It is not easy to imagine the sleepy town of Springfield, Vermont as a former hub of industry, innovation, and intrigue. With its gently-decaying factory and warehouse buildings shouldered up against the moody Black River, its tidy little Hole in the Hill Bar, tucked away actually inside a hill, and cafés and restaurants that close all day on Sundays, it seems almost forgotten by the world. But Springfield was once a pivotal and cutting-edge leader in manufacturing, and—during World War II—was on Germany’s “top ten list” of strategic bombing targets. Springfield was home to the machines that made the machines that won the war. While the town may have played a pivotal role during wartime, its other bequest to the world could not possibly make for any greater contrast. In addition to being a critical cog in the fabrication of bombs, tanks, artillery shells, and fighter planes, Springfield gave life to a quiet, contemplative, and remarkable intellectual revolution. It is the birthplace of amateur astronomy and was, most definitely, a town in the right place at the right time.
James Hartness moved the Jones & Lamson Machine Tool Company (J & L) there in 1888 and the Fellows Gear Shaping Company opened shop eight years later. Hartness was an avid amateur astronomer, and completed construction of his groundbreaking Hartness Turret Telescope, situated imposingly on his own grounds, in 1912. It is connected to Hartness House by a narrow and eerie underground tunnel that enabled Hartness to view the heavens, enclosed and in comfort, even during the chilliest of Vermont winters. In an era before highway lights, electric billboards, and modern sports stadiums, Hartness’ skies must have been as black as a villainous raven.
The term “Renaissance Man” could not be more aptly applied to any individual than Russell Porter. Born in Springfield in 1871, he was an architect, telescope builder, wonderfully talented artist, and daring Arctic explorer. Porter went to work for J & L, and Hartness, in 1919 and, later in life, worked on the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar. Porter and Hartness shared a keen interest in mirror making and telescope design, and with the abundant energy provided by the Black River Falls, a wealth of innovative manufacturing equipment, and Hartness’ position as superintendent of J & L, almost any moving part that the prototype stargazers dreamed of was theirs to build.
Hartness encouraged and supported Porter, and in 1921, the 50 year-old artist/engineer gave a class in mirror making to sixteen students, including Oscar Fullam and Frank Whitney, both of whom went on to be noted optical instrument designers in their own right. Two years later, that small group became the Springfield Telescope Makers, and the world of astronomical observation changed forever. Porter and friends built the Stellafane clubhouse in 1924 (from the Latin for “star shrine”). It survives to this day and is now the locus of the annual Stellafane astronomy convention.
In the early 1920s, Porter put his considerable talents to work on designing a telescope that was not only easy to use, but could be left outside year-round. Part Art Nouveau sculpture, part lawn ornament, and part scientific wonder, the Porter Garden Telescope was an exquisite creation made of cast bronze, with a hinged lid that cleverly concealed and protected its delicate hand-ground mirror, which the owner would use to study the night sky.
The original retail price of $250 was later raised to $450 and, in 1923, that was the price of a grand automobile. They were expensive indeed but, for the first time, telescopes that had previously been almost exclusively the purview of prominent scientific observatories, were available to the public. That, combined with the instruments built by Fullham, Whitney, and others, brought the capability of exploring the cosmos from garden lawns to the people.
Each of Porter’s Garden Telescopes bore a serial number, stamped into the metal, and it is rumored that 75 were built, though the highest documented example is #54. The whereabouts of most are today unknown, and some must still languish forlornly and unrecognized in garages and sheds. Those that survive are cherished and admired, and a fine example recently sold at auction for $18,000. One, stained green with patina, somewhat weathered and with various components missing, stands proudly, if somewhat crippled, on the lawn in front of Hartness House. Another, in immaculate condition, resides at the end of the tunnels below the house—dank corridors that could easily have been a filming location for Dr. Who. Once an illegal speakeasy (and the outline of the old bar can still be seen demarcated in flaking floor paint), the subterranean rooms are now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the earliest days of amateur astronomy. Berton Willard, curator of the museum, a highly regarded member of the Springfield Telescope Makers, and Porter’s biographer, gave me a private tour of the exhibit, and I was entranced from the first moment. “It’s not a coincidence that it [amateur astronomy] grew up here,” Willard told me. “In what is known as Precision Valley,” after the tool-making industry that once dominated the area.
That industry is now long gone. Feverish workers and gear cutting machines remain only as whispers in fading memories of the elderly, and the once-thriving manufacturing complexes are abandoned and dozing, slowly crumbling alongside the Black River like majestic fossils. But Springfield’s industrial might and legacy of discovery live on on in the eyes of amateur astronomers across the country and around the world, particularly during the annual Stellafane convention. Every August, over a thousand telescope makers and stargazers gather on Breezy Hill, just outside of town, where they delight in the speckled stars peppering dark Vermont skies. Russell Porter’s children—telescopes of brass, wood, aluminum, and even cardboard, gently cradling meticulously ground glass lenses and mirrors—peer relentlessly into the cosmos, illuminating our imaginations, and baffling our minds with unanswerable quandaries of time, space, and distance.
Occasionally, a bright meteor streaks overhead, prompting cheers, applause or an: “Ooh, did you see that one?” from the assembled astronomers clustered in the blackness upon Breezy Hill. And, at last, I fully understand the valediction that is universal among stargazers: “I wish you clear skies and dark nights!”
All photographs and text by Geoffrey Notkin
© Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.