PARIS — The Roger Twitchell Observatory on Hooper Ledge has seen a lot.
The observatory on Hooper Ledge Road has been host to hundreds, probably thousands, of amateur astronomy enthusiasts who have made their way up the winding gravel road on Hooper Ledge in darkness over the last 20 years to view moons, planets, constellations, galaxies…some of the most magnificent celestial bodies in the universe.
But for a core group of seasoned amateur astronomers, the time has come to say goodbye to the familiar hilltop panoramic sky view.
Sometime this summer, the observatory, a joint effort between the Oxford Hills School District (SAD 17) and the Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange, will be reassembled at Roberts Preserve in Norway where it is hoped that even more people, particularly SAD 17 students who are already involved in classroom activities at the Preserve, will have an opportunity to see the stars.
Superintendent Rick Colpitts announced at the SAD 17 Board of Directors meeting on June 18, that the current land owners – Jim and Karen Ney – who in 2001 donated the use of the hilltop to place the Observatory, notified him that they plan to go in a different direction with their property in the future.
The Western Foothills Land Trust has agreed to host the Observatory at Roberts Farm Preserve. It will be located in a southeast corner of the farmstead, said Executive Director Lee Dassler. An agreement will be signed to formalize the venture this summer.
“I’m so thrilled this is going to work out for the community,” said Dassler. “What a magnificent opportunity for a land trust partnering with its school district to connect heaven and earth as well as Pre-K to Seniors!”
The move is bittersweet for some who are pleased the observatory will have a new home but sad they will be leaving the hilltop.
On a recent sunny June morning, half a dozen amateur astronomers, led by the observatory’s namesake Roger Twitchell, arrived to dismantle the 6-foot long optical fiberglass tube that holds the 13.5-inch primary mirror that was originally crafted in the 1870s in New York.
Removing the mirrors, which gather and focus the light from the night sky to allow the viewer to see the rings of Saturn and many other far away objects, required a careful and methodical process by Twitchell on top of a 12-foot ladder to ensure they were dismantled safely.
The group worked quickly and quietly as the mirrors were removed and the 79-inch tube that houses them was taken down and placed on the grass while they tried to figure out whose car the tube would fit in.
“We endured a lot” said Roy Hewitt of the 20 or so years, he and others have made their way to the hilltop, that many in the area still remember sliding down as children.
The only criteria for a night of stargazing was a clear sky.
“The Observatory has the support of Roger Twitchell, former OHCHS teacher and it’s namesake, and a small, core group of volunteer, amateur astronomers who enjoying sharing their knowledge and excitement about observing the night sky with the visiting public,” she continued.
Roger Twitchell, says he was simply handed a key.
“Here’s the key. Figure out what to do with it.” Twitchell said he was told by the high school’s department chair many years ago when the Observatory first opened up on the grounds of the high school.
Twitchell said he quickly scoured the library for astronomy books.
“I’m not an astronomer. I’m a tinkerer. I’m a mechanic,” said Twitchell, a former physics teacher at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School who insists that regardless of the Observatory’s name, the success of the present day telescope was initially due to a small group of students and teachers.
“It was not a one-man show. It never was,” he said.
Twitchell, who used the observatory while it was on the high school grounds to teach the principals of physics and Joe Dobbins, a fellow Oxford Hills science teacher who taught an astronomy class, maintained the Observatory from the time it was built on the Oxford High School grounds in 1972 through its relocation to Hooper Ledge in 2001.
The Observatory had to be relocated after the 1995 expansion of the Oxford Hills High School. The telescope was placed in storage and the dome moved to a temporary location until a permanent location was found. In 2000, Jim and Karen Ney donated the land on Hooper Ledge, the Observatory was moved, a warming hut built and the telescope reassembled.
Over the years Twitchell continued to be the person called in the middle of the night when the dome became stuck or another mechanical problem surfaced.
Twitchell remembers some of the many dedicated amateur astronomers who would come to the hill to view the night skies.
“Dr. LaCombe would be on all-night duty at the Stephens Memorial Hospital,” he recalled. “He would carry his pager up on the hill. If there was an emergency he would run back down and come back up.”
Now as the Observatory moves once again, Twitchell said his hope is that more students will become involved with it.
After all, the nearly 150-year-old 13-inch mirror that made its way from New York to Maine on its original telescope to noted naturalist and teacher George Howe of Norway many years ago came inscribed with a message.
The gift was for “the benefit of the young people of Norway, Maine.”
History of the George Howe Telescope
(The following information is posted on the SAD 17 Twitchell Observatory webpage and was compiled from a Norway Historical Society paper written by David Sanderson in June 2005.
The telescope’s primary mirror is 13.5 inches in diameter with a focal length of about 5 feet. The mirror has had an interesting and varied history. The mirror was originally crafted by H. C. Maine in the mid-1870’s in Rochester, New York. Mr. Maine was the editor of the Rochester daily newspaper and was a noted amateur astronomer and friend of the great American astronomer Lewis Swift.
Mr. Maine used the telescope for many years, and with the telescope, he photographed well-renowned images of the moon and sun. In 1894, he gave the telescope to his friend Alpheus Baker Hervey, then president of St. Lawrence University. During his tenure at St. Lawrence University, Dr. Hervey reportedly spent “much of his time peering through the telescope”. In 1901, Dr. Hervey retired to Bath, Maine, and in the 1920’s, gave the telescope to his friend George Howe “for the benefit of the young people of Norway, Maine.” At the time, it was thought to be the largest telescope north of Boston.
George Howe was a noted naturalist and teacher in Norway, who had founded a local forerunner of the Boy Scouts in 1904. He placed the telescope on the summit of Pike’s Hill, just above his home. For the next 20 years, Mr. Howe used the observatory as an open astronomy classroom for young and old alike. When he died, the telescope was dismounted, dismantled, and the mirror placed in storage until the 1960’s, when Roland DeCoteau rediscovered it in a church basement.
Mr. Decoteau had visited George Howe’s observatory on Pikes’ Hill as a child. When the Space Race began in the early 1960’s, Mr. DeCoteau rekindled his interest in astronomy and he became interested in finding the old telescope. After locating the mirror, Mr. Decoteau found a replacement optical tube for the telescope and gave the mirror and the optical tube to the Oxford High School science department to rebuild, so that it could be used by students and the community.
Two students, Steve Kessell and Wayne Verrill, took on the project as their own and worked on refurbishing the mirror, rebuilding the telescope, designing an observatory to house the telescope and raising funds for building the observatory. At the time the observatory opened in 1972, it was the largest telescope in Maine, larger than any university telescope in Maine, and possibly, at the time, still the largest telescope north of Boston. It was also the largest telescope operated by a high school in the United States.
In the 1980’s, the old wooden optical tube was replaced with the current fiberglass tube. When the telescope was reassembled at its new location, (Hooper Ledge in 2001) each part was refurbished or replaced and the mirror resurfaced and repolished again.