ROSWELL – One hot day in early July 1947, rancher William "Mac" Brazel told Lincoln County Sheriff George Wilcox that he had found strange debris from some sort of aircraft crash at a remote site out in the desert, about 40 miles from Corona, N.M.
The sheriff called military officials at the Roswell Army Air Field, and Maj. Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer, went out to investigate.
Within a day, the U.S. Army Air Force sent out a news release announcing it had found the remnants of a flying saucer. The Roswell Daily Record's headline July 8, 1947, said it all: "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region." The nation, swept up by a series of reports on unexplained discs in the skies, was transfixed by the possibility of visitors from outer space.
But the excitement was short-lived. On July 9, the Army Air Force retracted the story, saying the debris was actually from a weather balloon. Maj. Marcel posed for a now-famous photograph beside the balloon wreckage, and interest in the crash faded.
For 30 years, the Roswell Incident, as it is known, remained nothing more than a vague memory, one of many so-called "flying saucer" sightings in the anxious post-World War II days that ushered in the Cold War.
Then, in the late 1970s, a number of investigators, including nuclear physicist, author and UFO expert Stanton Friedman, began taking a second look at the crash, interviewing dozens of witnesses. The talks renewed media interest and spurred theories of a massive government cover-up that included death threats and, possibly, fatalities of people who had seen alien remains. There have since been dozens of books about the Roswell Incident and a 1990s TV movie. The X Files, a long-running science-fiction TV series, covered Roswell in one episode. Some years ago, the town even presented a short-lived original theatrical production called Roswell: The Musical.
In the early 1990s, the Roswell UFO Museum opened on Main Street, drawing thousands of tourists from all over the world, and a few years later, the town held its first UFO Festival.
Businesses in the city, capitalizing on visitors' curiosity, offer alien-themed souvenirs and sport signs that say, "Aliens Welcome" or "UFO and Alien Stuff." King Treasure House on Main Street, which offers "inspirational books," advertises its wares as being "not of this world."
"The word 'Roswell' is synonymous with UFOs," said Jim Hill, the museum's executive director.
As Roswell began commemorating the 70th anniversary of the crash and celebrating the museum's 25th year, about 15,000 visitors converged on the town late last week and throughout the weekend for the 22nd annual UFO Festival. The four-day event featured lectures by experts and enthusiasts, a panel talk by people who say they've been abducted by extraterrestrials, a discussion of "demonic" UFOs, a dramatic reading of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, an electric light parade and an "alien pet" contest.
"We are a town stamped by something that happened in 1947," said Roswell Mayor Dennis J. Kintigh, a former state representative, FBI agent and Air Force veteran who worked in the aerospace industry. His background is enough to deepen the suspicion of conspiracy theorists.
"Roswell has a brand -- and good, bad or indifferent, it is our brand," Kintigh said.
That brand means money for a town struggling with a 6.3 percent unemployment rate -- just under the state's 6.6 percent average -- and an uncertain oil and gas revenue base. The UFO Museum, which keeps handwritten logs of visitors, recorded more than 200,000 guests in 2016. The city's 26 hotels reported a total of 248,476 room bookings last year.
Businesses particularly prosper during the UFO Festival. City officials expect this weekend's event to funnel $6 million into the local economy. Juanita Jennings, a city spokeswoman, said every hotel room and rental car in the city was booked by Friday afternoon.
Jessie Payne, manager of The Alien Zone, where tourists can pose for photos with fake extraterrestrial figures in everyday settings -- a bar, a living room, an outhouse -- said the store doubles its profits during the four days of the festival.
Peggy Krantz, who runs the downtown Gallery-Main Street Arts store, said sales quadruple. "During the UFO Festival, every single artist will sell," she said.
Even when the festival is not in progress, businesses benefit from the UFO brand.
Melissa Cobos and her husband run The Nifty 50s retro novelty store just a few blocks away from the UFO Museum. She knows which of her customers have been to the museum because they are still wearing the bright yellow sticker handed out at the entrance. And most of them come for the UFO story.
"I don't need to do a survey to see how beneficial aliens are to us," she said. "I am the survey."
The UFO connection provides a financial lifeline that doesn't even require much advertising.
"You couldn't spend millions and get this kind of publicity," said John Mulcahy, president of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit designed to create jobs and increase prosperity in the region. "Roswell and its aliens has an international brand," he added.
Australia native Roo Kline, who visited the UFO Museum on Friday with her son, Jesse, agrees. "Roswell is known worldwide," she said. "You mention Roswell, and everybody knows what you are talking about."
Before there were aliens
Once just a cattle-drive stop for cowhands to wet their whistles and eat some grub, Roswell is now a town of not quite 50,000 people driven by oil and gas revenue, agriculture, dairies and tourism.
The flies are everywhere. They're drawn to the dairies and the manure that ranchers and farmers use to fertilize their lands.
Van C. Smith and partner Aaron Wilburn are credited with founding Roswell -- about 200 miles southeast of Albuquerque and 200 miles northeast of Las Cruces -- after they built a couple of adobe structures in the area around 1869.
Smith became the town's first postmaster and named it after his father.
When the bloody Lincoln County War broke out nearby, tiny Roswell remained a neutral refuge, local historian John LeMay said. That's because it had the only post office in the area, and Smith told both sides that if they acted up, he would close down the service.
"Both sides were afraid to cause violence because they were afraid they would not get their mail," LeMay said.
Billy the Kid, one of the most notorious men involved with that war, was never a problem in Roswell, LeMay said, because Smith's successor, former Confederate officer Joseph Lea, warned Billy not to instigate trouble.
"I always joke that if Billy the Kid had shot up the town, we'd have something extra to promote today," LeMay said.
The railroad came to town in the 1890s, about the same time the New Mexico Military Institute opened.
LeMay said "nothing much of interest" happened in Roswell between the turn of the century and the early 1930s, when rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard came to town to experiment with liquid-fueled rockets. Few locals were aware of this.
Whether any of them saw strange lights darting through the night sky at the time is unknown.
The Army Air Force opened an air base, later named Walker Air Force Base, in 1941. During World War II, the government built a German prisoner-of-war camp in Roswell, and you can still see the Cross of Iron those prisoners made in the rock wall of the Pecos River, which weaves its way through downtown.
If the town was known for anything at all in those days, based on a look at old Roswell postcards, it was for the military institute and for being "the gateway to Ruidoso."
Today, it is known for its extraterrestrials.
They are everywhere, like the flies: on city street lamps, on storefront windows, on menus -- many local restaurants offer Alien Burgers -- and in even the choice of green -- as in Little Green Men -- or red chile.
A 3-year-old local dance troupe calls itself the Alien Evolution Dance Co. The ensemble recently purchased some green polyester costumes for a performance during the UFO Festival.
"If it weren't for the aliens, we would be just like any other small town," said 14-year-old Haily Gonzales, who dances with the troupe.
'The universe is so big'
Roswell historian and UFO researcher Dennis Balthasar said the Roswell Incident has held the public's fascination for decades because "it was the first reported UFO crash and the only one where the government went public. And that was a mistake."
Friedman, who gave several talks during this weekend's festival, said the Roswell Incident is the "ultimate" case in UFO history because the story broke at a time when people were confident in the government and then resurfaced amid growing distrust.
The initial news followed a terrible world war that took millions of lives, Friedman said. Postwar Americans still had faith in their government, so when the Army Air Force first said a spacecraft was found, and then explained it away as a weather balloon, the public bought the story.
"Right after the war, if our government said something, we believed it," he said. "They wouldn't lie to us."
About a decade before the incident, film and theater actor and director Orson Welles wrote and produced a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The show terrified listeners, many of whom believed the broadcast was a real-life, on-the-spot account of invaders from outer space. If there were a UFO involved in the Roswell Incident, Friedman and others said, the public's hysterical reaction to Welles' radio show may have made government officials cautious about sharing the news.
The Roswell story was revived following the Vietnam War and the Watergate era, when Americans had grown wary of the government.
Interest in the story continued to develop as the government offered different explanations for the crash.
While some witnesses claimed to have caught glimpses of small, unearthly bodies scattered around the debris area, the Air Force -- which became a separate branch of the military shortly after the crash -- announced decades later that what people saw were dummies used in a high-altitude parachuting test.
But the Air Force did not initiate that test until the early 1950s, Friedman said.
In the mid-1990s, the government said the crash came amid a top-secret program called Project Mogul to test a way to detect Soviet nuclear detonations.
Still, stories remain of government men dressed all in black, warning locals and military personnel involved in the incident not to speak of it, leading many to fear they might face some sort of reprisal. Jesse Marcel III, the grandson of the officer who first visited the crash site in 1947, said during an appearance at the UFO Festival that this cloud of fear hung over his grandfather until the man's death.
Many people at the festival said they believe something from another planet did crash in the New Mexico desert 70 years ago. They want to believe.
One of them was Katherine Diaz, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, who vividly recalled seeing a spacecraft hovering in the skies over the Nevada desert one dark night during a family road trip.
"It was triangular, with a light on each end of it and a big red light in the middle," she said.
Her mother was driving, and her father and brother were sleeping. None of them saw it.
"They don't believe me," Diaz said as she walked through the UFO Museum.
She believes, she said. "The universe is so big, we can't be the only ones in it.
City's uncertain future
Younger generations, weaned on science-fiction films and animated shows in which extraterrestrials figure prominently, may be more prone to believing in life on other planets than their parents and grandparents, Balthasar said.
"For young people who grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek and The X Files, aliens is no big deal," he said.
But Balthasar was one of few people who suggested that interest in the incident, and in Roswell itself, will wane over the years, likely taking a toll on the city's economy. Looking ahead to 2047, the centennial of the Roswell Incident, he said, "Most of the researchers will be gone by then, and if nobody new picks it up, it could die off. And nobody new or young is picking it up."
Most others disagree. Anne Baker, owner of the Stellar Coffee Co. on Main Street -- which offers a refreshing Kiwi Alien Soda -- said, "It hasn't faded away by now, and it's not going to fade away. There have been times in Roswell's history when locals wanted to forget about it because there is so much more to Roswell than the UFO Incident, and it still didn't die. It won't die."
Molly Boyles, owner of Once Again Consignment on Main Street, also has faith that the brand will stick forever. "Something -- whatever it was that crashed -- has helped keep Roswell alive and made it what it is. I don't think that's going to go away."
Marcel III said he believes the U.S. government may soon reveal more information about the Roswell Incident, which would increase interest and attention.
"I almost think the government is ready to get this out ... and I almost think that I may be one of the people they use to get it out," he told about 75 people who attended a discussion about his father and grandfather's involvement in the incident.
Roswell, he said, continues to fascinate people for one reason: "Roswell is about believing."
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.