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.