The Local Group

The History of The Local Group A 20 Year Retrospective 1983-2003

“The Local Group of Deep Sky Observers was formed in the summer of 1983, an experiment conceived by Vic Menard and Dennis Plews at the eyepiece of an old 13.1-inch Coulter Odyssey Dobsonian telescope. An astronomy club without officers, without by-laws, with no agenda other than to enjoy the deep sky, the Group continues to provide a venue for amateur astronomers to commit astronomy!”

This is how I’ve greeted people who visit my website on their way to the Group’s website. Perhaps an over-simplification, but it still pretty much sums up how it all got started. 

Actually, in retrospect, the first moments are a bit of a jumble. I had moved to Bradenton from Miami in 1977, effectively terminating my membership in the Southern Cross Astronomical Society. I built a 10-inch classical cassegrain in 1980 to observe Saturn’s rings edge-on. Shortly after that I purchased my first 8-inch Celestron and a 13.1-inch Coulter Odyssey from an estate sale. When you start accumulating telescopes, the word gets out, and you start making connections. In early 1983, Steve Russo was the staff astronomer at the Bishop Planetarium. He had made some overtures to me about starting an astronomy club, but knowing how museums worked (from my years with the SCAS), I figured he was fishing for volunteer help. The idea intrigued me, but I was pretty busy myself back then. So I back-burnered the idea until later that summer when I met Dennis Plews, a local attorney who really wanted to be a cosmologist! Dennis had a 6-inch Edmund equatorial and wanted to see what the 13.1 Odyssey could deliver. From my backyard we explored the jewels of the summer Milky Way, and hatched a plan that would become The Local Group of Deep Sky Observers.

That was 20 years ago this summer, and in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to waltz down memory lane, and relive some of the highlights of the years gone by. 

By the time we got our first newsletter together, the Local Group had already been pretty busy. Our first sessions at Myakka State Park (a connection provided by Chuck Pisa) were advertised individually by phone. This got out of hand quickly as our “involved” membership grew to 34 by the end of 1983. Our first newsletter, which appeared in June of 1984, detailed a joint observing session with the SouthWest Florida Astronomical Society, a trip to Atlanta to observe an annular eclipse of the Sun, and promised the arrival of Tom Clark’s 17.5-inch Coulter II later that summer. Already Steve Russo had departed, and the new staff astronomer, George Fleenor, opened the door for us to meet at the Bishop Planetarium. We had a successful Astronomy Day at the South Florida Museum, with a telescope display by Sarasota Camera Exchange.

By September 1984 we were 58 members strong, and new member Mark Wojcul announced his plans to purchase a Celestron 14-inch. In November we had 70 members and friends attend a perfect night out at Myakka, where Ev Southwick showed off his home built computer driven (a Commodore 64!) 10-inch equatorial. We had 17 telescopes on the observing field that night. By the end of 1984 we had joined the Astronomical League and entertained the idea of attending the First Annual Winter Star Party. 

In February of 1985, Don and Robin Gray, Tom Clark, and yours truly headed off to Mahogany Hammock in the Everglades to witness the birth of what would become Florida’s biggest amateur astronomy event, The Winter Star Party. About 150 people attended and brought more than 70 ’scopes for the three day weekend extravaganza. It was short, it was memorable, and we had a blast! It would become our featured observing event for the next 20 years. 

By September 1985 we had recovered Halley’s Comet both visually and photographically. A month later Tom and Jeannie Clark and Lynne and I headed off to the North Carolina mountains, on our way to visit the Raleigh Astronomy Club where we would be humbled by their monster 24-inch Dobsonian reflector. Local Group member Gordon Younger sent his 20.5-inch f/7 mirror to Richard Fagin to be parabolized. Halley-mania continued through the end of 1985, with almost 200 people showing up every clear moonless night at the Bishop observatory. Telescope sales at Sarasota Camera reached an all-time high. 

February, 1986, more than 20 Local Group members attended the second Winter Star Party. Tom Clark brought the 17.5-inch Coulter, Mark Wojcul brought the Celestron 14, and Mark Haff brought the Cave 12.5-inch. Meanwhile, back at the shop (Tectron Telescopes), 16 and 20-inch lightweight fork-mount telescopes were nearing completion… Halley Watch reached a crescendo on April 20th, Astronomy Day, at the Bradenton Auditorium parking lot, where almost 3000 people glimpsed the fan-shaped comet at its closest approach to planet Earth. A June invitational to Hickory Hill was enjoyed by all, but a repeat performance in November was dampened by rainy weather. In late October, Tom and Jeannie Clark, Bryan and Suzi White, Mark Haff and Robyn Marinelli, Richard Fagin and Laurie, and Lynne and I headed up to the Carolina’s for some mountaintop observing with the new 16 and 20-inch ’scopes. Chasing clear skies, on December 6, 1986, Tom and I headed to Chiefland, Florida to find out what Billy Dodd was planning to do with 80-plus acres out in the middle of nowhere. In Billy’s words, “Chiefland was (and still is) blue bird skies in the daytime, and sparkle city at night.”

“The unknown astronomer” made his first appearance at the Third Winter Star Party, much to the chagrin of Tippy D’Auria, and Hal Povenmire’s recurrent, “…and so forth, and so on…” will live on in perpetuity. In May of 1987, Bryan White, Tim Kenyon, Tom Clark, Dennis Plews, Roger Phillips and I took two vans and six telescopes to the Texas Star Party. Days earlier a massive tornado had obliterated the small town of Saragosa thirty miles away. McDonald Observatory, dust devils, 100 plus degree days with less than 10% humidity, and 600 attendees under some of the darkest skies I’ve ever seen… Later that summer Mark Haff would complete the 18-inch f/6 and Tim Kimbler would finish the 20-inch f/7, both lightweight Dobs. The year would end with a big star party at Hickory Hill, where Ron Winner showed off a 14-inch Newtonian mounted on a Bigfoot equatorial mount, and the view of Jupiter in Mark Haff’s 6-inch f/12 Astrophysics Apo was so pristine it’s still clear in my memory. The museum observatory installed a similar “Super Planetary” refractor with a DayStar solar filter that became operational around year end.

In 1988 the Winter Star Party moved to Camp Sawyer in the Florida Keys. The island ambiance, Jimmy Buffet music, great seafood, incredibly steady air, and excellent dark skies—it was star party perfection! It was also first light for my 6-inch f/8 Astrophysics refractor. Mark Wojcul’s 7-inch StarFire refractor would arrive weeks later—it had been on order for 18 months! Later that year, November 3rd through the 6th, the First Chiefland Star Partywas hosted by the Central Florida Astronomical Society, the Tampa Area Astronomical Society, and the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club. The 18 f/6 had passed from Mark Haff to Tom Clark, had been to the Texas Star Party (where it was given the name “the coffee cup” by John Dobson) and back, and was being delivered to Tippy D’Auria at Chiefland. Stories of the cat in the telescope, and the smoking gun, took place that November weekend. This was also the event where Dave Knowlton buried the Airstream up to its axles…

Volume six, first issue (March, 1989), our newsletter changed to the format you see today, 11 by 17 with center fold. The current Local Group header would arrive three years later. Tom Clark brought the new collapsible truss design 25-inch f/5 Dobsonian to the Winter Star Party, and there seemed to be no limit to the aperture ceiling. March 13th was the evening the northern sky turned red, an outburst of the Aurora Borealis visible as far south as the Caribbean. George Fleenor’s video of the solar flare responsible for the event made the headlines. By now the Group had settled in to a rhythm of sorts—Myakka sessions, Winter Star Parties (and a few others), meteor showers, new telescopes, and new members. Our membership had stabilized around 100 member families, and I had agreed to become the editor of New Horizons, the newsletter for the southeast region of the Astronomical League, (whatwas I thinking?) The Second Annual Chiefland Star Party was completely rained out, and rescheduled for March, 1990. 

Dave Knowlton unveiled The Bat Scope at the 1990 Winter Star Party, and later that summer we started having Full Moon Parties at Babe’s Pizza. Bill Reineke organized a quick response phone tree for the Group, and maintained it through 1994. Don Gray took a stab at the editor’s chair for the October newsletter, and as a group, we joined the International Dark-Sky Association. In 1991 the Winter Star Party was moved to the Girl Scout’sCamp Wesumkey, Sonny’s Bar B-Q was added to our Full Moon Party list, our regular observing sessions were moved to Rye Road, and several globe trotting members headed off to Hawaii, Mexico, and Costa Rica to witnessThe Big One—a 6-plus minute total solar eclipse.

We had 51 members attend WSP ’92. It was first light for my new 20-inch f/6.2 Dobsonian, and the skies were so good I was able to glimpse detail on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede! Tom’s 36-inch Dobsonian, The Yard Scope, saw first light in June. The First Annual Lake Kissimmee Star Party was held in November ’92. At the next Winter Star Party, with Lynne at the helm, Richard Jakiel would inadvertently christen the 20-inch, The Galaxy Lady

The summer 1993 issue of the Local Group newsletter was a compilation of member articles edited by Don Gray. Bill Reineke and John Reeves provided two perspectives on the Chiefland Star Party, while Tom Clark brought us up to speed on what it’s like to observe from the Outback of Australia. Ouita Cohen stepped forward and became the Local Group treasurer. 

The South Eastern Planetarium Association Conference (SEPA) was held at the Bishop Planetarium, June 15-19, 1993. The banquet speaker was Don Hall of the Strasenberg Planetarium in New York. His talk, “Me Versus Technology” was an entertaining look at the successes and failures of planetarium technology (no doubt that’s changed a bit in the last ten years!)

The Texas Star Party was the big event featured in the summer 1994 issue. Clif Jones, Tim Kimbler, and yours truly, were packed and on the road at 2AM, only 1650 miles to go! We made it there the next day, and met Dave and Lee Gracey at the Black Bear Restaurant for dinner. Tippy and Patty D’Auria arrived the next day, and Tuesday at daybreak we headed off to the Hoover Ranch for an annular solar eclipse. On the way back, Tim, Clif and I stopped by Carlsbad Caverns! Greg Shanos showed up on Thursday, and Lynne (my better half) and Bill Reineke rolled in later in the afternoon. Friday night/Saturday morning Lynne finished her Messier Observer’s List. The summer ’94 issue was Dave Gracey’s first run as the newsletter editor. 

July 16th, 1994, Comet Shoemaker/Levy 9 started hammering Jupiter, and for several weeks, multiple impacts could be seen on the planet’s surface. The 1994 Georgia Star Party and the Lake Kissimmee Star Party were both perfect weather events—we were some serious happy campers! All things considered, a noteworthy year.

George Fleenor’s 10-inch cassegrain made its first trip to the Winter Star Party in 1995. I finished the Herschel 400 list at the event on Wednesday morning at 5:30AM (number 400 on my list was NGC 7006 in Delphinus.) Early Saturday morning we were treated to a spectacular view of the Milky Way rising over the still waters of the tidal lagoon to the south of our observing site. The stars reflecting in the water seemed to come down to our feet. It was the closest thing to a spacewalk I’ve ever experienced.

Six weeks later, Lynne and I were off to our first Southern Star Astronomical Convention at Wildacres Retreat on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Springtime in the Smoky Mountains, two star-studded nights, and accommodations that led me to refer to this event as “the Wives’ Star Party”—this one was destined to be on our calendar every year. Sky and Telescope raised their club rates from $20 to $24 that summer… On November 22nd, 1995, Eve Prang and Dennis Plews, who first met as members of the Local Group, tied the knot! (You used to be able to charge for matchmaking services like this!)

On January 30th, 1996, Comet Hyakutake was discovered, heading for a spectacular close approach in late March. About six months earlier, all the talk was about Comet Hale-Bopp, which was heading for a close approach on April 1st, 1997. Hyakutake snuck in unexpectedly and quickly put on a memorable show, prompting more speculation about Hale-Bopp, due the next year around the same time. Could we possibly have two great comets in consecutive years? Also in early 1996, we moved our dark sky observing site from Rye Road to Bear Bay, and I transferred our newsletter template to ClarisWorks. 

In early 1997 we sent out the first Local Group Questionnaire. The survey results were pretty interesting (maybe we should do this again?) Dave Gracey and Susan Carroll completed their Herschel 400s at the 1997 Winter Star Party. Bryan White stayed busy shooting wide-field deep sky photos of the southern Milky Way framed by coconut palms. The First Annual Highlands’ Star Party was held in March, and coincided with a mass invasion of Forest Tent Caterpillars. Thousands of them got on and into everything! Susan Carroll’s picture of Hale-Bopp, a spectacular early morning comet in the Cygnus Star Clouds, made it to the national news. Hale-Bopp returned to the evening sky in time for the Chiefland Star Party—the views in Jerry Granade’s 15×80 Fujinon binoculars were memorable. In the closing months of 1997, the Cohen-Sabin telescope was commissioned through generous donations by Ouita Cohen and Jonathan Sabin, and dedicated on February 3rd, 1998.

In April of 1998 we moved our deep sky observing sessions to Crowley Nature Center. August 1st, we visited Astronaut Memorial Hall in Cocoa Beach, where we were “wowed” by the new Minolta Infinium and DigiStar Star Projectors. In October we were guests at Jack and Alice Newton’s new Bed and Breakfast and Observatory for the Chiefland Star Party. But the highlight of the year was the fantastic display of the Leonid Meteor Storm at Crowley in November.

Hurricane Georges demolished Camp Wesumpkee, and forced the 1999 Winter Star Party to move to Chiefland. About the same time, George Fleenor started what would become a community-wide light trespass campaign (which we’re still seeing the benefits from today!)

Back at Chiefland, in November, Rick Singmaster delivered my 22-inch GoTo StarMaster telescope (I still contend, “the ’scope is just too cool!”), a great way to end the year! For the next couple of years, with the 22 in tow, I kind of went star party crazy. I won’t go into gruesome detail, but I still smile when I think about it… 

On January 20th, 2000, the Group entertained over 1500 people for a combined Astronomy Day, Total Lunar Eclipse event. The weather was perfect, the food was excellent (J&J BarBQ), and live music by Brian Matthews put the finishing touch on a magical night. On March 23rd, from Chiefland, we witnessed the last bits of Mir reentering the Earth’s atmosphere as the old Russian space station was deorbited. The Fall 2000 Chiefland Star Party was the beginning of a StarMaster stampede. Dick Denison got his GoTo drive assembly for his 14-1/2-inch, Thomas Swann took delivery on his 20-inch GoTo, and Jerry Lowery’s and Ian Turner’s (now Chuck Pisa’s) 18-inch GoTos followed soon afterwards. Right around the same time Brian Matthews created our new website. By the end of the year, “My favorite deep sky go-to tour, aka, The List”, found its way on to the website. At this point in time, the digital revolution was in full swing.

Springtime 2001 was pretty busy as well. Dave Gracey and I carpooled to the Hickory Hill Invitational, enjoyed the excellent skies and St. Pete Astronomy Club hospitality, and closed the one-nighter at 3AM (and headed home!) The spring edition of the Chiefland Star Party was hotter than any other I can remember (98 degrees in the shade), but the cool mountain air at Southern Star was a refreshing moment on our way to a long, hot summer. 

The views of Mars on June 9th in Jerry Lowery’s 18 StarMaster were stunning (three weeks later massive dust storms completely obscured the planet’s surface.) On August 23rd, fire destroyed the Bishop Planetarium. A few weeks later the Peach State Star Gaze opened, two days after 9-11. Chuck Pisa and I spent the evenings at Peach State observing with Alex Langoussis and Eric Shelton (NGC 6751 at 550X was a keeper), and the daytime selling Type 6 Nagler eyepieces. Friday morning I found out that Hurricane Gabrielle had passed directly over my home—just another bizarre twist in a strange series of events. 

In October we moved our quarterly business/discussion/presentation meetings to the Central Library. The Fall 2001 Chiefland Star Party coincided with the Leonids, and we were not disappointed. I got to spend the peak of the storm under pristine skies with Jack Newton and Terrence Dickinson, what a hoot! Not as many fireballs as 1998, but lots of meteors—1000 to 1500 per hour. If that wasn’t enough to fill your observing cup, you could walk over and observe through Dean Von Pusch’s new 30-inch GoTo StarMaster!

In January 2002 we started hosting monthly Sidewalk Astronomy Weekends. (Sidewalk) Astronomy Day was also a huge success, with 500 to 1000 attending. On June 3rd, 2002, the South Florida Museum executive board voted unanimously to build a new, state of the science, Bishop Planetarium. Mike Carter, Jim Lamm and I got a good look at the state of the science in Wichita at the International Planetarium Society meeting in July—awesome stuff! The Group held its first workshop series in October (and repeated the sessions quite successfully at our 2003 Astronomy Day event). In November, the Leonids put on another big show, observed by numerous Group members from a flooded Bear Bay observing site. Rainy weather dampened numerous Florida star parties in 2002—signalling the end of three years of drought. 

For 2003, everyone has been talking about Mars’ closest approach in over 60,000 years, and so far, we’ve had some incredible views, and even more astounding digital images. Who would have thought inexpensive webcams and computer software could deliver such a wealth of detail? Planetary imaging has entered a new era. Mars has been chronicled, in thousands of high definition images, from somewhere on Earth, months before (and after) close approach. With this new technology, the digital conquest of the rest of the solar system can’t be far behind.

So here it is, 20 years later, so much is the same, and so much is different. Another eclipse is coming our way on November 8th (the second total lunar this year). Maybe by the next total lunar eclipse (October 28th, 2004) the new Bishop will be ready to host the event. Comet NEAT C/2001 Q4 could put on a nice show in the second week of May next year—at the same time Comet LINEAR C/2002 T7 should be putting on a nice show for the southern hemisphere. Mars will be back November 7th, 2005, 19.9 arcseconds diameter, not too bad… 

Are you ready for the next 20 years? You’re not going to want to miss it!

Vic Menard
July, 2003