On an otherwise ordinary afternoon in December 1896, a well-regarded Milwaukeean named Herman Nunnemacher burst into the lobby of the Pfister Hotel. “There it is again!” he shouted, “A flying machine!” Minutes earlier, from the window in his room, he had spotted a winged object hovering over Lake Michigan. Using a pair of field glasses, he spotted what he thought to be small creatures aboard the craft. It soon vanished, but when it reappeared, Nunnemacher felt compelled to tell the world. Hundreds of Milwaukeeans reported seeing the craft, and the incident made news as far away as Chicago.
In the 125 years since, odd things – some explainable, some not – have been visiting the skies above Wisconsin. The most intense period of this activity was the summer of 1947, after the sighting of nine saucer-shaped objects over Mount Rainier in Washington state introduced the modern concept of the UFO. Hundreds of sightings were reported in Milwaukee in the following weeks, with numerous “flying saucer” crashes phoned into authorities. A priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Grafton even claimed to have recovered a crashed disc. A subsequent FBI investigation determined the craft to be nothing more than a saw blade with radio tubes attached (and also noted that the priest who “found” the disc was known to imbibe quite freely). Nonetheless, the scare was taken seriously enough for Wisconsin’s Civil Air Patrol to conduct nightly sweeps of the skies in search of anything out of the ordinary.
The 1947 spree was probably the peak of mainstream legitimacy for UFO sightings in the state, but claims of unusual aerial activity never went away. One incident that drew national attention was the 1961 case of a farmer near Eagle River who claimed that aliens not only landed on his property but asked him for water and used it to cook him a meal of small, ill-tasting “pancakes” before flying off.
In Elmwood, a small town about 35 miles west of Eau Claire, a flurry of sightings in the mid-1970s made the city a destination for true believers. A 1987 sighting in Belleville, on the Dane-Green county line, put that town on the UFO map, as has the long history of sightings in Dundee in Fond du Lac County. Today, each of these towns makes a claim of being the state’s UFO capital.