With the stroke of a pen the fate of Prairiehill Farm Observatory in Grinnell (http://www.prairiehillfarmiowa.com) was sealed...almost. Should I let the building become a garden shed for the new property owners or should I relocate it to our new home near Colfax? My wife will tell you that I waffled back and forth about whether or not to leave the observatory building behind or move it. I’ve been feeling a bit cramped in the 6 foot Home Dome and viewed this as an opportunity to jump to a larger dome or a roll-off roof observatory. I considered building a totally new observatory or putting a larger dome on the existing structure. During the analysis I came across a wonderful web page assembled by Bill Arnett titled “Amateur Astronomical Observatories” at http://obs.nineplanets.org/obs/obslist.html and was impressed by the possible designs. I encourage you all to browse his web page. In the final tally I had a fine sturdy structure already. It is tailored to a 9 foot tall steel pier that has served me well. I can replace the dome or convert to a roll-off some other time. There were also financial considerations as the Grinnell acreage was not yet sold. In the end I decided the observatory would be relocated too. Now, all I needed was a plan of action and who better to consult than the original brain trust.
Bryan Healy (of Newton) designed and fabricated the steel pier back in 2002 and orchestrated its installation working with Larry Ashing of Grinnell. Both were eager to help out this time as well. If you’d like to read a detailed description of how I built the building please see Observatory Construction. The building’s subfloor rests on 4—4x6” posts set vertically into the ground. In 2002 I backfilled the holes with sand in the “unlikely” event I would ever need to move the building. Two sets of 2x10” headers are attached to the posts and support the subfloor. These headers were critical to Bryan’s plan which required inserting and fastening the 4x6” posts with carriage bolts between the headers to extend their reach beyond the hip roof overhangs. The beams would act as lift points for Larry’s crane. Bryan also suggested support to counter any lateral stress during the lift so 4x4” posts were fastened perpendicular to the lift points. During the preparation effort I disassembled the Home Dome and transferred it with my pickup to Colfax. Finally in early September it was time to call Larry. Then it began to rain. And rain some more. Over a period of weeks we received several inches of rain. There were a couple missed opportunities but progress effectively halted pending dryer and harder ground for Larry’s heavy crane. At long last on November 1, we managed to tackle the next phase.
I had planned to have the building freed from its perch so that it could be transferred to Colfax by a local shed moving service. Bryan called me early that day and asked if he should bring his car trailer along. I was a bit skeptical that we could transfer a 10x10 foot building on a car trailer but I’ve learned over the years not to underestimate Bryan. “Sure I said…”, but continued wondering how it would work. Of course living in the country all these years I’ve seen all sorts of stuff on trailers. Why not my observatory?
Later in Grinnell, Larry arrived but the ground was still soft from yet another heavy rain a few days earlier. He decided to setup his crane near the driveway some 60 feet from the building! Bryan soon arrived with his trailer and we got to work. The first task involved hoisting the heavy sand-filled steel telescope pier out of the building. We dumped the sand and lowered it into the bed of the pickup. You can see more pictures and read more about the original pier installation. Next up was the lifting of the building itself. Larry and Bryan setup the crane with a spreader-bar to avoid pinching or otherwise stressing the building frame during the lift. There was a chance that the headers supporting the lift points might give way. We were pretty sure things would hold. How heavy could that little building be anyway? I unfortunately was too full of adrenalin to remember picture taking but I did get a few shots after Larry managed to successfully raise the building without incident. He later estimated the load at 4000 lbs!
With the building in the air someone had to crawl under it with a chainsaw and cut off the posts. After Bryan carefully inspected the rig I volunteered, grabbed my chainsaw and got into position to start my cuts. After a few seconds of grinding I realized my chainsaw’s chain was on backwards (how embarrassing!). Bryan had brought his along so we were quickly back on schedule.
Bryan directed Larry to swing the building over the car trailer to size it up the fit. He seemed satisfied that it was an acceptable load and could be transported on the trailer. The building’s width extended over the wheel fenders so we stacked wood supports under the headers, then lowered the load onto the trailer. It was ready for the road but daylight had run out. That was okay as we had no idea at that point what back country route would get it to Colfax. I bid the guys farewell for the day. I would spend another hour or so cleaning up what was left of Prairiehill Farm Observatory.
I still get choked up thinking about it. Strangely enough my most memorable experience there had nothing to do with astronomy. While I was observing one evening, my wife yelled out to me, “Gary! Your Dad is on the telephone.” I trotted in with my red light swinging around my neck to learn he was terminally ill. My Dad and Mom have always been my biggest fans as I pursued my astronomy interests. I’ve often thought of that phone call and how odd it was that I was observing at the time. For sure my Dad would have enjoyed this story. There were many happier memories such as lining up kids from 4-20 years old to see Saturn and the Orion Nebula. Or finding invisible comets stretching across several degrees of sky, supernovae, the planet Pluto (at least it was a planet when I found it), and the phenomenal sight of the Milky Way’s spiral arms stretching across Iowa’s skies. But Prairiehill Farm Observatory was only the most recent chapter of my astronomy hobby. The next chapter is just beginning I hope. We still need to find that route to Colfax and figure out how to get that building off the trailer once there. Stay tuned...
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