DELPHOS — Six decades later, Leslie Peltier could still vividly remember the night he met his first love.
Drinking a glass of water in the dark of the kitchen in the family’s home near Scotts Crossing, “I could see the stars shining brightly through the east window before me,” Peltier wrote in his 1965 autobiography “Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer.”
“About halfway up the sky I noticed a little group of stars and pointing to it said to Mother, ‘What’s that?’ Her eyes followed along my outstretched arm; ‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘Those are the Seven Sisters, sometimes they are called the Pleiades.’ This was my first meeting with the stars.”
Five years later, Peltier recalled, “curious and often fearful eyes were turned to the heavens” as two comets made conspicuous appearances. The first, known as 1910a, arrived unexpectedly in January.
“I still have a vivid mental picture of this comet just as I saw it then, through the leafless branches of the young walnut trees near our home,” Peltier wrote. That spring, the “far more spectacular” Halley’s Comet journeyed across the sky, although, Peltier wrote, 1910a left a “more vivid mental image because of the greater impact of a first impression.”
Five years later, a 15-year-old Peltier, who had a young boy’s interest in nature and was acquainted with everything that crawled, flew or grew on the family farm, found his lifetime interest gazing at another May sky. “The night air was soft and warm, there was no moon, and all the brighter stars were shining,” he wrote of that long-ago night. “Something — perhaps it was a meteor — caused me to look up for a moment. Then literally out of that clear sky, I suddenly asked myself: ‘Why do I not know a single one of those stars?’”
With the help of a book from the Delphos Public Library, Peltier would learn the names of those stars and for the next 65 years focus his gaze on the heavens.
“Over nearly a lifetime of stargazing, Leslie Peltier discovered two novae and 12 comets,” columnist Mike Lackey wrote in The Lima News on Sept. 14, 2003, when a historical marker honoring Peltier was unveiled in Delphos. “He recorded 132,000 observations of variable stars as their brightness increased and decreased.”
Born in January 1900 to Stanley and Resa Copus Peltier, he died a little more than 80 years later, never living very far from that farm at Scotts Crossing. Forced to quit high school during World War I to help on the family farm, he later worked as a farmer, as a toy designer for Delphos Bending Co. and served on the city’s library board for 30 years.
But it was what he did after the sun set, while his family slept, that moved Dr. Harlow Shapley in 1934 to proclaim him “the world’s greatest non-professional astronomer.” Shapley, who was a professional astronomer, headed the Harvard Observatory.
Peltier began peering at the heavens in earnest around 1916 when, with $18 he’d earned picking 900 quarts of strawberries on the family farm, he bought a mail-order telescope, which he mounted on a post in a cow pasture. He then joined the American Association of Variable Star Observers and, from his post in the pasture, happily observed these mysterious stars whenever the night was clear.
“I bought a two-inch telescope, the kind the ancient mariners used,” Peltier told the Lima Citizen in August 1959. “I still have it, although it’s only a memento. I bought it in 1916 to observe variable stars for Harvard, which then lent me a four-inch telescope. Princeton followed with the loan of a six-inch instrument.”
Peltier filed monthly reports on variable stars until his death.
“Early in the fall of 1921, Dad decided that I needed an observatory — a regular observatory, dome and all,” Peltier wrote. Built with the help of neighbors, this observatory, too, was located in the cow pasture. It was replaced in 1939 by an observatory that became known as the “merry-go-round’ observatory because it rotated on a carousel track allowing Peltier to follow the stars without moving his telescope.
On Nov. 13, 1925, Peltier “spotted a fuzzy object in the sky,” the Toledo Blade wrote in a Sept. 19, 2003, story. “He bicycled into town to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, where he cabled the Harvard College Observatory about his discovery. A week later he got a telegram back that confirmed it as a previously unknown comet.”
Between 1925 and 1954, Peltier discovered 11 more comets, including one in 1933, the same year he married the former Dottie Nihiser, with whom he raised two sons. In 1936, he discovered comet 1936a or Peltier’s Comet, which brought him worldwide attention.
“Particularly bright at the sighting and visible to the naked eye, the comet will not be visible again for 400 years,” The Lima News noted in an Oct. 28, 1973, story on Peltier. “That comet was discovered, as were all the others, with a six-inch instrument lent to him by Princeton University in 1923. That instrument, housed in a small square dog house sort of building stands only yards from the two-story, domed observatory containing a 12-inch device given him by Miami University in 1959.”
His discoveries made Peltier a reluctant celebrity. “Citizens of Delphos are accustomed to being stopped on Main Street by visitors who ask directions to the home of Leslie Peltier. The strangers come from many parts of the United States, frequently are foreigners. In almost every instance they are astronomers. They come to this little northwestern Ohio town on route 30, to talk with a man, who by day is a toy designer in a local wood-bending plant. By night he is a star gazer in his own observatory in a garden back of his home, 719 W. Second St.,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer magazine wrote in an Aug. 8, 1947 story.
“Naturally reticent, and content to commune with the universe in nocturnal solitude, he shunned celebrity even as his fame grew in astronomical circles. He worked for years as a designer of toys and children’s furniture,” Lackey wrote in 2003. “Still honors sought him out. In 1965, the mountaintop home of California’s Ford Observatory was named Mount Peltier. In 1980, the Astronomical League established the Leslie C. Peltier Award, given for lasting contributions by amateur astronomers.”
Peltier also was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University. In addition to “Starlight Nights,” which was a 1966 Ohioana Book award winner, he also wrote “Guideposts to the Stars,” an introduction to the night skies as well as a book on Brookhaven, the Delphos home in which he spent the last years of his life.
“What he did with what he had was just amazing. He’s easily the most famous person to come out of Delphos,” local historian Bob Ebbeskotte told the Blade in 2003. “We need to remind the kids in town that you can grow up in a small town and still do great things. This guy grew up in a small town with a 10th-grade education, and he’s got a mountain named after him.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.