Events Leading to the Construction of the Wahnsiedler Observatory
by F. Birk Fischer
Man's love of the stars has spawned numerous amateur astronomy groups. The history of our local club, The Evansville Astronomical Society, begins quite a few years ago. The club probably originated in the 1930's. The EAS archives lack many early documents that would shed light on its formative years. The first members may well have met informally at each other's homes.
The YMCA provided the club's first formal meeting space. It later relocated to the old downtown Evansville Museum. In 1959, when the present Museum of Arts and Science opened, the EAS underwent yet another move. A few members may recall the small upstairs room where the meetings took place. The club roster listed perhaps twenty members with normally a dozen attending meetings. An enthusiastic group indeed, but a sparse one.
The decade of the 60's brought several milestones to the club's history. In 1963 the State of Indiana incorporated the EAS as a non-profit organization. The many advantages of this designation gave the club a foundation upon which to build.
Up to this time, the club did not own any astronomical instruments; however, several members owned fine telescopes and often held private viewing sessions at their homes. In 1966, a nationally renowned astronomer and comet hunter, Dr. Edgar Everhart (now deceased) offered an excellent 12" reflecting telescope to any club willing to transport it. The EAS accepted the challenge, and the member Bob Hillenbrand flew to Dr. Everhart's home in Connecticut to make the arrangements.
Years passed. The Telescope languished in the museum's storage area for want of a home. In October 1976 Dr. Walter Wahnsiedler, longtime Evansville schoolteacher and philanthropist, and then EAS President, pledged financing toward construction of an observatory. More pledges followed from both the community and the membership.
With financial backing assured, several members formed a task force to search for a suitable location. The ideal site would require two assets: dark skies and easy access. They investigated numerous sites in the Evansville area, but all suffered from the "astronomer's malady": city lights.
As the search widened, attention turned to the 1000 acre Lynnville Park in Lynnville, Indiana, about 20 miles northeast of Evansville. After hiking many miles through the park, the EAS explorers chanced upon a few cleared acres atop the highest hill in the district. It met the requirements of good skies and access from all directions with I-64 and several state highways converging nearby.
In November 1977, the club signed a lease for 1 acre of land. April 4, 1978 saw the groundbreaking for the Wahnsiedler Observatory. Although contractors did some of the necessary work, we must credit volunteers with most of it. The site posed some difficulties. For example, the ground's porous consistency required a special "floating concrete slab" foundation.
On April 25, 1980, the EAS dedicated its new Observatory. Anyone who visits the building today will notice some changes from the original installation. The Everhart scope, affectionately known as "the monster", although a fine astronomical instrument, proved too heavy and unwieldy for the club's purposes. Being of Newtonian design, its eyepiece could only be reached from atop a tall ladder. The club thus decided to replace the scope, so presently a 14" Cassegrain reflector and a 9" refractor ( a loan of members Dr. Earl Antes and Kent Brenton, respectively) adorn the observatory dome area.
The Observatory contains a lecture hall, named for the late Dr. Ray Dufford, a long-time UE professor of Physics and Astronomy. For many years Dr. Dufford reigned as EAS President and contributed much to its early development. His wife, the late Mamie Dufford, donated the furnishings for the room. We might also mention the late Malcolm Koch, another longtime benefactor of the club. The security fence surrounding the facilities is one of his many contributions.
The building also includes a computer room, a photography dark room, and lounge, and is considered excellent for a amateur group. Many clubs do not have their own observatory.
The EAS publishes an award winning monthly newsletter, THE OBSERVER, edited by George Neireiter, which is sent to clubs throughout the country. And they host member star parties, and Public Star Watches which are free and open to all. The Wahnsiedler Observatory is an excellent educational facility available to everyone. Let's make some use of it.