The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

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The Regionalist: Ohio’s Backyard Scientist
Bill Kauffman - 04/22/09

This self-taught farmboy who sent in meticulous variable-star observations and wrote searching letters to famous astronomers was becoming known far beyond Delphos. The director of the Princeton Observatory sent him a six-inch refractor telescope, with which Leslie would seek out comets, emboldened by a passage in the Beginner’s Star Book: “There is no weighty reason why any amateur astronomer should not be the discoverer of a comet. The requisites are a telescope of low power, large field, and generous illumination; a good store of pertinacity and patience, and a fair knowledge of the constellations.”

Three years of hunting later, on Friday, November 13, 1925, Leslie Peltier, by now a stock clerk in a truck factory, finished his evening chores on the farm, bundled up in a heavy mackinaw, wool cap, and sheepskin gloves, and walked out to his observatory. While sweeping the sky he found a “small round fuzzy something” at the northern end of the constellation Bootes.

“Had I found a new comet or was it only new to me?” he wondered. “Had I merely stumbled onto one that might have been spotted somewhere weeks before?”

Calming himself, Leslie “knew that I must make absolutely certain of everything and then get off a wire to Harvard College Observatory.” He plotted its location, estimated its brightness and rate of motion, prepared a telegraphic message—NINTH MAGNITUDE COMET ONE FIVE TWO FIVE NORTH FORTY FOUR DEGREES RAPID MOTION SOUTH—and ran to the house to call Western Union. The office was closed. The operator informed Leslie that emergency telegrams could be sent from the signal tower at the railway depot, but it had no telephone connection. He would have to drive. Alas, his parents had the car and were out for the evening. So he took his old bicycle out of the garage, and raced several miles through a Delphic darkness, his only company the occasional barking of farm dogs.

Finally he reached the tower, climbed its wooden steps, gave his message to the befuddled telegrapher (“This some sorta code?” “Sorta”) and pedaled home, alternately exuberant with the thrill of discovery and fearful that the haughty Harvardian who received his message would mock him (“I say, here’s a good one, some chap out in Ohio has just found that comet that was reported about six weeks ago!”).

A week later, the town druggist called to read a telegram from Harvard confirming the discovery. With a pride so movingly conveyed that only an automaton will not feel his heart swell, Leslie carved “Peltier 1925” into the mahogany tube of his comet-seeker. There would be eleven more comets over the years. How much more inspiriting this achievement is than that of a later small-town Ohio boy, Neil Armstrong, who took a multibillion-dollar joyride to the moon.

Leslie Peltier didn’t need taxpayer alms. I like his account of life during the Depression: “[O]nce again I became a full-time farmer. . . . Here on the farm life went on, basically, much as before. Turtlelike, we simply withdrew a bit into the shelter of our shell and waited.” Their waiting should not be mistaken for torpor. Leslie and his doughty wife Dottie swam in the river, hiked, hunted fossils, cooked over a campfire, and watched the stars, which neither poverty nor tyranny could blot from the empyrean.

Starlight Nights limns a life spent among the stars, or “wandering aimlessly about the moon,” yet Peltier’s feet are always planted in Ohio earth. His love of Delphos is honest and generous. He does not approve of all he sees (as when, for instance, during the hysteria of World War One “some of the town’s respected citizens caught the vigilante virus and forced their bewildered [German] neighbors to publicly kiss the flag.”) Over the years Peltier and his observatory hosted thousands of schoolchildren. He and Dottie were “variously involved in church affairs, in Eastern Star, in garden clubs, and in a devious maze of Cub Scout work.” They were citizens of their place, ordinary yet extraordinary, as famous astronomers made pilgrimages to Delphos to meet its resident high-school dropout with his Argus eye on the sky.

Like Thoreau, Leslie Peltier traveled widely in his own backyard. One of his few ventures outside Delphos was a charmingly described honeymoon trip he and Dottie took in the Southwest, camping their way across America while hunting gravestone epitaphs and rare minerals and spelunking in “old Indian caves.” As a patriot of a place, he did not disdain other places: he loved them not in spite of their differences but because they were different, all part of this beautifully variegated world of which he and Delphos were a vital part.

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