PARIS — Students from the state’s first virtual public charter school spent two hours at the Roger Twitchell Observatory on Paris Hill on Wednesday night gazing through telescopes at celestial bodies.

The students were able to see, among other objects, Uranus, the Andromeda Galaxy and nebulae.

“That’s amazing,” one observer said.

The highlight, many said, was climbing a 10-foot metal ladder to look through the 13-inch reflective George Robey Howe telescope.

“Wow,” said a student as she carefully climbed down the ladder after viewing the M-71 globular cluster in the constellation Sagitta.

Six telescopes, including the Howe telescope, were bought to the observatory by local astronomers.

About 30 students in grades seven through 12 from the South Portland school bundled up in heavy jackets, hats and mittens in 20-degree temps to meet their fellow online classmates for the first time and enjoy an educational evening of stargazing.

Teacher Jonathan Whitehead, a high school math teacher with Maine Connections Academy, organized the trip. He said he put the invitation out to all of the students and within nine minutes, the 30 slots were filled. A total of 111 students had asked to participate, he said.

“What a great opportunity,” said Whitehead, who grew up on Buckfield Road in Paris. He said he remembered the telescope when it was at Oxford Hills High School. It was moved to Hoopers Ledge in 2001.

Because the students learn online from their homes, there is limited personal interaction. The minimum two field trips each month allows them to interact face to face.

“I definitely wanted to meet my teacher and other students,” said Abigail Roy of Waterboro, who arrived with her father, Peter Roy, after an hour-plus drive.

The field trips are not only a chance to interact on a more personal level, but an opportunity to expand on their curriculum in a hands-on manner.

Bowen Nobles, an 11th-grade student from Norway, and his sister Willow, a seventh-grader, said they were not aware of the observatory but were looking forward to seeing the stars.

Rick Chase, a well-known astronomer in the area who has been teaching the observatory training course since 2001, provided the school with a list of celestial objects the group would be viewing Wednesday night.

Chase developed his interest in astronomy when he was about 6 years old before the first man-made satellite was launched in 1958. He received his first telescope when he was 10 years old to see his first close-up views of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

The Roger Mitchell Observatory on Hooper Ledge Road, which houses the telescope named after George Robey Howe, a Norway naturalist and scientist who died in 1950, is a joint project between the Oxford Hills School District and the Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange.

It is open to the public on the first clear Monday night of every month, September through May, and on occasion for student and other organizational field trips.

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Telescope memorializes noted Norway naturalist

PARIS — The George Robey Howe telescope, which now sits on Paris Hill, began with a 13.5 inch mirror crafted in the 1870s by a New York daily newspaper editor and astronomer.

The newspaper man, H.C. Maine, used the telescope for many years, photographing images of the moon and sun, before giving it to his friend, Alpheus Baker Hervey, in 1894. Hervey was a Universalist minister in Bath and other churches throughout New England and president of St. Lawrence University in New York.

A quarter-of-a-century later, Hervey gifted the telescope to his friend, George Robey Howe, a naturalist and scientist who lived on Pikes Hill in Norway. Newspaper reports at the time said the unexpected gift arrived at the Norway freight office one morning with only one mandate — that the telescope be used for the benefit of local children.

Howe, whom children called “Uncle George,” was also known widely as “the Thoreau of Maine.” It was said that visitors came from all over the world to his stucco-walled home on Pikes Hill with its cement floors and rubber tile roof, to converse with the naturalist and mineralogist. But Howe was not yet well-educated in astronomy and needed help setting up the telescope.

So in 1921, with the help of Stephen Cummings, a wood surveyor and amateur astronomer, and other neighbors, the wood-encased telescope with its 12-foot barrel was set up in a field on Howe’s property. It was mounted on a pipe fitted into the ledge which caused the telescope to occasionally sway in a wind. Children — many from his Adventure Club — often stood by during observations to stable the telescope.

For the next 20 years, children and adults trekked up the almost perpendicular road to the open-air classroom above his house to observe celestial objects through the telescope. Reports at the time said the total solar eclipse of 1932 drew a large crowd to the hilltop observatory.

In the 1940s, several years before Howe died in 1950 at the age of 90, the wooden casing became so weathered from years of being exposed to the elements on top of Pikes Hill that it was dismantled and stored away.

In the 1960s, it was discovered by an Oxford Hills High School teacher in a local church basement where the Men’s Club had hoped to restore it.

By the time the telescope was discovered, it was in need of a new tube, a basin and a equatorial mount, which was ordered from California.

The Oxford Hills High School principal, several students and a Bates professor of astronomy and physics assembled parts of the telescope at a student’s home on Elm Street and made plans to build an observatory.

The observatory walls and dome came to Norway by truck from Illinois and within three days, custodians at the high school assembled and erected the observatory at the southern end of the high school athletic field.

In 1973, the observatory with the telescope was dedicated to Howe. High School physics teacher and Oxford resident Roger Twitchell became its curator.

It was dismantled in 1995 when the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School expanded. It sat in storage for eight years until 2001, when private land on Hooper Ledge Road was donated to reconstruct the observatory and telescope, which was then completely refurbished.

The observatory was dedicated to Twitchell, who retired in 1998 after teaching for almost three decades. The telescope remains a memorial to Howe.

Since 2001, local astronomer Rick Chase has held classes through the Oxford Hills Adult Education, teaching adults how to use the telescope. The observatory is open to the public on the first clear Monday night of every month from September through May.

(Information for this article was gathered through the Lewiston Evening Journal archives and from a history of the observatory and telescope published on the Twitchell Observatory webpage.)

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