A weekend at a small-town Pennsylvania UFO festival is a little weird and a lot hokey – and that’s pretty wonderful.
by Valentine J. Brkich
I like weird stuff. The paranormal. You know, things like ghosts, mythological creatures, UFOs, etc. Earlier this year I took my daughter to the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Camping Adventure and had a blast looking for the ever-elusive Sasquatch. I felt bad, though, that I hadn’t included my wife and son. (Although I’m sure my wife was just fine with missing it.) So, to make up for it, I decided to take the whole crew to Southwestern PA for the annual Kecksburg UFO Festival.
Located in the Laurel Highlands region of the Allegheny Mountains, Kecksburg is a small town along what is known as the Chestnut Ridge—an area rich in weirdness. Here, people have claimed to see everything from Bigfoot and black panthers to unexplained glowing lights and prehistoric birds. They’ve also claimed to have seen UFOs, with the most famous sighting happening in Kecksburg in 1965.
As the story goes, on the night of December 9, a bright object was seen shooting across the sky before disappearing in the deep woods just outside of town. When some of the townsfolk went off to investigate, they found a strange, metallic, acorn-shaped object about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. A thin line of blue smoke arose from the object, an on the bottom of it there was strange writing that resembled hieroglyphics.
Within the hour Air Force personnel had arrived at the scene and cordoned off the crash site. That night, a few members of the town said they saw a military truck carrying something large being escorted out of town. Supposedly the mysterious object was taken to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, and was never seen by the public again.
So what was it? The military tried to write it off as a meteor. But the witnesses who saw it were certain that wasn’t true. Was it an alien spaceship? A Soviet spy satellite? A giant nut from the Planet of the Squirrels? No one really knows. But that’s OK. Whatever it was, the good folks of Kecksburg decided to celebrate it with an annual festival that benefits the local volunteer fire department. The result is the three-day Kecksburg UFO Festival, held the last week of July every summer.
I had no idea what to expect when I brought my family to the festival. From what I saw online during my research, I assumed it would probably be a little weird and a lot hokey. And, boy, I wasn’t disappointed!
After winding our way down some of Western PA’s most beautiful, bucolic back-country roads, we arrived at the festival a little before noon, right as it was about to open up for the day. The festival itself takes place Friday-Sunday on the grounds of the Kecksburg VFD. Over the course of three days, attendees enjoy tons of exhibits, live music, fireworks, a “UFO Hot Dog Eating Competition,” and even a bed race where participants build and race their own beds down the street.
I told you it was going to be weird.
Of course, the first thing we did was make a beeline for the “Acorn”— a life-sized model of the UFO that sits on a tower just behind the fire department. From there we had a bird’s-eye view (or, more appropriate, a UFO’s view) of the festival and could figure out where we wanted to go next. Turns out that was the food vendor section, specifically the Deep-Fried Oreo stand.
After scarfing down a few of the deep-fried delicacies, we decided to escape the heat inside the air-conditioned main hall. Here, we perused the aisles, where you could purchase things like Kecksburg UFO t-shirts and hats, alien sunglasses, Bigfoot candles, and any number of other weird and wonderful items.
There were also several paranormal investigators selling their wares, including Stan Gordon, whom many consider to be the expert on Chestnut Ridge phenomena, and whom my daughter and I had met during our Bigfoot adventure earlier this year.
Back outside we made our way over to the carnival games, where the kids decided to play the rat game—a roulette-type game where you place bets on what color hole a rat—yes, a real, live rat—will crawl into after being released by the game’s operator.
Like I said, weird.
My son ended up winning the rat race and got a cute little mammoth stuffed animal he gave to his sister. Sweet.
Next we grabbed some delicious gyros and found a shady spot to eat our lunch while we waited for the parade to begin. Then, at 2 p.m. sharp, we walked over to the main street (if you can even call it that) where we found people lining each side waiting for the most popular part of the festival.
Suddenly the fire whistle began to blare, announcing the start of the parade. From around the bend, fire trucks from other nearby towns led the way, their occupants tossing out candy out to the many excited children along the road. The main attraction was the large military truck carrying an acorn-shaped object which was covered by a tarp—an accurate recreation of what people witnessed that mysterious night more than fifty years earlier. The truck was followed by a 1950s-era car driven by two “men in black,” while in the backseat sat an “alien,” or at least someone wearing an alien mask. It was all very hokey, of course, and very enjoyable too.
I’m not sure if we’ll be back again next year. Once you’ve seen one UFO-themed parade, you’ve seen them all. That said, I’m really glad we came. The Kecksburg UFO Festival is the perfect example of a town taking advantage of its 15 minutes of fame and spinning it into a fun, family-friendly annual event, that also serves to support a worthy cause.
And there’s nothing weird about that.
by Valentine J. Brkich, September 2019
Hailing from the charming town of Beaver, Pa., Val and his wife enjoy discovering other small towns and dragging their two young children along for the ride (sometimes literally). Read his blog SmallTownDad.com and follow him on Twitter @valentinebrkich.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
Can't travel? Let's MICROTRAVEL! Show us shots from your small trips near your shelter.
Sharing small scenes and small stories from small trips near home.
Leap, ride, wander and read! in ROAM's award-winning shots from 2020
An immersive experience delivering far more than snapshots.
Getaway for a Queen Mary stay in a cool corner of LA.
Les Gets converted “never skiers” into "every-winter" fans.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Days at sea through Panama's islands of the Caribbean
Two weeks with pilgrims in Northern Spain finds cows, pinecones, flowers, castles, and new friends.
Stops in Italy, Austria, Czech and Germany please parents and teens, alike.
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
The big-value, small-crowd resorts that Colorado families love
Want to get away – FAR away – this Christmas? If you’re done with the cold, the rain, the snow,…
Bad planning and “bad” luck make for a dream trip
The wonder & variety of a summer road trip through the Golden State, plus Grand Canyon & Vegas
Beaches in Florianopolis. Rivers in Bonito. Waterfalls in Iguazu. Wetlands in the Pantanal...
November is the right time for families to hit “pause,” escape and reconnect.
Washington for the holidays is a real gift: All the attractions and none of the crowds.
Find your next adventure in the pages of ROAM's first compilation
A splashy week of canal strolls, Genever, raindrops & Dutch autumn