University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Durbin, Elizabeth (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 26, Number 1 (December 1979)

Thompson, Paul
The boy astronomer of Cottage Grove,   pp. 34-40

Page 34

The boy astronomer of Cottage Grove
                                         by Paul Thompson
I n 1970, the magazine Sky and Telescope noted the
death of "one of the most successful amateur hunters of
comets in America."
  The passing of John Edward Mellish at the age of 84
in a nursing home in Meford, Oregon, marked the end
of a little-known but interesting chapter in Wisconsin
astronomy. Mellish attracted national attention in the
early part of this century as the "boy astronomer of
Cottage Grove" who discovered comet after comet.
  He was born on January 12, 1886, and grew up on his
grandfather's farm three miles south of the village of
Cottage Grove. His grandfather, Benjamin Stimson, was
a pioneer resident of the township. Born in Vermont in
1829, Stimson was six when his family moved to Ohio,
where they remained until 1849, when they moved to
Wisconsin. He came to Cottage Grove at the age of 20.
  One of Stimson's daughters, Sedora, married an
English immigrant, Arthur Mellish, who settled on the
farm with his wife. Three years after their son John was
born, they had a daughter, May.
  An 1895 agricultural census recorded that the Stim-
son farm consisted of 41 acres of land, including 9 acres
of corn, 6 of oats, and a half acre of potatoes. The rest
must have been pasture for the livestock and woodland.
The census recorded 5 head of cattle, 3 draft animals
and 2 "milch cows."
  It was an era of kerosene lamps, outdoor privies,
water pumped by hand and travel by buggy or bicycle.
Hard work and fearing God was the code by which
farmers lived. Education was a luxury many couldn't af-
ford. John Mellish attended only grade school.
  "All his life has been spent on the farm, doing the
hard work that is the portion of every country boy," the
Wisconsin State Journal reported when John Mellish's
first comet discovery drew attention to him. "His educa-
tion has been limited to what he received in the district
school and what he learned unaided by any teacher in
the moments he could snatch from his work."
  His interest in astronomy began in 1902 at age 16
when he bought or was given a little spy glass. He used
it at first to look at distant objects in the landscape, and
then he turned it on the moon and stars, but the glass
was too weak to see anything.
  He bought a $4 telescope advertised in the newspaper
and turned it on the moon, where he was surprised to
see streaks (probably lunar rays) and "wavy things that
looked like flames," he told a reporter later. Finding the
instrument inadequate, the teenager earned money by
helping an uncle who was a carpenter. He bought a $16
telescope, a two-inch refractor. "With it, I was able to
see many new stars and, I tell you, I was happy then."
  During this time, he was reading everything he could
lay his hands on about astronomy. He soon yearned for
a more powerful instrument. "I wanted so much to see
some of those stars the books told of, stars that were out
of reach of my little instrument."
  About this time, he read a book on telescope making
and determined to make one himself. He sent to Chicago
for two glass disks six inches in diameter and spent the
winter grinding a mirror. We can picture him working
by the window or by yellow kerosene light, moving one
disk over the other with emery powder in between,
gradually creating a convex surface on the lower glass
and the desired concave surface on the upper. By
spring, he had a six-inch concave disk that could be
silvered to make the mirror he needed to construct a
reflecting telescope.
  His telescope attracted the attention of the
neighborhood, and many visitors came to look through
34/Wisconsin Academy Review/December 1979

Go up to Top of Page