Milwaukee Astronomical Society


History of the Milwaukee Astronomical Society


1938: Observatory Dedication

On March 25, 1938, the property was officially deeded to the MAS, having satisfied the requirement of construction. In May, the refurbished 13-inch telescope was installed on the pier.

On June 18th, the observatory was officially dedicated and over 100 members and guests came to the event, many of them from Chicago, Madison, and other outside areas. There was a picnic dinner and when it was finally dark enough for slides to be seen, Ed Halbach, who was President at the time, presided over the event. M. J. W. Phillips made the dedicatory address which included a brief history of the building, illustrated by lantern slides of the various stages of construction. The main address was by Charles Hetzer of the Yerkes Observatory. As the sky was clear, the rest of the evening was taken up observing with the 13 inch scope in the building and many other instruments belonging to the members which were scattered about the grounds.

Cornelious M. Prinslow was appointed the first Observatory Director, responsible for distributing keys to the observing staff members and running the observatory properly.

Observatory in 1938. North Radio Mast Complete

Shortly after the dedication, a 250 watt radio transmitter was installed to coordinate the group's duplicate meteor observations. For the antennae, the plan was to construct two 80 foot towers (which would look like flag poles) with a wire strung between the two. In the picture above taken in the summer of '38 you can see the north tower which was erected on August 27th. The south tower is lying on the ground. They got that pole painted, but that is as far as it went. Click here to see the same photo which was printed as a large poster that hung at the observatory or at the hobby shows. The lines were drawn on that photo to show the final plan. Because the lines are hard to see, the radio transmitter line is enhanced in yellow while the power line is enhanced in magenta. We assume the project was scrapped because it was impractical. Instead, they simply used the line already attached to the north tower and ran it to the ground.

MAS Log BooksOn July 5th, Observatory Director Prinslow instituted a log book for activities at the observatory. Members and guests were to be logged as well as observing activities, especially variable stars. And notes about any equipment trouble so they could be addressed. To this day we utilize a log book at the observatory. You can read the actual entries in the log books which have been scanned.

Field of Dreams view of the observatory in 1938.  

The above aerial photo shows the grounds taken on Sept. 24th, 1938 and we call it our "Field of Dreams" shot because it shows that our observatory was built in the middle of a corn field.

The publication of Amateur Astronomy was terminated due to insufficient finances. Without it the AAAA collapsed soon after.

In 1938 and continuing until the end of 1941 with the outbreak of World War II, almost every Saturday during the warmer seasons there was a work party for maintenance and new construction.


1939-1945: Growth and the War

Late in 1938, the society acquired a voting booth building. It was arranged through the Election Commission and transferred to the Milwaukee Public Museum. The museum then loaned it, on an indefinite basis, to the MAS with the understanding it was returnable on demand, but that as long as we continued to use it, and carry on a program of public education without charge to visitors, it was ours. The structure served as an office as well as sleeping quarters for one shift of observers while another shift used the telescopes. Though it was initially called the clubhouse, it generally became known as the monastery. Such dedication was not without its hazards: Ed Halbach dozed off while driving home after one late session and smashed into a light pole, injuring his leg.

The basic building was complete by the end of 1939 with a stove for heat, but in 1940 it was partially disassembled so they could build a subterranean workshop. They also added a large safe in the first floor of the A-Dome to store important documents and smaller equipment like eyepieces.

In 1940, Harvard College donated a Patrol Camera which was permanently mounted on a concrete pier with a flip-top.

Above is the view of the observatory in 1940 with the newly erected clubhouse / monastery before the rebuild. It is one of the few pictures we have that show the outhouse which is seen on the far left of the photo. Most of the expansive photos of the observatory have it cropped out of the picture. Also at the left you can see the construction of the concrete pedestal for the Patrol Camera which was donated by Harvard College that year. It would be fitted with a metal flip-top. Comically, over the years many would mistake this structure as a entrance to an underground area.

The National Geographic Society gave the MAS two Kodak f/2 cameras for aurora photography. Hundreds of photographs of aurora were obtained with these cameras.

The grounds in 1941 showing the patrol camera structure.

View of the grounds in 1940. The patrol camera is in the foreground at the left.

The patrol camera.

Views of the camera with the lid open show the equatorial mount and film holder.

Picture of the area of Orion taken with the patrol camera.

An example of an image taken with the patrol camera showing the area around Orion.

In 1941, the MAS obtained a donation by the Milwaukee Journal of an old sub station building that was sitting at 645 E. Otjen Street in Bay View, Milwaukee. MAS members transported the structure to the observatory where it was reassembled. It was an all metal building that was then used as a tool shed.  Technically, the building was off the property, but it was on the land of the Phillips Farm and it was allowed. [Note: When the MAS received a donation of 2 additional acres from Harry Phillips (the brother of Matthew) in 1963, it would include the land where the tool shed sits.] Eventually the door will be replaced with a standard garage door so larger equipment could be stored.

Above: one of only 2 known pictures of the interior of the clubhouse / monastery. It shows one corner. The above rack positions hold the AAVSO blueprint charts of variable stars to be observed by the MAS, while those below hold the clipboards of individual observers. The book at the lower right is the log book, which everyone would sign when visiting the observatory, a practice that exists to this very day. The telephone connects with a like instrument in the 2nd floor of the A-Dome.

Observatory grounds in 1940.

The observatory as it looked by the end of 1941. The Tool Shed is at the far left.

In 1942, Ed Halbach became the second Observatory Director, a position that he will hold for the next 35 years. But in 1942, with the onset of World War II, between members serving in the military and gasoline rationing, observatory activities slowed to a crawl. In an effort to get additional gas rations, Halbach and Armfield set up an optic shop, making roof prisms for the war effort. Matthew J. W. Phillips passed away on June 2, 1944. By the end of 1944, the optical shop failed and Armfield then took a job with the Telephone Company of Indiana and Michigan, moving to Ohio.

Gas rationing would end in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered. The MAS conducted an expedition funded by the National Geographic to Pine River, Manitoba, to tie the North American grid maps to the European grid maps. The expedition is successful.

In 1945, Ralph Buckstaff, a long time member living in Oshkosh with his own private observatory, announces that he will donate his 12-inch reflector to the observatory as soon as he completes his new 16-inch reflector.