SHEFFIELD — Once again in this era of civic self-reflection, an American town finds itself wrestling with the future of a monument commemorating a controversial piece of its history.
Unlike in other towns, the history in question concerns the extraterrestrial.
The monument, a 5,000-pound trapezoid of white concrete, is in a small clearing near the center of this tiny Berkshires town, overlooking the Housatonic River. It bears a large state seal and a plaque with the signature of Governor Charlie Baker certifying the event it memorializes as “true and historically significant.”
The historical moment in question? An “off-world incident” that supposedly took place here some 50 years ago, when a family claims to have encountered an alien vessel in the shape of an inverted Hershey’s Kiss.
The town is now quietly looking into whether the monument must be moved from what is believed to be public property, and the governor’s office is walking back its imprimatur, saying the state certification was “issued in error.”
Naturally, perhaps, all this has triggered an incensed backlash — both from the man whose name adorns the monument, who claims to have witnessed the close encounter as a 9-year-old boy, and an ardent international community of UFO believers.
“We want it to be known definitely that this isn’t going to happen,” said Beth Wiegand, of the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, N.M., referring to any plans to move the marker. “We’re not going to hold still on this.”
This is the town’s second review of the monument since its arrival three years ago. The first time, it was moved a short distance, but now the town is concerned it rests upon public land near a town pathway.
“No one decided it could go there,” Rhonda LaBombard, Sheffield’s town administrator, told the Berkshire Eagle last month. “If we let one place put something up, then why can’t someone else?”
These comments have not been well received by Thom Reed, a 58-year-old former Sheffield resident now living in Tennessee. He claims town officials approved the monument’s current spot and is threatening legal action. Any effort to move the monument, he says, is a slap in the face to his family, whose decades-old encounter, he insists, helped put the town of Sheffield on the map.
“We basically made this town famous, in a lot of ways,” Reed said.
Reed was 9 and living in Sheffield when, on a hot night in the late summer of 1969, he and his family were driving home from a restaurant they owned in town.
As their station wagon crossed a bridge just off Route 7, Reed said, he noticed a light glow coming from between the bridge’s slats, and when he turned in his seat to peer out the car’s back window, he saw a vessel rise from below the riverbank.
Suddenly, he said, he found himself in a room resembling an airplane hangar, and the next thing he remembers, he and his family were back in the station wagon, though his mother and grandmother were in different seats.
As an adult — and in what he calls an effort to preserve the facts of his family’s case — Reed began speaking publicly about the incident, traveling to UFO conventions and appearing on a variety of TV programs dealing with the paranormal. He won a following among UFO believers, his family’s case getting its own display at the UFO Museum in Roswell. Then, in 2015, he secured formal recognition by the Great Barrington Historical Society.
In a decision she now labels a “mistake” and a “professional embarrassment,” then-society director Debbie Oppermann penned a short letter of testimonial on behalf of the historical society declaring the off-world event as “true” and “historically significant.”
“I have to say that me writing that letter really put it into a whole other arena,” Oppermann said.
On Nov. 3, 2015, nine months after the historical society’s endorsement, Baker signed a state citation — a kind of ceremonial honor issued by the hundreds for birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, and “other outstanding achievements” by state residents who request them — honoring the Reed family’s claim.
Text from Oppermann’s letter wound up on the certificate and, ultimately, on the plaque affixed to the monument.
“On behalf of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I am pleased to confer upon you this Governor’s Citation in recognition of the off-world incident on September 1, 1969,” reads the certificate. “Your dedicated service to the incident was factually upheld, founded, and deemed historically significant and true by means of Massachusetts Historians.”
Reed said he’s unsure how the governor came to certify his claim, but according to a gubernatorial staffer, a request for the citation was sent to the governor’s constituent services office.
Responding to inquiries from the Globe, Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in an e-mail that the citation was “issued in error and was not authorized by Governor Baker.”
So what, exactly, will become of the current monument?
Tough to say.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, officials here have been in no hurry to discuss the controversy publicly.
Multiple messages left last week for LaBombard, the town administrator, went unreturned. Reached at the local Gulotta’s Mobil service station, Andrew Petersen, who represents one-third of the town’s three-person Board of Selectmen, had little desire to delve into the particulars. “All I’m going to say is it’s in the hands of the surveyors and lawyers,” he said.
In a recent interview, Mark Reich, Sheffield town counsel, said the town is reviewing whether the recent land survey is accurate in its determination that the monument encroaches on town property.
“The town’s concern here is not content-based,” Reich said of the idea that some in Sheffield might not be thrilled with the idea of a UFO monument. “It’s based upon the protection of public property and the use of public property.”
Reed said he’s gearing up for what he says could be multiple lawsuits. He has demanded apologies from the town, for smearing his family’s name in the press, and from a local columnist he says has made the issue personal by deriding the white concrete monument as ugly.
And while he acknowledges that he’s unsure what will ultimately happen to the monument, there is at least one consequence of this episode that he can guarantee.
“This,” Reed said, “is going to change the whole ending to my book.”