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UFO tourism gaining foothold in Braxton County

When it comes to unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, Flatwoods is no Roswell, New Mexico, but the small Braxton County community is embracing its own tale of alien visitation and enjoying success as an offbeat tourist destination.

The Flatwoods Monster legend, which dates to Sept. 12, 1952, is gaining attention again, thanks to a new History Channel TV series, a video game and documentary.

And now there is a museum in nearby Sutton that’s drawing visitors eager to learn about the bizarre event that happened on a Flatwoods hilltop.

Sixty-seven years ago, a woman and six boys saw what has become variously known as the Braxton County Monster, Flatwoods Monster or Phantom of Flatwoods. The “monster” sighting coincided with a wave of UFO reports over the Eastern part of the United States in 1952.

Fireball in the sky

The incident began when the boys, playing football at the elementary school, saw what they took to be a fireball or meteor fly over the town and then appear to land or crash on a hilltop overlooking the community.

Accompanied by Kathleen May, mother of two of the boys, the group followed a path to the hilltop, where a glowing, red object pulsated in a field. Moments later, they came face-to-face with the Flatwoods Monster.

As a way to nurture the Flatwoods legend, the Flatwoods Monster Museum opened in October 2017 at 208 Main St. in Sutton, sharing space with the Braxton County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Museum visitors can learn about the Flatwoods Monster, as described by the witnesses. Based on their descriptions, early artists’ renderings depicted the Flatwoods object as about 12 feet tall with an Ace of Spades-shaped head, glowing, red eyes and claw-like hands.

Despite the monster-like illustrations at the time, at least one eyewitness said it appeared to be mechanical in nature — a structured machine of some type — rather than a flesh-and-blood creature.

“One common thread that seems to go through the whole story is that it definitely seemed extraterrestrial in nature,” said Braxton County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Andrew Smith.

Whatever it was, it garnered national news coverage when it happened, ranking as one of the top 10 news stories in 1952.

Smith also serves as the museum’s curator and is always on the lookout for Flatwoods Monster-related items. When the CVB offices moved from the Flatwoods outlet mall to Main Street in Sutton, he realized that the roomier space would be ideal to house a museum dedicated to the area’s famous legend.

When the signs went up in the windows, the museum’s popularity took off.

“As soon as we slapped the stickers on the window, making it (the museum) official, the traffic has far outpaced our expectations, that’s for sure,” Smith said.

Out-of-town travelers as well as local residents have embraced the Flatwoods Monster Museum. Smith said many out-of-state travelers know about the museum through the internet or by using various smart phone travel apps that direct motorists to unusual roadside attractions.

“In the busy season, during the summer, it’s probably one-fourth in-state (travelers) and three-fourths out-of-state.”

Visitors from other countries have also signed the guest book.

Smith said a recent check of the guest book revealed that travelers from 27 states had visited the center and museum. Visitors from Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland and Australia had also signed the guest book.

“And not everyone signs the guest book,” he said.

Monster media: TV shows, film and a video game

UFO enthusiasts have made pilgrimages to the museum to learn more about the 1952 occurrence and about several other similar events that happened in the same time frame. The actual site where the monster was seen is on private property and not accessible to the public, Smith said.

The legend of the Flatwoods Monster received a boost recently through a new History Channel television series titled “Project Blue Book.”

The show is a fictionalized account of astronomer J. Allen Hynek’s investigations into UFO sightings around the country as part of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. Project Blue Book sought to explain the increasing UFO reports of the 1950s and ‘60s as misidentifications of natural phenomena.

Hynek famously labeled a Michigan sighting as “swamp gas,” but as the bearded astronomer continued to investigate cases for the Air Force, he became convinced that a small percentage of the UFO reports could not be explained away as any type of earthly phenomena.

The second episode of Project Blue Book dealt with the Flatwoods incident, and although there were some embellishments for dramatic effect, Smith said the episode stayed true to the basic core of the story.

“The writers and producers of that show really seemed like they dug in to pull everything they could out of that story,” Smith said.

Museum visitors have also learned of the Flatwoods Monster from a recent documentary film about the incident produced by a company called Small Town Monsters. The film, “The Flatwoods Monster: A Legacy of Fear,” premiered last spring at the Elk Theater in Sutton.

Additionally, the video game Fallout ’76 features the Flatwoods Monster prominently. The game takes place in West Virginia and features a lot of Mountain State folklore.

“The monster is one of the characters you can battle in the video game,” he said, adding that Point Pleasant’s Mothman and the Grafton Monster are also featured in the game.

Tourist attraction

During peak travel season in the summer, Smith said museum visitors tend to be younger, but all ages are drawn to the Flatwoods Monster Museum.

“Anybody that’s interested in anything strange or paranormal, they come; whether that’s kids who convince their parents to get off the Interstate, or retired folks who are driving around the country in their RVs.”

The Flatwoods Monster Museum is self-guided, but Smith is happy to answer visitors’ questions. The museum part of the visitors’ center also has a monitor on which a continuous loop of videos help to explain the Flatwoods Monster legend.

The museum includes vintage newspaper articles, drawings, photos and large illustrations of the Flatwoods Monster. There’s even a Flatwoods Monster costume on display that Smith wears to special events.

Smith has appeared as the Flatwoods Monster during the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant.

Soon after the museum opened, Smith realized that visitors like to buy souvenirs. There are plenty from which to choose, including T-shirts, shot glasses, monster lanterns, patches, postcards and bumper stickers, to name just a few.

The ceramic monster lanterns are among the museum’s best sellers. The first monster lanterns were produced in the 1960s, when Sutton resident John Gibson came up with the idea as a fundraiser for the Braxton County Jaycees organization.

“We wanted to do something for the county, so we got some (monster) molds made and started producing the lanterns,” Gibson said.

The 81-year-old Gibson grew up in the Sutton-Flatwoods area and was good friends with Neil Nunley, who was among the group who saw the monster.

Gibson described Nunley, who is deceased, as a popular student at the local high school, where they were both freshmen in 1952. He believes Nunley and the others did see something extraordinary.

Gibson said that in stark contrast to Nunley’s usual talkative self, he would “clam up” and get serious whenever any of his classmates tried to ask him questions about what he saw on the ridgetop.

“If you asked him about it, he would turn around and walk away,” Gibson said.

As a way to celebrate the Flatwoods Monster legend, the CVB, in partnership with area towns and businesses, has installed throughout the community a series of colorful, 10-foot-tall “Monster Chairs” in the shape of the monster. The chairs provide popular photo opportunities for travelers.

Visitors who have their pictures taken at all five of the monster chairs are eligible for a “Free Braxxie” sticker. Visit www.BraxtonWV.org/Braxxie for details.

The Flatwoods Monster legend and the museum are gaining traction among UFO enthusiasts, but Roswell, New Mexico, site of a supposed UFO crash in July 1947, is arguably the most famous UFO event to take place in America. Each year, Roswell has an annual UFO festival that draws thousands.

Smith said a Flatwoods Monster-themed festival has been tried a few times in the past, but it never caught on with the public.

However, a local gaming group puts on an event every year and has adopted the Flatwoods Monster as its mascot. The group sponsors an annual convention called Bonus Round each September at the Days Inn at Flatwoods. This year’s Bonus Round Convention is scheduled for Sept. 7-8.

“It’s tabletop and role-playing games,” he said. “Every year they have an element of the event that’s Flatwoods Monster related. They use it on all their branding and event T-shirts.”

Smith said having the Flatwoods Monster Museum inside the CVB’s visitors center helps draw tourists’ attention to some of the other activities available in Braxton County.

Travelers will browse through the museum and then take notice of the visitor center’s extensive collection of brochures that tout Braxton County’s proximity to such attractions as Sutton and Burnsville lakes, the Elk River, the West Virginia Wildlife Center, shopping and local restaurants.

For more information about the Flatwoods Monster Museum, visit www.BraxtonWV.org or call 304-765-6533.

For an in-depth investigation into the Flatwoods Monster incident, author and UFO investigator Frank C. Feschino Jr. has written an updated and revised edition of his 2004 book “The Braxton County Monster: The Cover-Up of the Flatwoods Monster Revealed.”

To leaern more, visit www.flatwoodsmonster.com

Ben Calwell is a former Charleston Gazette-Mail Metro staff reporter and photographer.

Funerals for Friday, August 23, 2019

Boggess, Robert - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Conway, Blanch - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Marker, Geraldine - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Pritt, Charles - 1 p.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Quehe, Ryker - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Warren, Joyce - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.