Farmington reaches 70th anniversary of mass UFO sighting
Largely forgotten event was once talk of the town
FARMINGTON — Farmington has reached the 70th anniversary of one of the more sensational events in its history this week, but it's a safe bet to say few residents will pay much attention to that milestone – or even be aware of it.
From March 16 to March 18 in 1950, the city experienced a mass UFO sighting, with some reports indicating "hundreds" of residents saw strange objects in the sky in broad daylight over the three-day period.
Their accounts were reported in breathless fashion not just in this publication — "HUGE 'SAUCER' ARMADA JOLTS FARMINGTON" screamed the banner headline on page 1 of The Daily Times on March 18, 1950 – but in many others as well. Those include The Santa Fe New Mexican ("Farmington 'Invaded' by Saucer Squadron") and the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Daily Optic ("'Space Ships' Cause Sensation").
An account of the incident by The Associated Press was picked up by newspapers across the country.
It's a fantastic story, one that might have seemed destined to leave an indelible impression on UFO history and the sizable community of amateur sleuths and researchers who have made it their duty to investigate and publicize such incidents.
And, yet, the Farmington UFO incident of 1950 largely has been lost to history, especially when it is compared to its in-state counterpart, the famed, alleged crash of an alien spacecraft on a ranch northwest of Roswell in June 1947.
While that incident — sketchy as its details may be — is widely regarded as the most famous UFO-related event in history, having achieved legendary status over the years, the Farmington event that took place a few years later barely registers on anyone's radar.
With seven decades having passed, that remains true, even though Farmington's brush with UFO fame, or infamy, holds up to scrutiny far better than most other incidents, many of them much better known. That's the assessment of an Albuquerque man who studies such phenomena, but who acknowledges the need to take a skeptical approach to most UFO reports.
David Marler, an independent UFO researcher and author who works in the health care field, has spent years studying the Farmington UFO incident, delivering his findings in the form of a website that serves as the most exhaustive and in-depth report on the event. He labels it "one of the most dramatic and well-documented cases in the history of UFO phenomenon" and said his research has uncovered dozens of similar sightings in the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America during that same time period.
"There was a lot more other than Farmington going on (during March 1950)," he said.
Marler isn't alone in feeling compelled to gain a better understanding of the incident. Many people who take a keen interest in the history of San Juan County share that fascination, and some of them have direct ties to the mass sighting that has become part of their family lore.
Patty Tharp of the San Juan County Historical Society is the niece of one of the witnesses to the incident, Clayton Boddy, who served as the business manager of The Daily Times in 1950. She recalls her late uncle regularly talking about the sighting when she was growing up and said the tale of the UFO armada is well known among the county's older residents.
She remembers her uncle as a man not given to exaggeration, and said he wasn't the kind to call attention to himself by manufacturing outlandish stories. He definitely believed he witnessed something out of the ordinary that day, Tharp said.
"He described the object and said several other people saw it, as well," she said.
A well-documented event
Marler said there are several elements that separate the Farmington UFO incident from so many others, mostly the fact that so many people claim to have witnessed it. The sightings took place between 11 a.m. and noon each day in the skies over San Juan County, not at night in some remote location where they were witnessed by only a single person or a handful of people.
Farmington was a much smaller community in those days — it had a population of between 3,600 and 5,000 people then, according to Marler — but the incident was by no means restricted to just a few sets of eyeballs. Marler also notes the sightings were thoroughly documented and reported in various newspapers at the time, and references to it exist in a great many government documents, as well.
The Daily Times' account chronicles how pedestrians along Main Street could be seen looking skyward and pointing, and the paper reportedly was "deluged" with calls from readers reporting the objects, although the story explains that high winds and a dust storm prevented clear vision.
The account explains how the objects appeared to play tag, traveling at "almost unbelievable speeds." The paper quoted Boddy, a former Army captain, who said he was on Broadway Avenue when he became aware of the phenomenon.
"All of a sudden, I noticed a few moving objects high in the sky," he is reported as having said. "Moments later, there appeared to hundreds of them."
Boddy declined to estimate the size or speed of the objects, but he said they appeared to flying at an altitude of approximately 15,000 feet.
Several other witnesses were quoted in the story, as well, including merchants, housewives, mechanics, insurance agents and Harold F. Thatcher, head of the Farmington unit of the Soil Conservation Service. Thatcher was quoted as emphatically denying a theory that the objects people had seen were bits of cotton floating in the air.
Many of those witnesses reported seeing a single red object that appeared to be leading the others. In his investigation of the incident, Marler would go on to dub that object "Red Leader" — a reference he believed "Star Wars" fans would appreciate.
Also quoted in The Daily Times story was Marlo Webb, then a 26-year-old manager in the parts department at the Perry Smoak Chevrolet Garage on Main Street in downtown Farmington. Webb told the paper he estimated the objects were small, about the size of a dinner plate, and noted the objects moved in an unusual way — "sideways, on edge and at every conceivable angle," he said. "This is what made it easy to determine that they were saucer-shaped."
Webb's testimony lends the event considerable credibility. He went on to become the town's mayor in the 1970s and now, at the age of 96, serves as chairman of the boards at Farmington's Webb Chevrolet, where he still works nearly every afternoon.
Webb seems willing enough to discuss his memory of the incident these days with anyone who asks. But, as a World War II Naval aviator used to seeing unusual things, he seems to regard the event as little more than a curiosity.
"I know how easy it is to be deceived by something in the sky," he said.
In fact, when he was contacted by The Daily Times last week, Webb said he had no idea the 70th anniversary of the incident was approaching and insisted he couldn't remember the last time he had thought about it.
"I can tell you everything I know about it in five seconds because I don't know much," he said.
Webb said he was working at his stepfather's Chevy dealership across the street from the Totah Theater on March 17, 1950, when someone told him they had seen some saucer-shaped objects in the sky. Webb went out to have a look, and when he turned his eyes to the north, he said he could make out 12 to 20 objects. He said they were loosely arranged, certainly not flying in formation, but moving steadily from east to west.
"They were darting around almost like leaves in the sky being blown around," he said.
Webb watched the objects for approximately 10 to 15 minutes, then went back inside to work.
"I couldn't leave my department uncovered," he said.
He said the duration of the event seemed to last much longer than that, however, because he recalled seeing people on Main Street looking into the sky for a long time afterward. He recalled many of those witnesses seemed a lot more taken by the event than he was, discussing what they had seen for years afterward.
"They almost made a career out of repeating what they saw," he said.
Webb wasn't one of those people.
"I never thought about it," he said, when asked what kind of significance he attached to the event. "There are a lot of things happening in the sky we're not aware of. I just won't waste my energy. I can't do anything about it anyway. … I don't have the background to research it and decide what it is."
Webb said he spoke to a military investigator after the incident and told him the same story. He understands some people want to draw other conclusions from what they've heard about the event, but he said he never felt the urge to do that.
"I've never said what I thought it was or made a judgment on it," he said.
A matter of family history
The Daily Times story about the event quoted approximately a dozen witnesses by name, but numerous other accounts have lived on through accounts passed down among family members.
Zang Wood, former president of the San Juan County Historical Society, was a Farmington High School student in the fall of 1950 and said he never saw a thing.
"A lot of kids said they did," he said. "I don't know if it was mass hysteria or what."
But Wood's mother, who was a San Juan County employee, was driving to work with another woman to Aztec from Farmington that day. When they got to Flora Vista, they said an object appeared above them and passed directly over their car.
"I'm not going to call my mom a liar," he said, recalling her as "a pretty level-headed lady. She didn't see things."
Wood said he doesn't buy the flying saucer stories because he didn't see them himself. But he refuses his dismiss his mother's account.
"If she saw something, she saw something," he said.
Another well-known authority on local history, Marilu Waybourn, author of "Homesteads to Boomtown — A Pictorial History of Farmington, New Mexico, and Surrounding Area," said she was in college in Missouri in the spring of 1950 when the incident took place. But she got an earful about it from her friends when she returned to Farmington at the end of the semester.
Waybourn wound up writing about the mass sighting on its 40th anniversary in the March 1990 edition of CrossCurrents, an independent publication that described itself as "A Journal of Life in the Four Corners."
In her story, Waybourn recounts that she heard the story at least a dozen times after she returned from college, and a group of her friends took her to a location that was purported to be a landing site of one of the objects. She described it as "a large circle, about 60 feet in diameter, with the sagebrush flattened out and singed weeds around the edge."
Waybourn also quoted a Farmington resident named Pauline McCauley who said she was a little girl at the time of the sighting. McCauley said she was herding sheep south of town that day in the spring of 1950 when she heard a sound above her, looked up and spied a circular object that looked like an upside-down bowl. McCauley told Waybourn the object had windows, and she could see three people inside wearing striped caps and navy blue uniforms with brass buttons.
Waybourn heard various other stories over the years, many of them from people who didn't want their names used for fear of being ridiculed. She said the incident sparked a great deal of curiosity at the time and remains a topic of discussion for older folks today.
"They took it for what it was," she said. "That it was something they wanted to know more about."
Rio Rancho resident Ron Boddy, the son of witness Clayton Boddy, said his father talked about the incident occasionally over the years, but he never made a big deal of it.
"The last time I really talked to my dad about that was probably 40 years ago," he said, adding that his father, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, was not easily impressed. "It was unusual to him, but not earth shattering or life changing."
Ron Boddy said his father was still a major in the Army Reserve at the time of the incident, and he recalled his father getting a phone call later from a military official asking him to refrain from doing any more interviews on the subject.
"I remember him saying he was asked not to bring it up or talk about it," Ron Boddy said.
But the younger Boddy regrets not pressing his father for details about the incident now.
"I wish now, looking back, I wish I had talked to my dad about it more," he said, explaining that he never got the sense his father thought the objects he saw were extraterrestrial in nature.
"To him, it was an unidentified flying object, not a spacecraft," Ron Boddy said.
Tharp, Clayton Boddy's niece, also has taken a keen interest in the event. She said the wire services picked up the stories on the incident from the New Mexico papers, and she has collected clippings that mention her uncle from newspapers all over the country. She agreed with her cousin Ron Boddy that her uncle didn't consider the appearance of the strange objects to be an alien visitation.
"He seemed to think it wasn't something from another planet — that it was a military deal," she said.
What to make of all this?
The quality and quantity of the information surrounding the Farmington UFO event has always impressed Marler. He said the accounts of the witnesses who were quoted in The Daily Times were remarkably consistent, and when those people talked about their memories of that day years later, their stories did not change.
"I'm really struck by the sincerity and honesty of the people I interviewed," he said. "They're not saying they saw flying saucers, but they saw something."
That separates them from the principals in other UFO stories he has investigated, many of whom are not nearly as credible.
"It really smacks of realism," he said, adding that the children of the witnesses he has spoken to unfailingly recall their parents as grounded, level-headed people who weren't looking for attention.
He also notes that an account of a UFO sighting occurred that day in Tucumcari, an event reported in the March 18, 1950 edition of the Tucumcari Daily News, and an Air Force captain and two technical sergeants at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque reported seeing three strange objects in the sky that afternoon.
Marler also has collected newspaper accounts of UFO sightings from that time period not just across New Mexico, but all over Texas and well into Mexico.
His website explains that, after an official investigation, a government official responded to the public curiosity over the event by claiming the objects that people had seen were the remnants of a ruptured, high-altitude U.S. Navy Skyhook balloon. Marler, who has presented several lectures on his findings, flatly dismisses that theory, explaining that it might have been plausible for one day of UFO sightings, but not three. He also points to research that shows there were no documented Skyhook balloon launches around that time frame.
Given the technological limitations or that era, no photos or film footage of the Farmington incident are known to exist. Marler points out that if such an event were to happen now, there likely would be an abundance of such material. But he takes the mass UFO sighting here much more seriously than he does many other events he has investigated and said he is not sure why it hasn't gotten the attention he thinks it deserves.
He said the Farmington incident is well known in UFO researcher stories, but he acknowledged it is not nearly as well known as the Roswell incident or even the alleged crash of a UFO outside Aztec in 1947 — an event commemorated through an annual mountain bike race and etched in local pop culture.
Through his research, Marler said he has tried to eliminate various possible explanations for what happened in Farmington in the spring of 1950.
"When you eliminate those prosaic explanations, it's like checking off a list," he said. "What you're left with is an unknown. But unknown does not equal extraterrestrial."
The question of why the Farmington incident never captured the public's imagination the way Roswell did is a riddle to Marler and some others interviewed for this story. He gives some credence to the idea that Farmington is a very conventional town and perhaps has collectively downplayed the incident for fear of being labeled the same way Roswell has been.
But Tharp doesn't see it that way.
"I would disagree with that," she said. "Roswell is just as conservative as Farmington. There were so few people in 1950 who lived here. … Maybe it just kind of went by the wayside."
Wood agrees that Farmington is a conservative place that likely would bristle at being associated with little green men. But mostly, he thinks folks here have just decided to leave the incident behind.
"It's just like so many other things," he said. "Just like coronavirus — they'll talk about it for a year, then move on. … We have other things to worry about."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/216TU0e