Images of the heavens harvested at century-old farm in Fremont

May 6, 2011

The Steven F. Wessling Observatory is home to an amateur astronomer group called the Newaygo Country Dark Sky Astronomers, which runs private and public observing sessions throughout the year. The observatory frequently hosts school groups from around the area, allowing children to view the heavens in ways that seem beyond belief.

From the observatory site, there is a nearly unobstructed view of the sky from horizon to horizon. Far from any type of city lights, the location is very dark, allowing visitors to see the sky as never before.

The observatory proper seems almost disguised as a pole barn. But this is no ordinary pole barn. When the conditions are right, the roof of the large structure is rolled off to the south by a large motor and cable mechanism, so the telescopes inside can be aimed at favorite objects in the sky.

Steven F. Wessling is the founder and president of the Newaygo County Dark Sky Astronomers and the prime mover behind the observatory. He is a very energetic and enthusiastic man, working full-time in his retirement to develop the observatory that bears his name and doing outreach programs for K-12 schools across southwest Lower Michigan.

During a recent visit, Wessling described to me the history of the observatory property.

County records show that, in 1895, Levi Kropscott purchased 80 acres of land at Stone and Basline roads outside of Fremont for $1,600. Levi and his wife, Anna, and two daughters farmed the land until 1912, when the family moved to Hamilton, where Levi worked as a carpenter while the farm was rented and tended by a hired man.

In 1915, during World War I, the Kropscott family returned to the farm, a place where Levi felt would be a better learning ground for his then 2-year-old son, Earle.

Fast-forward to 1926, the Kropscotts purchased an additional 80 acres across Baseline Road for the family, and Earle was granted ownership of the original farm. Earle was attending Fremont High School.

Earle Kropscott attended Hope College and worked off the farm, much of the time for Dow Chemical — until his retirement in 1976 when he and his wife, Mildred, moved back home. The farm produced crops, was explored for oil, and timber was periodically harvested to fund special family projects.

Then, in 1995, after 100 years in the family, Earle and Mildred offered the land to the Newaygo Soil and Water Conservation District, hoping that the people of Newaygo County and its many visitors can enjoy the rich resources of farm and forest that exist at the Kropscott Farm.

Soon after, Wessling began work on the observatory.

The observatory is formally owned and operated by the Newaygo Conservation District and run by the Newaygo County Dark Sky Astronomers, with grants and donations from private citizens and area organizations — such as the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Fremont Area Community Foundation, Gerber Foundation and the Amazing X Foundation.

The observatory is open to the public frequently. A schedule of events for the coming months is available at the observatory website: www.swfobservatory.org.

Of particular interest is an event to be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Dogwood Center for Performing Arts in Fremont. It will feature a showing by renowned astrophotographer Terry Hancock of some of his best astrophotography. More information is available about this event at www.dogwoodcenter.com.

— By Doug Furton, a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions to dgf@inbox.com. An archive of some of his “What’s up” columns is available online at gegenschein.wordpress.com.

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