended Belleville's parade last year, about 750 (a record-breaking number) went to Dundee's lakeside fest, and Elmwood's event, which is nearing its 25th year, has attracted tens of thousands of visitors. UFO tourists buy souvenirs, drink at local bars, and stay at local motels and campgrounds, pumping money into the small towns' economies. "It's our biggest event of the year by far," said Elmwood's Pulk. Liz Pickerign of the Elmwood Area Community Club, which mans a beer and food tent during the festival, says UFO Days accounts for most of the nonprofit group's annual budget--$20,000 to $25,000 a year.
Some people complain about the traffic and noise and the odd people who invade the otherwise quiet town. Others, such as Belleville's town president, Jo Ann Therkelsen, aren't thrilled about having the reputation as the "UFO town." And some of the original witnesses find the commercialization of their experiences inappropriate. A few years ago, Belleville's Harvey Funseth complained bitterly to a Madison newspaper that the town had "made a joke out of" his story. "They use it like Halloween," he told the Wisconsin State Journal. "They dress up weird. That's not what we saw. We didn't see aliens. It was a sight of something we didn't know what it was."
But the coneheads aren't likely to leave Belleville anytime soon. Town leaders say the UFO fests support community groups, like the Cub Scouts and Kiwanis Club, and churches that hold bake sales or other fund-raisers during the big weekend.
Money wasn't the motive for the Hide-A-Way's paranormal theme, but Benson says it has been good for business. He estimates that during UFO Daze 90 percent of the people drinking at Benson's are nonlocal "UFO people." He has to hire three extra bartenders.
But when he says, "I hope they come this year," he means the UFOs themselves. At UFO Daze 2002, as seen in the home video Bill has shown hundreds of times, a series of strange lights appeared in the sky over Long Lake. The following year, not surprisingly, UFO Daze had a much larger turnout. "Probably 25 percent more," he says.
"They didn't show last year," adds Benson's wife, Judy. "So maybe we won't get as many this year."
As her husband heads off to the kitchen, Judy leans forward. "Honestly, I'm glad when it's over," she whispers. "I'm always a little worried. You just never know who's going to show up. One guy said he was abducted, and had aliens crawling over the top of his car." She cringes. "I guess I need to see it to believe it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.