Extraterrestrials in Exeter

The history (and humans) behind the Exeter UFO Festival

“There’s fear of the unknown — and that doesn’t mean that aliens, entities, beings, the presence that surrounds all of this stuff, whatever you want to call it, is benign. But I do know you can document it way back, and I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s been an experience going on for hundreds of years.”

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Dean Merchant, founder of the Exeter UFO Festival, holding a hubcap that reminds him of flying saucers.

I’m speaking with Dean Merchant, at Me & Ollie’s Café on Water Street in Exeter. Merchant, 72, is talking about the uncertainty of extraterrestrials being friend or foe — and the proven fact, in his mind, that they exist. Merchant is an avid “ufologist” — one who studies UFOs — and, like the classic stereotype of your neighborhood- conspiracy-theorist-extraordinaire, is prone to lapsing into tangent-ridden rambles about flying saucers, the murky gray area of 20th-century American history and, of course, strange local happenings.

The latter of which Merchant is not only an expert of but a heavy contributor to: He and his wife, Pamela, founded the beloved Exeter UFO Festival in 2009. Fourteen years later and the event’s still going strong, attracting nearly 10,000 people each Labor Day Weekend to celebrate, satirize and ponder the possibility of little green men in the sky and their very real foothold on the Granite State town.

This year marks the 11th annual Exeter UFO Festival (with three years off from the pandemic), with the town demarcating both Saturday, Sept. 2, and Sunday, Sept. 3, for alien-themed jubilee. Over the course of the two days, downtown Exeter will see a host of speakers orating on various extraterrestrial topics, plenty of alien-themed merchandise peddled to festival patrons, a spread of kids- and family-friendly activities at Town House Common, trolley rides to the “Incident at Exeter” grounds (more on that later) and much more. But it wasn’t always this way.

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“The festival has probably tripled in size,” says Robert “Bob” Cox, president of the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club. Cox, an 80-year-old, 55-year Exeter resident, explains that the nonprofit children’s charitable organization took over the festival in 2013. At that time, Dean and Pamela had run the fest for four years, offering speakers and events on a much smaller scale. Juggling the red tape of a rapidly growing annual event became more than the Merchants could handle. “An international nonprofit with strong roots, the Kiwanis took it over with the same mission,” Dean says. “That people would not get paid who worked on it, and the money would go into children’s charity.”

The UFO Festival is the Kiwanis Club’s only annual fundraiser, helping them fund scholarship programs for area high school graduates, bicycle helmet giveaways and a litany of other children-centric philanthropic campaigns. All who assist with the festival are unpaid volunteers, with proceeds coming from the sale of alien merchandise, hot dogs and hamburgers, ticketed trolley rides and a fee to see each year’s speakers. Cox says they can raise up to $30,000 over the course of the weekend.

Cox is a straight-shooter, demurring when asked about his motives for volunteering with the Kiwanis Club since 2001. Merchant, meanwhile, lies on the opposite end of the social spectrum. An engaged, fiery conversationalist with a sharp celerity in his glacial-blue eyes, he doesn’t wait for you to keep up. It’s not so much that he talks fast but that his stream-of-consciousness never stops, eschewing periods and paragraph breaks for one long monologue running the gamut of topic and genre. He also maintains a startlingly unique sphere of interests — among them foraging, real estate, history, journalism and, of course, extraterrestrials.

“Like many old Yankees, I’ve worn many hats,” he says. “Let’s just say I’m self-employed.”

When prompted if he started the festival to raise awareness about interplanetary life, Merchant is surprisingly dodgy. “No,” he says. “My wife and I started the festival because it’d be fun and interesting, like the one at Roswell, to raise money for children’s charity. And to have a fun, family time that the town could grow around.”

It’s pretty clear that children’s charity wasn’t his only ambition, but Merchant isn’t lying about his dedication to the cause. He and Pamela have helped out with local children’s charities for decades, including a popular “Old Goats for Coats” fundraiser they ran in the early-aughts, offering live goats as an attraction and donating proceeds to buy winter coats for kids. It was toward the end of the decade that Dean’s interest in aliens began to flourish.

Courtesy Bob Cox

Exeter UFO Festival attendees enjoying arts and crafts at Town House Common.

As a freelance writer for the “Exeter News-Letter” portion of Seacoast Media Group, Merchant wrote a story in 2009 about one of his Stratham neighbors sighting a UFO. That led to attending a speech from the former director of the Mutual
UFO Network, Peter Geremia, and a bevy of subsequent UFO-centric articles. Before long, he found himself fully submerged in the rabbit hole of Exeter’s fascinating UFO history.

“In 1965, about a week before that Labor Day Weekend, a lot of people saw UFOs around and over Exeter,” Merchant says. “I’ve talked to many of the people who saw them.”

The Exeter UFO Festival is widely known as a commemoration of the infamous “Incident at Exeter.” One night on Labor Day Weekend in 1965, 18-year-old Norman Muscarello was walking through Kensington, on his way to his house in Exeter, when he reportedly saw a flying saucer. Muscarello made it to the Exeter police station, where he convinced two officers to come to the scene with him. They both saw the object, too.

If that’s not enough, several other Exeter-area sightings occurred in the span of a few weeks — not to mention the Granite State’s other nationally known UFO case, the Betty and Barney Hill incident.

In 1961, the Portsmouth couple were driving through the White Mountains when a spacecraft appeared above their car. They woke up the next morning with little memory of the previous evening, and would undergo years of hypnosis to recover the night’s events. Similar to the notoriety of New Mexico’s Roswell incident, Merchant wants to position Exeter as a capital of alien activity. “Everybody has hypotheses, but my favorite is the watering hole theory,” Merchant says. He explains that when wildlife photographers visit Africa, they focus on watering holes where they know big game is bound to appear. So, in Merchant’s go-to theory, aliens are the photographers, and watershed moments of American history are big game. “Exeter goes back to America’s roots: the Revolutionary War, Phillips Exeter Academy. It’s interesting; this is kind of a focus area if you were to observe stuff.”

Ufo 0637 Eric Goodwin

Cox, on the other hand, is less concerned with the extraterrestrial bit — but not entirely uninterested. “I’m not a die-hard believer, but I’m very open-minded about it, too,” he says. “There are so many things that’re happening now, a lot of information released from the government and that sort of thing, it’s pretty hard not to believe.” Still, when asked why it’s important to keep Exeter’s UFO history alive, he replies, “It’s an opportunity for people to do something on Labor Day Weekend with their kids. A lot of families don’t go anywhere for Labor Day and are looking for something to do. I think it’s important to have that.”

There’s something cosmically entertaining about the two men largely responsible for Exeter’s UFO Festival being such polar opposites: a star-gazer and ruminator of the unknown passing the torch to a pragmatic, no-frills realist.

It’s almost as if fate — or aliens, entities, beings, the presence that surrounds all of this stuff, whatever you want to call it — brought them together to create the perfect festival. I’m not saying I believe in any of it, but I’m not saying that I don’t.

When I ask Merchant why he strives to keep this oddball side of Exeter history alive, why he’s so fascinated with extraterrestrials and UFOs and odd happenings, he tells me it’s something like religion.

“As a little kid down in Essex, Massachusetts, looking up at the sky and the clouds and all of it being so weird, I remember wondering, ‘Who am I? What am I doing here?’” he says. “We don’t even know what the universe is. Let’s look at some of these other things going on, beyond…a mile up where it becomes deep space.”

Categories: People, Things to Do, UFOs