A Look at the Veen Observatory

The James C. Veen Observatory on Kissing Rock Road is a hidden treasure located in Lowell Township.  Tucked away in a quiet location, area astronomers are able to look at distant objects and converse with others who have a love for observing the night sky.  Twice a month the observatory is open for Public Nights giving everyone the opportunity to view see objects in space through various telescopes.

James C. Veen, Sr. Photo courtesy of the Veen family.

The Veen Legend
The James C. Veen Observatory is named after one of the co-founders and first President of the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association (GRAAA) which was formed in 1955.  He passed away in a car accident in 1958 before the observatory came to be but his love of astronomy lives on through the observatory and his children and grandchildren.  “Many people have their names on buildings, but how special it is to see my grandfather’s on the observatory. He would be so excited by the opportunity to see the heavens as they can be seen at this gem in Lowell!” says Claudia Nightengale, one of Veen’s grandchildren.  

Nightengale grew up mainly in the East Lansing area.  After marrying she and her husband lived in Montana and Colorado.  Upon retiring the two wanted to move back to Michigan.  During a trip to Lowell and a meal at Keiser’s she asked an employee how to get to the Veen Observatory.  As a child she had been there for the opening but could not remember the exact location.  Directions and a phone call led to the then GRAAA President giving her a tour of the observatory.  “Such a vibrant town, with all the trails, rivers and lakes (we love to kayak!), beautiful library, the Showboat and free concerts, LowellArts, so many tasty dining options, not to mention the fine observatory, Lowell truly is a great place to be!” says Nightengale of the decision to call Lowell home.  

Construction of the observatory in 1968. Photo taken by Dave DeBruyn, GRAAA President.

James C. Veen III says his late father, James Jr. has said James Sr. loved to read and was a fan of Mark Twain.  James III wonders if this was the link to his grandfather’s fascination as a child with Halley’s Comet of 1910.  According to Wikipedia Twain was born shortly after the comet was in orbit closest to the sun.  Twain later died two days after the next time the comet came closest to the sun.   James III has also heard stories of his namesake sleeping during the day and stargazing at night during a business trip to Europe on a transatlantic liner.  According to journals kept by his wife, James C. Veen, Sr. would show off the stars as the two were courting in the early 1900s.   

His youngest daughter, Carolyn Hart remembers her father spending time in the basement where a telescope lens would be ground and smoothed from time to time.  She also recalls the apron he worn while working on it..  “My memories – getting hauled out of bed at the cottage, over daddy’s shoulder, to the end of the dock to view stars and eclipses.  I’m sure my response was a grunt and ‘uh huh’.” Hart says remembering her dad’s love of astronomy.

Many of Veen’s grandchildren remember trips down to the dock for nighttime viewing on a lake in Interlocken.  He made a small telescope for one grandchild.  Another recalls, “He also said that in the big dipper’s handle there is a smaller second star next to the one at the top of the curve and if you can see that, you do not need eye glasses.”  

The Facility
Veen along with Evelyn Grebel formed an astronomy club in 1955.  Grebel was the curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum working on various programs for the establishment.  In the early days of the GRAAA members would convene at what was called Bird Hill.  It was one of the highest points in the area which was also in a dark location making looking out into space much easier.  Not so dark now, this spot is in the area where Celebration North is located on East Beltline.  

In the mid-60s Jim and Evelyn Marron became involved with GRAAA.  They donated 18 acres of their land on Kissing Rock to be used for the building an observatory.  The club was given access rights to the land by paying a $1/year fee on a 100 year lease.  When construction began in 1965 Jim Marron was the president of GRAAA.  

After five years the facility was complete.  Members, and visitors with some help, are able to use the three mounted telescopes at the observatory.  Through ongoing support and a grant from the Lowell Community Foundation an equipment upgrades occurred in the early to mid 2000s.   

Veen Observatory at night. Photo taken by Kevin Jung, GRAAA member and officer.

Observing the Night Sky
Currently Public Nights are held at the observatory from 9:30-midnight twice a month.  Visitors can see various objects in the sky and learn about astronomy from GRAAA members.  During each event 10-12 members set up their own telescopes and share their excitement for astronomy.  The cost for adults is $3, 17 and younger is $2, and those under 5 are free.  On any given night 100-150 people participate in Public Night events.  Public observing nights are great for people of all ages.  All that is needed is an interest in astronomy or curiosity about the night sky.  Who knows, it may lead to a love for the topic.  The next Public Night viewing is Saturday, June 3 weather permitting.  There is an approximately ¼ mile walk from the parking area to the facility.  If you are in need of assistance you can notify the parking attendant.  Make sure to bring a flashlight to help guide you along the path as the area is kept dark to preserve the best viewing atmosphere.

Group tours are also available.  Church, school, or other organizations are invited for an evening of private education and viewing.  These events are available mid-March through mid-November.  Tours are one and a half to two hours in duration and cost $50 for up to 30 people, although the best experience is when groups are fewer than 20 individuals.  

In addition to being able to view astronomical objects the observatory is also home of an extensive library and audio-visual equipment used for presentations for GRAAA members as well as guests during Public Nights.  

Large telescopes are used to view objects in the night sky. Photo taken by Jeff Dickerman, GRAAA officer.

GRAAA is a non-profit organization with no paid employees.  Working with the Grand Rapids Public Museum as a collaborating agency and supporting partner GRAAA continues to look at the future of the observatory.  Through a sustainability campaign monies are being raised to purchase 12 of the 18 acres where the observatory is located.  Thanks to  grants from the Lowell Cable TV Fund, Look Memorial Fund, and the Estate of James C. Veen, Jr. nearly enough has been raised for the purchase.  

During construction of the facility much of the material and money needed was donated by GRAAA members and supporters.  In kind work was also donated.  This type of need continues today.  If you are or know of anyone willing to donate materials or time in an area of expertise there’s a good chance GRAAA can use the resources.  

GRAAA also hopes to raise money to expand and install a handicap restroom as well as make it easier for elderly and guests with disabilities to explore the facility.  Current GRAAA President Dave DeBruyn is an amateur astronomer who was hooked at looking at the sky at the age of 12.  His hope is for GRAAA to provide public education of astronomy, especially serving the underprivileged.  

Veen Observatory during the day. Photo taken by Jeff Dickerman, GRAAA officer.

Membership for GRAAA is over 130 strong but there’s always room for more.  A dedicated core group volunteer time for upkeep of the facility, provide public education, and do research.  This is encompassed in the club’s Mission Statement, “To promote community interest and participation in astronomy through outreach, education and research.” as provided on the group’s website.  Donations and membership information can be found on their website.

In conclusion, a group of astronomy lovers forming a club has come along way over 60 years.  Starting with a love of what can be seen in the night sky to building a facility for promotion of education and research the Lowell community is fortunate to have the James C. Veen Observatory.  “What a thrill it is to see Grandpa’s name on the entrance sign to the Observatory! It’s such an honor and brings back so many happy memories. He would be so proud of what the GRAAA has accomplished!” says Claudia Nightengale.

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