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Friday, November 11, 2016

The Day the Satellite Landed on the Fayetteville Courthouse Lawn

Vanguard 1 satellite image courtesy NASA
By mid afternoon, on that fateful day in the spring of '58, excitement ran high as word spread that a U.S. Naval satellite had landed on the courthouse lawn in Fayetteville, W.Va. It wasn't long before a crowd of lawyers, law enforcement officers, journalists, and concerned citizens gathered in the tiny sheriff's office anxious to catch a glimpse of the satellite, and to learn more about the object assumed to have fallen from space sometime overnight.

The crowd of onlookers soon learned that only a short while before, Dana Carte, a trusty at the Fayette County Jail, had discovered the strange object on front lawn of the Fayette County Courthouse.  Carte had immediately revealed his fantastic discovery to Jack Robertson, manager of the Fayette County sheriff's office.

Soon after photographers from three area newspapers began snapping pictures of the suspected satellite, a local official began to carefully examine every inch of the grapefruit sized object and the six antennas that extended from its body with a magnifying glass, finding a marking that read "Naval Research Laboratory." 

Fayette County Courthouse
Remarkably, this mysterious object from the sky looked exactly like photos of U.S. Navy's Vanguard 1 satellite that had been widely published in newspapers and magazines, and shown on television, following the successful launch of that satellite just one month previous, on March 17, 1958. Following this realization, Robertson tried to call the Naval Research Laboratory in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to alert them to the possibility that one of their satellites had somehow ended up in Fayetteville, W.Va., but the long distance telephone operator said the laboratory was not accepting phone calls.

Perhaps due to overcrowding in the sheriff's office, officials decided to move outside with the object, to the spot where it had been first discovered.  As an even larger crowd  begin to gather at this spot, a few spectators in the crowd remarked that the "satellite" in question looked like it might be a toy. But others insisted that it would have a manufacturer's trademark on it if this were the case.  One man, apparently convinced of the object's authenticity, proclaimed, "This will sure put Fayetteville on the map!"

Ben Franklin store in Fayetteville
Unfortunately, high hopes of this nature regarding national notoriety were dashed soon after a small child was spotted approaching the crowd, carrying a second satellite that looked exactly like the one that had been found.  Upon investigation, it was learned that the object little Kent Higgins, the son of H. C. Higgins Jr., was carrying, had been purchased at the Ben Franklin store, located just down the street from the courthouse. When questioned, Louis Rahall, manager of the store, said he had sold two of them, but he refused to say who bought the other one.

And so, to this date, it seems that many believe the "satellite" found on Fayette County Courthouse lawn was simply an inexpensive child's toy, that looked like a "professional instrument" according an account published in Beckley's afternoon newspaper, the Raleigh Register. But perhaps that version of the satellite landing story is simply what "they want you to believe."


The Raleigh Register, April 10, 1958, "Excitement Mounts On Toy Discovery", by Dorothy Hesse.

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