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the stories always seem to begin something like this: “See, me ’n’ Betty Lou, we were riding home just before midnight, and from outta nowhere this big ol’ cigar-shaped object with blinking lights comes flying over … it was like nothing I’d ever seen … came straight toward us until it stopped and just kinda hovered for a minute. Then, lickety-split, it was gone.”

According to the Fort Collins, Colo.–based Mutual UFO Network, a national organization of investigators who keep tabs on this kind of thing, such reports come in throughout the United States at a rate of approximately 200 per month. That, real or imagined, is a lot of strange goings-on up in the wild blue yonder.

And, you should know, the phenomenon is nothing new. It’s been going on for more than 100 years, at least dating back to an April 1897 morning when, according to one of the country’s leading newspapers, an “airship” sailed directly over the Aurora, Texas, town square and crashed into Judge J.S. Proctor’s windmill, exploding into a hailstorm of aluminum-looking debris that was said to have scattered over several acres. And that, bear in mind, was six years before the Wright brothers got their rickety airplane off the ground in Kitty Hawk, N.C.; before blimps were being flown; and a heckuva long time before the famous 1947 Roswell, N.M., UFO-crash story became the gold standard of all flying-saucer tales.

Yet right there on the front page of the Dallas Morning News, written by correspondent S.E. Haydon, was a story describing the crash that allegedly occurred in the small community just west of Fort Worth. Not only did Haydon dutifully make note of the fact that the collision wrecked Proctor’s windmill and water tank and destroyed his flower garden, but he detailed the fact that the airship’s child-size pilot was found among the wreckage and buried in the local cemetery the following day. Now, we’re way past fuzzy blinking lights in the sky and into X-Files territory.

And today, more than a century later, the jury remains out on what did or didn’t occur in the Texas hamlet. In one corner you have those who believe that Haydon, a man apparently fond of tall tales and bored with the lack of any real news in Aurora, just made up the whole thing. Others, however, tend to at least believe “something” happened that day. As late as 1973, an aviation writer named Bill Case tracked down local resident G.C. Curley, 98 at the time, who recalled visiting the crash site as a child and seeing “the torn-up body” of the ship’s pilot.

And for years, the small headstone stood in place at the space traveler’s alleged burial site. But, after a photo of it ran with Case’s article, someone stole it, now making it difficult to even be certain where the grave was located. Members of the Aurora Cemetery Association did ultimately allow a historical marker relating the story of the crash and burial to be placed at the graveyard entrance but have stubbornly balked at all requests to relocate the grave and exhume any remains.

And so, the ancient mystery has endured, mostly forgotten by all but the UFO believers, who still arrive to get a firsthand look at the picturesque Aurora landscape.

Legendary investigative reporter and author Jim Marrs, who has spent a lifetime skeptically poking around in things spooky and unexplained, says he remains undecided about the whole truth of the Aurora crash. Still, he quickly points out that it was not an insolated event but, rather, the climax of months of “sightings” throughout the U.S. and Canada. Near Tacoma, Wash., two fishermen reported watching the landing of a metallic, cigar-shaped craft that was 20 yards in length. In Sacramento, Calif., more than 200 people witnessed a cylindrical object with bright, pulsating lights sailing over the city. Within a few days, people in Oakland and San Francisco were filing similar reports. In time, sightings were being reported in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and, finally, Texas.

“What pushed me off dead center,” Marrs says, “was finally seeing the entire front page of that 1897 edition of the Morning News in which the Aurora story appeared. On that day alone there were 16 stories about UFO sightings, reported by correspondents from as far south as Austin to parts of Oklahoma in the north. The lead story, in fact, was not the one about the Aurora crash but, rather, one datelined Stephenville, Texas, headlined ‘The Great Aerial Wanderer,’ which told of numerous residents seeing strange things in the sky.”

This, he carefully reminds, was back in horse-and-buggy days when long-distance communication was still in its infancy and achingly slow; a time when it was highly unlikely that a nationwide group of goofballs could hatch a hoax of such magnitude.

Most interesting, the stories that flourished throughout the West, Midwest and South for months suddenly ended following the report of the Aurora crash. “I’m convinced there was something unnatural flying around in the Texas skies at the time and am now inclined to believe something did indeed happen in Aurora,” he says.

Correspondent Haydon would, no doubt, be pleased.