UFO Festival: Keeping McMinnville weird for 20 years

Parade marchers on Saturday will include extraterrestrials of many stripes, while ufology buffs can attend presentations by scientists, authors, and witnesses

Portland prides itself on keeping weird, but this weekend, McMinnville owns bragging rights for Oregon Weird. Saturday afternoon on Third Street, the restaurant-and-tasting-room-thick thoroughfare downtown, the weird will be out in force during a parade celebrating the city’s annual UFO Festival.

Every May, McMinnville draws an increasingly large crowd to mark one of ufology’s iconic events. On May 11, 1950, a farmer named Paul Trent snapped a couple of photographs of what appeared to be a flying disc over his rural Yamhill County property. Remarkably, he didn’t get the film developed right away, opting instead to finish the roll.

In the early 2000s, I talked to Phil Bladine, who in 1950 was the young publisher of his family-owned newspaper, the Telephone-Register (the forerunner of the McMinnville News-Register, where Bladine served as publisher until 1991). His recollection: Trent didn’t even think to rush down and alert the newspaper; he mentioned it to a McMinnville banker who in turn told the Register. For what it’s worth, Bladine didn’t think Trent was the sort  to perpetrate a hoax.

Paul Trent’s 1950 photo of what appears to be a flying disc above his Yamhill County field is the inspiration for this weekend’s UFO Festival.
Paul Trent’s 1950 photo of what appears to be a flying disc over his Yamhill County field is the inspiration for this weekend’s UFO Festival.

In ufological circles, Trent’s photos rank among the best photographic evidence of UFOs from the 20th century. (The acronym has lately fallen out of fashion in favor of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, which is possibly a nod to more exotic theories that they are not necessarily physical objects, but visual evidence of some other-dimensional intelligence. That’s the theory I find most credible, anyway, and explored a couple years ago in a piece for the News-Register.)  

Trent’s mysterious images predate by many decades the era of big-screen-quality special effects that nearly anyone can pull off today with Photoshop. Even in the absence of high-tech tools, the photos (to use today’s vernacular) went viral. Following their appearance on the front page of the Telephone-Register, they were published in Life magazine and The Oregonian. For years, you were virtually guaranteed to see those pictures in any book about UFOs.

In 2000, McMenamins Hotel Oregon launched the festival to commemorate the event’s then-50th anniversary. It has, one might say, taken flight. It’s reportedly the second-largest gathering for UFO enthusiasts in the country next to one held in Roswell, N.M. If you’re still with me, you surely know what that’s about.

It’s worth noting the UFO Festival’s coordinates within the historical context of McMinnville celebrations. We have a remarkable number of them, some sandwiched so close together that festival fatigue has been an issue for volunteers who make these things happen.

For example: Yamhill County once had a thriving turkey industry. Though those days are long gone, McMinnville still mounts Turkey Rama every summer (in alarming proximity to the Fourth of July). The Yamhill County Fair (at the county fairgrounds in McMinnville) follows. In 2010, a Dragging the Gut event reared up, drawing well over a thousand vintage car owners downtown to re-enact American Graffiti along Third Street.

More? We also host the International Pinot Noir Celebration, the Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County, the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, and the McMinnville Short Film Festival. More recently, the Walnut City Music Festival and the Aquilon Music Festival planted roots here. For the second year next month, we’ll have the McMinnville Scottish Festival. Those are just the big ones. It’s a busy town. 

Turkey Rama and the cruise-in have hit snags over the years, from downtown residents’ complaints about noise and volunteer burnout to permit issues with the city. But the UFO Festival, which I like to think of as a celebration of the ultimate, mind-bending “other,” is among those that have matured nicely. It started 20 years ago as a single-day event; today, it fills three days and includes nearly a dozen speakers from around the country.

McMinnville gets its weird on Thursday through Saturday for UFO Festival 2019,
sponsored by McMenamins Hotel Oregon. Photo by: Kathleen Nyberg, courtesy
McMenamins Hotel Oregon
McMinnville gets its weird on Thursday through Saturday for UFO Festival 2019, sponsored by McMenamins Hotel Oregon. Photo by: Kathleen Nyberg, courtesy McMenamins Hotel Oregon

It draws an eclectic crowd. Die-hard believers and those who have more than a passing interest in the subject will start showing up mid-week, rolling suitcases toward the McMenamins Hotel Oregon mothership on the corner of Third and Davis, to see some of ufology’s rock stars, a few of whom have multiple notches in their Mac UFO Festival caps. Peter Davenport, who has headed the National UFO Reporting Center since 1994, is a regular and returns this year. Past events have seen Budd Hopkins, Stanton Friedman, David Jacobs, Travis Walton, Linda Moulton Howe, and Nick Pope come to town.

This year, 11 guests — scientists, authors, journalists, witnesses, and filmmakers — will give presentations over three days beginning May 16, including Cmdr. David Fravor, who witnessed the Tic Tac UFO incident while aboard the USS Nimitz 140 miles southwest of San Diego in 2004. The strange object “stalked” the carrier for several days and was captured on film. The incident became public last December, when the New York Times published a lengthy story about it. A McMenamins spokesperson told me Fravor has never spoken in public about the incident. One can hardly blame him; it’s easy to have fun with UFOs and aliens, I suppose, until you actually see one.

The parade, which begins at 3:30 p.m., is the big draw for locals. In years past, squeezed between all the bands, school groups, and local nonprofits, we’ve seen characters from popular sci-fi and fantasy culture: Klingons; Imperial Stormtroopers; Jar Jar Binks; Thor’s evil sister, Hela; and even Groot. It lasts about an hour. If you plan to attend from out of town, some advice: Expect to park several blocks out and walk in.

Those are the highlights, but there’s more: wine-centric (of course) events, screenings, live music, etc. You can find it all here. If all that’s not weird enough for you, Portland’s World Naked Bike Ride is next month.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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