Small group of volunteers care for Wilkinson observatory – The Shaunavon Standard

The Eastend Astronomical Club includes a small group of dedicated volunteers.

Its members are comprised of Deb and Sig Giverhaug, Lineke Breen, Roland Bear and Joan Hodgins.

The group has been instrumental in maintaining the observatory and keeping it up and running.

The Wilkinson Memorial Observatory is located just southwest of Eastend, along the Red Coat Trail Highway 13.

The observatory features a Celestron Ultima 11” 2800 mm focal length telescope, eye pieces ranging from 40 mm to 10.5 mm and various filters.

The unique facility was the brainchild of Jack Wilkinson, an Eastend blacksmith and machinist who had developed a keen interest in astronomy in the late 1940s.

Jack eventually started building his own telescopes. His first effort was a 4” refractor. Next came a 6” and then an 8” reflecting telescope, for which Jack hand ground his own lenses. He also built mouldings for both telescopes. For the 6”, he used the crank case of an old aircraft engine. For the 8”, he used an old steam boiler. Finally, Jack designed and built gear trains to make the telescopes accurately track the motion of the stars.

At first, the 8” telescope sat in Jack’s machine shop and people would often drop by for a chat and maybe a peak at the rings of Saturn or the craters on the moon.

But Jack wanted the real thing, and he enlisted his neighbours to help build a small observatory. When Jack died in 1953, the town kept up the observatory and renamed it the Wilkinson Memorial Observatory. It opened to the public in 1955. Since then, it has been offering residents and visitors a closer look at the skies.

For one member of the Eastend Astronomical Club, Sig Giverhaug, the effort to maintain the facility has become a labour of love.

When he moved back to the community several years ago, he made the observatory a personal priority.

For starters, Sig helped replace the dome’s shutter, which had become almost impossible to move. In fact, the shutter problem was so serious that the observatory had become all but unusable.

“The first year was definitely a struggle,” admitted Deb. “We had to replace the dome shutter – put in a new one – because the old one couldn’t be moved.”

Sig also helped install a new automatic tracking system to make the telescope easier to operate.

“Sig remembers as a kid going up to the observatory and looking through the telescopes with Jack (Wilkinson) himself,” explained Deb. “When we moved back here it became his baby. He just didn’t want to see that let go.”

“We’ve been able to get six more years out of (the building),” smiled Sig. “It’s an older building, so there are some problems. The walls aren’t true and the base of the walls are starting to rot out. Every once in a while we have to come out and shim them up a bit.”

“I’d like to see the club grow and get some revenue so that we can say ‘let’s go ahead and put up a new building,”’ he added. “I would like to see a building like they have at Cypress.”

In the meantime, club members make do, and continue to offer smaller group tours of the facility.

“It’s more of a one-on-one experience,” offered Deb. “For instance, a family of four can come up here and basically have the observatory to themselves with the volunteer guides. We also do an outside tour with them.”

“It’s a lot of fun – we make it fun,” she continued. “The first view of the moon for someone is incredible. You can see it with binoculars – and you can get a pretty good outline of it, but to actually see it through a telescope is amazing. To see the rings on Saturn and then to see the moons on Venus, and realize what you are actually looking at and how far away they are is mind boggling. And to be able to share that with people – especially kids – is very rewarding.”

Deb and Sig earned a true appreciation for the astronomical opportunities that Eastend had to offer after spending a number of years living in a city environment.

“The night time sky here is spectacular,” she stated. “We had very poor visibility in Calgary of the night time sky and you had to drive miles out of the city just to catch a glimpse of a meteor shower. We are so fortunate in this area, but we take too many things for granted that are right at our fingertips.”

Deb is fully aware of the potential the local observatory, and the Southwest in general, has for drawing astronomy enthusiasts from across North America and beyond.

“There are all these possibilities that we have,” she commented. “The biggest thing, though, is maintaining this building which is now over 50 years old. It’s been challenging to look after, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.”

“My goal is to get some of the school kids involved,” said Sig. “I think kids would be really excited to get involved and that will only help the future of the club and the future of the observatory.”

Small group of volunteers care for Wilkinson observatory – The Shaunavon Standard.

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