Club History


The Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society

A Brief History by Member Phil Plante

The Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society was founded in October of 1939 by sixteen dedicated amateur astronomers. By 1949 the club had built a telescope that used a 16 inch diameter primary mirror. This mirror was ground and polished by charter member Jack Draper. Jack was an expert at making telescope optics. At the time, the 16 inch was one of the largest amateur telescopes in the state. This telescope was installed on the farm of member John Hoynos, in Braceville, OH. There was a dedication ceremony held in September of 1949, to commemorate the club’s new telescope. The site also served as a much needed central meeting place. Since that time, the location has been the home of the MVAS and its observatory, now called the Mahoning Valley Cortese Observatory.
Photo By Phil Plante

The 16 inch telescope mount stood in the open air and was covered by a tarp when not in use. This served the MVAS well for many years. But, there was always the desire to house the telescope in a proper observatory building. In 1961, under the direction of member Bernie Cortese, dedicated members began construction on the new observatory. By late summer of 1962 the 16 inch was in it’s new home. The telescope is mounted under a 14 foot diameter dome. There is an elevator floor around the pier, allowing one to reach the eyepiece in relative comfort. On Sep. 29, 1962, then Ohio Gov. Michael DiSalle attended a special dedication ceremony for the new Mahoning Valley Observatory (MVO) 16 inch building. By 1964 a second building was completed next to the 16 inch building. Constructed of metal, this building housed a refracting telescope with an 8 inch diameter lens. The lens was also made by Draper. An 8 inch lens is still considered a large size for a refracting telescope. The metal building featured a roll-off roof, which provided a panoramic view of the night sky when opened. Both telescopes have clock drives that allow them to track celestial objects as they move across the sky. Over the years, many MVAS members and countless visitors have enjoyed the views through these two telescopes.

After 36 years of use, the metal building for the 8″ began to show its age. In the summer of 2001, a new team of dedicated members replaced the old metal structure with a new wooden building. It incorporated the same roll-off roof from the original building. Using the 8 inch refractor under the open sky remains a favorite choice for many members.

In 2002, the name of the observatory was changed to honor the late Bernie Cortese. Many had helped in building that first building in 1961 but Bernie had become the spearhead for the project. For decades to follow, Bernie was always there, taking care of the MVO. In tribute to his long standing efforts, the observatory is now called Mahoning Valley Cortese Observatory (MVCO). A 25 inch telescope project was started by Cortese in 1971. By the mid 1980’s interest in the 25 inch had faded and the project went on hold for ten years. Interest was rekindled in the mid 90’s. The 25″ telescope was completed as a Dobsonian telescope in the summer of 2005. It was named “Titan” and currently shares observing space with the 8 inch telescope. Also in the summer of 2005, the MVAS purchased a 10 inch Meade SCT telescope with the possibility to do deep sky CCD imaging. In early 2006, the MVAS received a 12.5 inch Meade Newtonian telescope from Lake View High School. During spring and summer of 2006, a new building was constructed to accommodate these two new telescopes. The 10 inch is pier-mounted outside, with a surrounding deck. The 12.5 inch is in the building, and under a roll-off roof. A small operation center is adjacent to the 12.5 inch room. This small “ops center” has the computer controls for the 10 inch and for a radio telescope. The MVAS is now well equipped to handle almost any type observation. Whether it be recreational observing or research driven, observers are welcome at the MVCO.

What Does MVAS Do?

Over the years members of the MVAS have used the MVCO to conduct astronomical observations of variable stars, lunar occultations and solar system objects. These observation are often affiliated with major amateur organizations such as the AAVSO, ALPO and IOTA. These efforts help scientists further our understanding of the universe. In August of 2003, the MVAS hosted the annual meeting of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO). Top amateur and professional astronomers from the U.S. and Asia attended this conference. Results from the latest in solar system research and new observing and imaging techniques were shared with attendees.

In recent years, many members of MVAS have become involved with astrophotography.  The wide variety of targets imaged have helped stimulate public interest in astronomy.  Examples of these efforts can be found in the Gallery section of this website.

The MVAS has a program of educating the general public about the wonders of astronomy. Stargazing during special “open house nights” at the MVCO had been popular events in the past. Since 1991, the MVAS has mainly conducted its public observing sessions at Scenic Vista Park in Columbiana County, just west of Lisbon, OH. Scenic Vista Park offers skies dark enough to provide the best views of galaxies and nebulae and has a wide open area suitable for large crowds. The MVAS has recently expanded its public outreach to events at Boardman Park, Mill Creek Park, Austintown Community Park and the campus of YSU.

At public stargazes, MVAS members often inform the attendees of the harmful environmental damage, economic and energy waste and certain human health issues resulting from light pollution. This is a problem that afflicts many areas of the U.S. It is a growing world-wide problem as well. Once just the bane of astronomers, light pollution is now considered an important issue by many city, county and state governments. Light pollution means wasted energy, and wasted money. There is a growing trend, world-wide, to combat light pollution. Many in the MVAS belong to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and we can show you how to get involved in the efforts of the IDA, to control light pollution.


As you drive down into the observatory compound, you’ll see the original main observatory building with its dome. This one has the 16 inch telescope. The building to the north of it was completed in 2001. It houses the 8” refractor and 25” DOB. East of the 16” building is a new structure, completed in the summer of 2006. It houses a 12.5” reflector under a roll-off roof and out on the deck is a computer controlled 10” SCT. There is also a radio telescope, with controls in the new “ops center” of this building.

If you arrive at the MVCO after dark please use parking lights only. Bright headlights will ruin the night vision of those that are already observing. If you have binoculars or a telescope feel free to bring them. Please note that you will only be able to view through the MVCO scopes if a qualified MVAS member is present to operate the telescopes. We hope to see you soon. Thank you.

Jack Draper, Founding Member of the MVAS, 1882-1967

John W. Draper was born on November 19, 1882 in Warren, OH- son of Emory and Eliza Rex Draper. His was a pioneer Warren family, and in fact the street Draper SE in Warren was named after the family. Jack Draper resided in Warren his entire life. In his younger years he was a self-employed plumber and later worked for the Folsom Sporting Goods Store. He first became interested in astronomy when he was about ten years of age. His father had bought him an inexpensive refractor of 1″ diameter. It was not a good scope but the views of the lunar craters left a lasting impression in young Jack. Around 1908, John E. Mellish, a Wisconsin born amateur astronomer, had written a brief article on grinding telescope mirrors. Mellish had three comet discoveries to his credit. This notoriety eventually lead to an invitation to spend the summer on the Yerkes Observatory staff in 1915. Jack was inspired and tried out the technique by grinding a curve into a piece of glass. To his surprise, Jack was able to duplicate the efforts of Mellish. It was at this time that the “bug” bit him. Jack wrote to Mr. Mellish for further information but didn’t receive an answer for nearly five years. During this time, Jack was busy courting his wife Bessie. They were married in 1911. Soon Jack sent for a 6″ glass and began grinding. Not sure of just how to proceed, he ended up grinding it too deep. He had to send for a second glass since he didn’t know how to correct the first glass. He finally got his first mirror done in 1914. This included silvering the mirror, which any TM had to learn how to do back then. Ah. . . the good old days.

As this first mirror neared completion, he received a letter from Mellish and was surprised to find that Mr. Mellish would be stationed at, and in charge of, the Harrold Observatory at Leetonia, OH. While in Ohio, Mellish also established an optical shop and began making telescopes. Being less than 40 miles away, Jack wasted no time in getting there to get acquainted with Mellish. They become very good friends for several years while Mellish was in Leetonia. Jack said that Mr. Mellish was never very willing to part with his “trade secrets” as far as optical work went. It was too important to the professional opticians at the time. Mellish was helpful in other ways, however, and ordered the first 16″ blank for Jack around 1918 or 1919. During cold pressing (during the polishing stage) the 16″ mirror fell and broke. Jack ordered another blank and eventually made an F/8 Newtonian from the second blank. This instrument gave bright views but after a while, Jack felt it didn’t give enough magnification. So, in the late 20s or early 30s Jack decided to re-make the mirror into a Cassegrain type telescope. The mirror was only 1-3/4 inches thick- much too thin for a proper thickness cassegrain mirror. To increase the mirror’s thickness, Jack got a 1″ thick disk of glass that matched the diameter of the mirror. He ground grooves into the glass to produce 1″ square facets on the surface. Next he ground the facets so that they fit the back surface of the 16″ mirror. He cemented the two together with a special cement called gyptalak. He then re-ground, polished, and figured the 16″ mirror so that it had a 90″ focal length. He then made the cassegrain secondary mirror. He used the Hindle Test to figure the secondary mirror which involved making a 10-1/4″ spherical mirror of 25″ focal length with a central hole cut into it. All of this work eventually lead to the first MVAS 16″ Cassegrain.

Over the years Jack had made many telescopes which included five 10″ Cassegrains, the 16-1/4″ MVAS Cassegrain, many 4 to six inch refractors and several 8″ refractors. One of the 8″ scopes is the MVAS 8″. In all he made 31 refractors. His test equipment started with a Foucault tester that used a lantern and a pinhole punched into the tin chimney surrounding it. Later he used an acetylene light. When frosted electric bulbs came into existence, he used these with a small prism and condensing lens to focus the light on the pinhole. By 1930, he made a 10″ optical flat to use for testing by the autocollimation method. He also had to separate his own abrasives at first. In later years, commercially available products were used. He was particular about the pitch he used to polish with and developed his own formula. First he melted 1/2 oz. of candilliy wax with 11b. of paraffin. He then melted 1/2 oz, of this mixture into each 2 pounds of tar pitch. Sometimes more or less pitch was necessary to obtain the desired hardness. In the 1940s, he and his friend Charley Prather built a grinding machine and a polishing machine. They used washing machine transmissions and they had controls for stroke length in both directions. Jack said that every lens needed to be hand figured under autocollimation testing before it is properly completed. The fine images given by his telescopes are testament to this fact.

Photo By Phil Plante

In 1939, Jack was a charter member of the Mahoning Valley Astronomical Society. He attended nearly every monthly meeting since the founding of the club. He was well known in the amateur community as one of the most experienced telescope makers of his time. His work was compared to professional opticians such as Fecker, Brashear, Mogey, and Clark. He enjoyed talking shop with other amateurs during “Turnpike” meetings. His favorite telescopic objects were epsilon Lryae (the double-double) and Saturn. He often demonstrated the resolution of his scopes by showing how well it rendered epsilon Lyrae. Friends would often joke that Jack’s telescopes would automatically point to epsilon the minute they were finished. Jack had just completed a 6.3″ refractor and was to show it at the June 24, 1967 OTAA-MVO meeting. That afternoon at 2:07 p.m., Jack died of a heart attack. Since that day, hundreds if not thousands of people have enjoyed the views through Jack’s two telescopes at the MVO. From time to time, epsilon Lyrae is observed with these scopes. On those occasions, Jack Draper’s legacy is renewed.