Tales from the path of totality: It was 2010 and citizens of Kelly, a farm town of 300 people in western Kentucky, were brainstorming ways to make some money. They had founded a neighborhood watch group and thrown community barbecues, but it all had been paid for out of pocket. That was not sustainable. So they started sifting through the town’s archives for something in its history worth marketing. “It came down to the train tracks or the aliens,” resident Joann Smithey told The Washington Post.
Kelly, it turns out, had quite the tale buried in its past, an incident that crop circle conspirators and UFO-chasers call the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter.” It involved farmers, space creatures and an hours-long shootout so intense that legend says the farmhouse and barn where it took place was left peppered with bullet holes.
So Smithey’s group, Kelly Community Organization, turned the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter” into the Kelly “Little Green Men” Days Festival, a celebration with aliens and flying saucers that coincides every year on the shootout’s anniversary: Aug. 21, 1955. This year, the 62nd anniversary falls on a day already marked for darkness — the total solar eclipse.
The town once tormented by tales of an alien invasion sits within the eclipse’s path of totality. At about 1:20 p.m., Kelly will be shrouded in black. “Some people are afraid the aliens are coming back,” said Smithey, Kelly’s “Little Green Men” Days Festival chairwoman. “We call the whole thing cosmic coincidence.” From what Smithey can tell, Kelly will have visitors from across the U.S., from Washington state and Key West, Fla., from Delaware and Texas. There is even a group that came from Spain.
Usually, the festival draws a couple thousand people to the farm fields of Kelly. This year, festival organizers expected a turnout of some 20,000 — quite an improvement on the inaugural crowd of 1,500 that gathered in a church parking lot to revel in an extraterrestrial tale almost lost to history. There are versions of that night described in newspaper clippings and “investigated” online by alien sleuths or rather sleuths of aliens. The legend, as it is most commonly told, goes something like this:
It was dusk at the old Sutton farmhouse on that summer night in 1955 when Billy Ray Taylor, a Pennsylvania man visiting friends in Kentucky, walked to the well for a bucket of water. For years, people like him across the country had been reporting odd sightings in the night, extraterrestrial signs so strange that even the government was investigating. So when a bright, rainbow light streaked across the tree line and landed in a field behind the home, emitting a hissing sound, Taylor was convinced he had seen a flying saucer. He ran back inside the house, where his wife and nine members of the Sutton family at first laughed off his frantic claims.
Then came the silvery-green glow of otherworldly creatures, with undersized bodies and oversized heads. Their eyes bulged and their arms stretched too long. They had not fingers, but claws. Taylor and his friend, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, who grew up in the Kelly farmhouse, went through four boxes of .22 pistol shells trying to fend off the aliens, according to a story published in the Kentucky New Era the day after the alleged invasion. The two men shot wildly through the windows and barn doors. From a perch on the roof, one of the little men grabbed at a human head. “We need help,” one of the humans told police after they had finally escaped and drove into town. “We’ve been fighting them for nearly four hours.”
Soon the farmhouse was swarming with about 25 people, a collection of reporters, police, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and the U.S. Air Force, according to accounts from the time. They stayed for several hours but apparently found little that proved the frightened families’ description of an alien shootout. Neighbors and townsfolk claimed their gun battle was nothing but a fictional tale drummed up for celebrity, a “sighting” blamed on too much moonshine. The family was harassed and threatened. Ten days later, they moved out and left town.
Geraldine Sutton Stith, the daughter of Elmer Sutton, didn’t learn about her family’s legendary encounter with the little men until about 20 years later, when a duo researching the incident tracked down her father and started asking questions. He decided it was time to share the tale with the next generation. Stith told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the last three living people who were there that night in 1955 won’t speak of it. But she has made it her life’s mission to set the record straight.
She reached out to Smithey and the other organizers years ago, when she heard they were hoping to turn her family’s history into a town attraction. Stith wanted to make sure they got the story right, Smithey said, so she volunteered to speak each year at the festival. “She completely believes,” Smithey said. The festival is held at Kelley Station Park, a plot of land purchased and built upon with funds raised by the annual attraction. It is named after the railroad conductor who founded the town — a nod to its objectively less interesting bit of community history — and is marked by a sign of a railroad car barreling down the tracks. The conductor, upon close inspection, is a little green alien.
At the center of the park “hovers” a 38-foot, 2.5 ton flying saucer that lights up and emits smoke. There is a platform that leads up to a cockpit. “No parking,” a sign nearby reads. “Flying saucer parking only. Violators will be beamed out.” The festival features a “Little Green Men” homemade costume contest and visitors can even watch a dramatic recreation of the 1955 shootout at a local cinema. “The Invasion of Kelly,” it’s called. Over the weekend, Stith, who has written two books about the invasion tale, spoke with festival attendees. Her pants, reported the Courier-Journal, were covered in pictures of little green men. The eclipse, she told the newspaper, only adds to the allure of her family lore. “It’s like I’ve been saying,” Stith told the Courier-Journal. “You better check the hand you’re holding to be sure it’s the hand you want to hold, because you don’t know what’s going to be standing beside you when the darkness comes.