SHEFFIELD — This is how the story goes: It’s 1966, and 6-year-old Thomas Reed is in his bedroom on his family’s horse farm in the Berkshires when the encounters begin.
Strange lights. Strange figures in the hallway. Suddenly, he’s in the woods near his home looking at a UFO. Then he and his younger brother, Matthew, are inside the craft. He’s shown a projection of a willow tree.
The following year, there is another incident at their home on Boardman Street in Sheffield. More strange lights. The sound of doors slamming. Then the boys are back inside the vessel. The next thing Thomas knows, he’s in his driveway being scooped up by his mother, who has been searching frantically for the boys on horseback.
Two years later, the family is driving on Route 7 when they see strange lights in the sky. Their car stalls, and then Thomas and his brother and mother and grandmother find themselves in a giant room. He is brought to meet two strange, ant-like figures, then placed in some sort of cage. Next thing, he’s back near the car.
Reed has told these stories many times, and it has not always gone well. But recently, his tale had found recognition in an unlikely place. The Great Barrington Historical Society & Museum has formally inducted the UFO story.
What does that mean? “It means that we believe it is true,” said Debbie Oppermann, the director of the society.
“I know we’re going to get a lot of backlash. We’re going to get hammered,” she said. “But we have given it an awful lot of thought, and, based on the evidence we’ve been given, we believe this is a significant and true event.”
The historical society believes it is the first time a “mainstream” historical society or museum in the United States has declared a UFO encounter to be historical fact. But the decision was far from unanimous; of the nine members of the historical society’s board, three were “strongly opposed” to the decision, Oppermann said, but “it passed with consensus.”
The Reed case already has its own display in the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, N.M.; now, it’s about to get one in Great Barrington, about 2 miles from where the alleged encounters took place.
What most interests the historical society is the 1969 encounter, because dozens of people in the area reported seeing an unidentified flying object around that time, typically described as a disk-shaped craft performing acrobatic maneuvers in the sky. Many of those eyewitnesses called the local radio station, WSBS, which covered the sightings. (The radio station has provided documentation to the historical society, which interviewed one of those eyewitnesses. They have also examined a polygraph test taken by Thomas Reed.)
The Reed abductions are well known in the world of UFO enthusiasts. Thomas Reed this month was a featured speaker at the International UFO Congress in Arizona, the world’s largest UFO convention. And the story has been the subject of television shows and radio programs through the years. But Reed, who now lives in Tennessee, said the recognition from the museum is historic.
“They took a stand and have chosen to recognize something that many people in their position would have stepped away from,” said Reed, who is now 55. “We know what we saw, and it was not local. It was definitely off-world. And it affected my whole family, and there has been a lot of post-traumatic stress.”
The subject of UFOs and alien encounters has always occupied a fringe position in American culture, with many believers labeled as tin-hat conspiracy theorists obsessed with government coverups. But polls show that the number of Americans who believe has been growing. A 2012 study by Kelton Research, a market research company, found that 36 percent of Americans believe aliens have visited the earth.
But “proof” remains elusive for many, including Ted Acworth, a scientist with a doctorate from Stanford who was doing postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was tapped to be the “science guy” on the History Channel show “UFO Hunters.”
Acworth looked at some of the more famous cases around the world, and he said he was never able to find what he would consider physical evidence of alien encounters.
“I’m convinced that there are things happening that are unexplainable, but is that proof of a UFO?” said Acworth, who lives in Boston and now works on technology startups. “A lot of highly credible people believe in their bones that they saw something. It’s not just fringe wackos. But the nearest habitable planet is many, many light years away, and I don’t think they’d come here just to scare people and fly home again. They’d make themselves known.”
Reed says he is not trying to convert nonbelievers. Their scorn has been a part of his life.
His mother owned a restaurant in town, and there were those who came in only to make her life miserable. He got beat up a lot by the other kids. His grandmother used to hold a pillow so he could punch it to get his frustration out. After the third encounter, his mother boarded up the boys’ bedroom, quickly sold the house, and they moved a few miles up the road to Great Barrington.
All he can do, he says, is follow what his mother always told him: Speak the truth.
“It hasn’t helped us in any way to talk about,” Reed said. “We’re not making any money. This has tarnished our life. This has smeared our family’s name. It can only hurt you when someone Googles your name.
“But when you have something extraordinary like this happen to you, how do you keep a lid on it?”