AURORA - April nights in North Texas haven't changed much in 99 years. Clear skies splattered with stars. The smells and the sounds of crickets.
But legend has it that one night, 99 years ago, the Texas sky contained more than stars and pollen.
In the tiny Wise County town of Aurora, between Boyd and Rhome on Texas 114, the night of April 19, 1897, was marked by a mystery -- or a hoax -- that lives on in the stories of oldtimers.
Newspaper accounts from that week tell of an "airship" that crashed into the windmill in Aurora in the middle of the night, exploding, spreading metal debris accross several acres and destroying the windmill.
The remains of the body of the pilot were gathered, according to reports from newspaper correspondent F.E. Hayden, and were buried in the town's cemetery. Hayden's report assured readers that "enough remains were gathered to determine it was not an inhabitant of this world."
Hayden's story describes papers that were found at the crash site with hieroglyphic-looking writing, and scraps of metal that were unfamiliar to town residents.
Although the tale may sound like an episode from the X-Files, this was 1897, six years before the Wright brothers made their airplane stay aloft long enough to call it flying.
The only visible reminders of the incident still remaining in Aurora are a small piece of the pilot's headstone (vandals made off with most of it) and a historical marker at the cemetery that mentions the legend.
After the initial flurry of publicity in 1897, the legend was nearly forgotten until the early 1970s, when UFO researchers heard the story and came to investigate.
In 1973, the Mutual UFO Network in Seguin sought legal permission to exhume the gravesite, but the Aurora Cemetery Association obtained a court injuction prohibiting the exhumation.
The International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma sent investigators with metal detectors to the site of the reported crash.
Brawley Oates, who in the 1970s owned the land where the windmill once stood, told newspaper reporters that when he bought the property he cleaned out a well and recovered large amounts of metal the size of a man's fist. Although Oates had heard the airship stories, he said he didn't think much about the metal and simply junked it before capping the well.
Investigators found bits and pieces of metal at the site, however. Some were pot lids or tack rings, but a few pieces were unidentifiable.
"The recovered metal puzzled our metallurgists," Walter H. Andrus Jr., international director of the Mutual UFO Network, said this week [mid-April].
Tom Gray, a physicist during the 1970s at North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas, examined some of the unusual, brownish metal. Gray determined at the time that it was about 75 percent iron, but said it lacked some of the properties common to iron, such as the ability to be magnetized. Gray acknowledged that it was an unusual metal but cautioned that he couldn't draw any conclusions about its origins.
However, Gray, who now teaches at Kansas State University, said this week that he eventually learned that the metal he examined was probably roofing material.
"It turned out to be an iron-zinc alloy that, because of the way it was processed, was not magnetic," he said. "Nothing necessarily extraterrestrial about it."
All strange stories have more than one side, though. Many Aurora residents today believe that the story was a hoax, a practical joke that took on a life of its own.
The late Etta Pegues, a local writer and historian, wrote in a town history book that the tale began as a publicity stunt by Hayden to draw attention to the town, which had been declining in population in the mid-1890s.
Tales of sightings of airships circulated throughout the Midwest in early 1897. Skeptics claim that the stories were started as a practical joke by railroad telegraphers.
Joseph E. "Truthful" Scully, a Forth Worth railroad conductor at the time, acted as a spokesman for the telegraphers and acknowledged to reporters that bogus reports of sightings had apparently touched off a rash of imagined UFO sightings by people across North Texas.
Hayden, said some locals, grabbed the idea of a UFO and took off with it.
Others pointed out that, during the late 1890s, science fiction writers H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were popular, firing imaginations.
"Probably 30 to 40 people a year come in looking for information about the airship crash," said Ruth Hollinsworth of the Wise Ccounty Heritage Museum in Decatur.
Original file name: CNI - 1897 airship 5.23
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