Saturday, June 23, 2012



                                                 COPYRIGHT 2012 RICHARD TAIBI

An undated portrait of Mr. Wetherbee.  Image courtesy of his great granddaughter, Kathleen Ausman, who kindly furnished all the images in this biography.

Weston Wetherbee (1857-1932) lived his entire life, raised a family and observed the skies from New York State’s Orleans County.  The county is just south of Lake Ontario and due west of Rochester, N.Y.  His great granddaughter, Kathleen Ausman, informed me that Wetherbee was a Seneca Indian and had been a public servant for many years of his life.  She sent me his paragraph-long autobiography.  In it, Wetherbee wrote that he was born January 24, 1857 and was named after his father.  The 1880 U.S. census showed that he listed “carpenter” as his occupation.  He married Julia Goff in 1881 and the couple had a son, Harrison, in 1884. An 1892 newspaper clipping provided by Helen Mathes, Town of Barre historian, reported that Wetherbee had developed a thriving windmill manufacturing business.  The article also provided a thumbnail personality sketch of  him, reporting that he had a genial and honest personality and was a skilled mechanic.  He continued to manufacture windmills until 1900 because he described himself as a “windmill agent” in the United States Census of that year.  His autobiography stated that he served as a Justice of the Peace and a town supervisor all before 1900. In 1904, he was elected sheriff of Orleans County and served for three years.  So Wetherbee was an industrious, entrepreneurial, civic-minded man who led an active role in his community.  

We can glean something more of Wetherbee’s personality from the meteor observations he published in Popular Astronomy.  These writings, and others' references to him, began in 1897 and continued until 1922.  In the following 1899 quote, from his report to Popular Astronomy, it is clear that the man had a poetic flair.  In this excerpt, he describes the fate of space debris that he saw when it became a brilliant fireball meteor in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“(ordinary meteors are) so sudden and startling, almost paralyze the senses with feelings of wonder and fear, they are hardly seen before they vanish, (in) marked contrast to this seemingly tired and weary wanderer, from the unknown depths of infinity space, wasting his substance in our atmosphere, only to plunge again into the deep mysterious abyss of the future, or be reduced to star dust by coming in contact with other worlds.”

Wetherbee first published short reports of fireballs he saw in the early evenings of 1897 and 1898.  Then he published star chart drawings of Leonid meteors he saw in 1898 and 1899.  His Leonid observations emphasized how serious a meteor student he was and how enthusiastic he was to contribute to Popular Astronomy's meteor study program.  He also kept Popular Astronomy readers apprised of Perseid observations after the turn of the 20th century.  In a 1905 article to the magazine, we learn that he made an effort to locate the place in the sky, called a radiant, where August's Perseid meteors emanate.  His wife, Julia, assisted him in recording the meteors’ paths on a star chart.  He wrote, “Meteoric Astronomy is a fascinating study and one to which I have given much attention of late years.”

Wetherbee revealed that he used an eight-and-a-half inch reflecting telescope, made by Brashear.  It appears that he explored lunar craters and mountain chains with it, according to a February 1899 letter he wrote to Popular Astronomy.  On November 16 and 17, 1899, he attached a wide-angle camera with a 5X7-inch photographic plate to his telescope in hopes of capturing a meteor trail.  Unfortunately, no Leonids appeared for him to photograph.

In 1911, a 15-year old Chicago amateur, Frederick C. Leonard, proposed the formation of an international amateur-led organization, Society for Practical Astronomy (SPA).  Further, he promised that the Society's Monthly Register would be used to publish members' observations.  He asked amateurs and professionals to join him in the SPA.  In a 1912 Popular Astronomy article, Leonard published the names of observers who had volunteered to lead various interest sections in the SPA. The list revealed that Wetherbee had volunteered to lead the comets section. 

A series of dramatic and bright comets appeared in the 1908-1910 time period and may explain why Wetherbee was lured away from meteors as a primary interest.  In 1908, a nearly-naked eye comet, Morehouse, made astronomical headlines by repeated separations of its tail from the rest of the comet.  Published photographs by Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923) showed the disconnections very clearly.  Then, in January 1910, astronomers were taken by surprise by the unexpected appearance of a first magnitude comet, later called the “January Comet.”  1910 continued to be an extraordinary cometary year because Halley’s Comet returned in May and the earth approached so closely that the comet's tail spanned the night sky.  Wetherbee can be excused for straying from meteors when, like many of the public, he was swept away by the siren call of bright comets.  We can imagine him using his eight-inch reflector to follow these comets and perhaps wanting to discover his own.

Wetherbee must have continued his astronomical studies after 1912.  As many observers do, he migrated to a new subject for observation: stars whose brightnesses varied cyclically, called variable stars.  In his monthly report for February 1921, Howard Eaton of the American Association of Variable Star Observers wrote that “W. Wetherbee, Albion, N.Y.” was elected to membership in the society.  Wetherbee was 64 years old in 1921. However, he may not have been an active member very long because he is not mentioned in the AAVSO’s 1924 or 1926 annual summaries of members’ activities.

Wetherbee poses with a refractor telescope. The telescope is similar to a model made by Alvan Clark and Sons, a famous telescope maker.  Date of the image is unknown.
       Wetherbee stands at the door of his observatory.  Image date unknown.

Weston Wetherbee died October 18, 1932 according to an Orleans County genealogical website. Wetherbee's passion for astronomy may have been in his genes because his son Harrison’s obituary revealed that the son inherited his father’s interests.  His 1942 obituary reported that he enjoyed exploring the skies with a telescope, just as his father had done.

Today, aside from his publications, there is little that remains to declare Wetherbee’s interest in astronomy except a photograph that Ms. Ausman has showing him with a refracting telescope and another of his observatory.  Wetherbee's 1933 death notice in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada reported that he donated his 8-and-a-half-inch reflector telescope to the RASC in 1904.  The fate of the refractor is unknown.  
Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi

First written May 1, 2006.  Revisions and additional material added June 23, 2012.


The author wishes to thank Kathleen Ausman and Helen Mathes for their contributions to this biography.  The details they contributed provided a more complete portrait of this amateur astronomer.


Chant, C.A., "Death of Weston Weatherbee", Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol.27, 1933, p. 46.

Eaton, H., “Monthly Report of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, February 20-March 20, 1921”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 30, May 1922, p. 305.

Leonard, F. C., “The Society for Practical Astronomy: An Appeal to Amateur Astronomers”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 20, October 1912, pp. 525-528, especially p. 526.

Wetherbee, W., “October Meteors”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 5, December 1897, p. 444.

Wetherbee, W., “A Large Meteor”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 6, August 1898, p. 365.

Wetherbee, W., “The Leonid Meteor Shower, at Barre Center, N.Y.”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 6, December, 1898, pp.575-577 and p. 586.

Wetherbee, W., “Bright Meteor”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 7, March 1899, p. 168.

Wetherbee, W., “Leonids at Barre Center, N.Y.”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 8, January 1900, pp. 17-19.

Wetherbee, W., “Radiant of Perseid Shower”, Popular Astronomy, vol. 13, March 1905, pp. 167-168.

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi

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