History of the Milwaukee Astronomical Society

1932-33: Formation of the MAS / Backyard Observatory

Original Milwaukee Journal ArticleThe MAS dates back to 1932 with the appearance of the following notice on page 5 of the Milwaukee Journal of Sunday, September 18, 1932:

"Amateur Star Gazers Plan an Organization. Amateur students of heavenly bodies who are interested in organizing an amateur astronomical association have been asked to attend an organization meeting at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the home of L.E. Armfield. 2046 S. 59th St., West Allis"

The meeting went well and the Milwaukee Astronomical Society was formed as a result. There were 18 charter members. The chairman of the group was Edwin Arthur de la Rulle who will become the first President. Elizabeth Wight was elected the Secretary and Treasurer. The dues were $1.00.

Backyard of Luverne Armfield around 1933.

The newly formed group began regular observing sessions in the backyard of Luverne Armfield. Though they had a decent collection of their own telescopes, they had no outstanding instruments, and, of course, they were observing from within Milwaukee. From the very beginning there will an emphasis on doing scientifically valuable observing. Armfield was one of the earliest observers for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO - Armfield's observer code was "A") and an observer of meteors. He would get many new members to give these observing programs.

Edward Halbach in Armfield's backyard writing down a variable star estimate. The following month, 12 more would join the MAS, and one of them was Edward Halbach, embracing both meteor observing, variable stars, and any other scientific project accessible to the amateur astronomer. Just age 23 at the time and still attending Marquette University, he would make an immediate impact on the new club, eventually become its President, presiding during the observatory dedication and then later Observatory Director, a position he will hold for 35 years. To this day, Halbach (who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102) is our longest member at 78 years. In the photograph at the left, he is in Armfield's backyard recording a variable star estimate.

The other big interest of the newly formed club was telescope making. Not only were commercial telescopes practically nonexistent, they were also completely unaffordable. Therefore, a big attraction of the club was to get help in making instruments. And, fortunately, the club attracted a good group of experienced telescope makers willing to lend a hand.

Luverne Armfield at his 8 inch reflector in his backyard.

Armfield in 1932 at his 8-inch reflector in his backyard.

By 1933, the membership swelled to 130: 100 regular members plus 30 in the junior auxiliary, which was a subgroup of members who were not  yet 18 years old. Local interest in astronomy soared and a good measure was the Milwaukee Public Library's section on astronomy increased by eight-fold. The number of telescopes owned by members expanded to 60. The members continued their observations of variables, as well expanding the scope of the meteor work by making height calculations. These observations were reduced by hand and sent to Flower and Cook Observatory in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

By later in 1933 with the swelling membership, it was getting pretty crowded in Armfield's backyard so it is hardly surprising there was talk about the dream of securing land outside Milwaukee and establishing an observatory. But incredibly, for the first several months of the club's existence there wasn't a single person who spoke aloud about the possibility. The reason: fear of ridicule!

The reason was they were in the middle of the Great Depression. Unemployment at 25%, many lost their savings in one of the many bank runs, and deflation. On its surface, deflation doesn't sound all that bad, but it is. Why buy anything when it will probably be cheaper tomorrow? And, also, of those who still fortunate enough to have jobs, got pay cuts. So the reality of some remote observatory was a distant dream which they called their "Castle in the Air." Group picture in Armfield's backyard for the visit of Dr. Shapley. Walter Scott Houston is posing with the child.But they dreamed nonetheless and did what clubs tend to do: they formed a committee. They went as far as drawing up plans which included building a 16 inch reflector. However, there will be a silver lining to this reality and will embed itself into the DNA of the club. The economics will be a very powerful incentive for people to work together for the common goal of building and maintaining an observatory.

One of the very early members was Walter Scott Houston who would go on to some fame as a writer for Sky & Telescope. (In the picture at the right, he is in front with the child.) Another early member was William (Bill) Albrecht who joined when he was still in high school and remained a member until his death in 2009 at age 91 - 76 years.