Exeter embraces its UFO Festival

By Michael McCord

NH Business Review

Published: 08-26-2023 4:00 PM

Though the series has been in syndication for more than two decades, it’s easy to imagine a new X-Files story plot taking place at the annual Exeter UFO Festival amid thousands of believers, skeptics, fun-seekers and those searching for a truth that may or may not be out there.

From humble beginnings, the Exeter UFO Festival has become a welcome ritual. Run by the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club, it has become the organization’s single-biggest fundraiser. The festival also has become a Labor Day weekend mini-boom for downtown Water Street businesses who appreciate the estimated 5,000 extra visitors for the two-day (Saturday and Sunday) event.

“When we first started, many of the merchants weren’t involved at all,” said Bob Cox, the president of the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club who has overseen the event since 2013. “There was some negative feedback about visitors taking all parking spots. But we started campaigning with the merchants and telling them about the opportunities they have. Eventually many started putting (festival) advertising posters in their windows and now they decorate their windows with UFO themes and offer discounts on merchandise.”

Cox estimates that as many as 70% of downtown merchants take part in one form or another which he says reflects how big a community event the UFO Festival has become. Among the many activities, there are guest speakers (this year includes former New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal), children’s activities, food stands, and no shortage of inflatable aliens. There are also trolly rides to the site in next door Kensington where a UFO sighting in 1965 by 18-year-old Norman Muscarello became known in global UFO lore as the “Incident in Exeter”. The heavily-investigated ‘Incident’ became the genesis for the festival.

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, the festival drew its largest crowds last year since its inception in 2009 and almost all merchandise sold out the first day – including alien-themed police patches from the Exeter Police Department.

“It is one of the biggest, if not the biggest draws during the year for us,” says Rose MacDougall, the manager of Trends Gift Gallery & The WINE Loft. “We carry merchandise as much as month in advance and people know us as the UFO souvenir headquarters.”

MacDougall said last year it was the perfect combination of perfect late summer weather and large crowds eager to buy multi-colored inflatable aliens as much as five-feet tall along with alien-themed sunglasses, t-shorts, hats, mugs, and more. It didn’t take long for demand to far exceed supply.

“(Last year) we used historical figures to order merchandise and it all sold out the first day,” Cox said. Trends, which donated more than $6,600 to the Kiwanis Club in 2022, ordered more and a greater variety of merchandise for this year’s festival.

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Downtown brew pub Seadog Brewing Co also joins in the festivities. General manager Dan Quintino said festival weekend is a big draw to the restaurant which offers special occasion alien-themed beer and cocktails. He said Seadog will be suitably decorated inside and out to emphasize the fun sprit of the festival.

Cox said planning for the annual festival starts in February and involves scores of volunteers. It costs as much as $35,000 to run. The festival raises as much $12,000 which Cox said goes to local kid’s charities such as after-school programs at the local YMCA and for scholarships for students attending the Seacoast School of Technology.

“I think people realize how important the festival is to the community and appreciate how it benefits local kids,” Cox said.

When asked if he believes that aliens are among us and if UFOs are real, Cox keeps an open mind. “I’m not a true dyed-in-the-wool believer but I find a lot of the particularly recent information interesting and wonder if there isn’t something more.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.