It all started during a Board Meeting in the year of 1984. The Winter Star Party was actually the brainchild of Richard Fagin who first presented it to the Board that night in 1984.
Only three other Board members that night thought that a big star party was an idea worth pursuing, they were Skip Jarrett, and Tippy & Patty D'Auria. The rest of the Board did not think that it would work and did not want to try it or fund it. After much discussion and the treat that we would do it on our own anyway finally convinced our then President, Bill Douglass. Bill's final remark to us was "OK, go ahead just don't embarrass us." We still were not given any money to do it, only permission.
With that permission, the four of us got into my old dodge van and started to check out the Florida Everglades National Park to see if we could find a location to hold such a star party.
We entered the park and stopped at every single location between the entrance and Flamingo, which was some 40 miles into the park. We checked out every single spot. We looked to the east, west, south etc., checking to see if there was enough space to hold it. At that time, it was certainly the darkest place to hold such an event. After taking everything into consideration we decided on Mahogany Hammock, which had been a site used by us for club star parties before and was about halfway into the park. This site could probably hold at least 100 astronomers. We had no idea how many we would attract at that time.
Next we had to decide when to hold such a star party. Certainly the summer was out of the question, as anyone with a teaspoon of brains would know the mosquitoes in the Everglades could tear the sidewalls off a steel-belted radial tire, going 60 miles per hour.
However, we knew that the mosquito population went down considerably after the first cold spell in November, and it was really a nice place to observe from then. So it would have to be during the cold months. We also realized that to make this event a popular one we would need little or no competition. We decided to have it during the winter months, as there sure would not be too many big star parties planned for up north at that time.
We could therefore offer the winter skies, from a location of 25 degrees latitude that contained a wealth of splendors that not only could not be see from north of the Greater Miami area at any time. Our northern friends would have the opportunity to view these splendors from a more comfortable climate here in Florida. Now we had to decide on the date to hold the event. November was a bit too soon, plus Thanksgiving might cause a problem in November. Of course December was out as it was too close to the Christmas Holidays and New Years.
We actually selected the New Moon in February for a couple of reasons. One, it would not interfere with any of the holidays and two, because it was the driest month of the year and therefore less chance of rain.
The dates selected for the first Winter Star Party were chosen as February 15th through 17th 1985 for the three day event. Those dates were chosen in particular because it was a new moon weekend and, it had never rained on Lincoln's birthday. It was decided that we would, if the event was going to continue, hold it on the weekend closest to the new moon towards the end of January.
Well now we had an idea, a location, and a date…. Next, get permission to hold it in a National Park. Dealing with the bureaucracy proved to be a chore unto itself, not to mention other inherent difficulties.
We approached the National Parks Service with the idea and sought permission to hold the event there at Mahogany Hammock. There were several issues that we had to comply and agree to. Needless to say, first and foremost was the insurance issue. We had to get a rider on our Club policy to cover the event, (one million dollars worth).
Then, we learned of the rules that we had to comply with at Mahogany Hammock. Since the Everglades National Park is a Federal Park, and open to the public, we could not refuse entry into the area by anyone that wanted to attend. Also, there was to be no campsites or camping permitted as well as no fires. It was a really remote area; so remote that it did not have any bathroom facilities either.
It also then became apparent to us that if we could not camp there at the site we would also have to vacate the area each day so that the visitors could visit the hammock. That meant that each and every night, all the equipment had to be packed up and moved away to wherever one was staying off site. Those areas were few and far between as the Mahogany Hammock Site was about halfway into the Park. Giving one three options… Go west to Flamingo so 20 mile from the site. It had a restaurant, camp grounds, boats etc. Or one could go about 20 miles east and camp at the Camp sites just inside the park. The third choice was to go all the way back to Homestead about 35-40 miles from the site to a motel.
It was a hassle to say the least, and I still cannot figure out how it ever flew. And we were required to furnish porta-potties at our expense. In the beginning the Porta-Potties were really just for rugged construction crews and really primitive. Not to mention we had to have then transported all the way from Miami some 80 miles distant. They were expensive and did not get serviced during the event, as it was only a weekend event.
With permission finally in hand to hold the Star Party at the Mahogany Hammock site, we then had figure out how to get the word out to the public, so we ran the notice in Astronomy & Sky & Telescope magazines to let the folks know what we were attempting to do.
In the announcement we listed Richard Fagin's home address and phone number for registration and information. We had no idea how many would show up and had no idea what to charge. We decided to let it go without a fee. The first Winter Star Party was just a test and was free admission. We needed to see if it would in fact fly at all.
All this information had to be sent to the magazines well in advance to get published in time, at least six months before it was published. During this time Richard had some difficulties and was in the process of moving, so his address & phone number were no longer valid. I then called the magazines and substituted my name and address as the contact point, and took over for Richard.
The first three WSP's were three-day events and were held in the Everglades National Park, at Mahogany Hammock. At this site we were limited to about 100 astronomers.
- February 15th - 17th, 1985
- February 7th - 10th, 1986
- January 30th - February 1st, 1987
Well we were off and running.
Early in the morning of February 15th, Skip Jarrett and I set up the first registration table at the Visitors Center at the entrance to the Everglades National Park. It was just the two of us sitting at a folding card table looking pretty dumb, not knowing what to expect.
Much to our surprise we had a bunch of amateur astronomers show up and registered to participate in this first event.I remember the first Porta-Pottie delivery, as I had to drive all the way out to the site to sign for the delivery and set up. We no sooner got them all set up, when a Greyhound Bus pulls in with a load of German tourists to see the Hammock.
The first thing they saw was the Porta-Potties and the whole busload headed for them. It did not take long to get them about 25% filled and the event had not even started yet. I ended up going back to town, buying padlocks and locking the toilets up. I also made up "Out of Order" signs for them, never thinking that they had no real moving parts.
We also decided to ask local merchants as well as a few others for some door prizes. Since we were trying to make our star party different from any of the others, we also decided to do stop the festivities at midnight on Saturday night, and then, under red light have the door prize drawings. After the drawings the observing continued till daylight.
In the very beginning we did not allow vendors to participate in person, other than the donation of prizes. There was a reason for this as there is a reason for almost everything that we do here at the WSP.
There was a time, and I will not elaborate as to which vendors they were, but at one of the major star parties (I believe it was Riverside), a few vendors got into a squabble with each other and did some things that were totally unacceptable. It was for that reason we chose not to have the vendors at that time. Later, the vendors were asked to participate and they most certainly are a big part of the success of the WSP. The first year we had about 100 people and they were a super bunch of diehard astronomers as well. Not a single complaint about having to set up and tear down every day, just getting to observe the Winter sky in such climes was enough for most of our northern friends. That first star party cost us about $500 out of our own pockets, but was worth it, as the WSP seemed to be a big success and was therefore born.
We wrote it up big in our Club newsletter the Coal Sack, and sent it out to everyone on our mailing list. In our haste to get that first report out a few errors were made in identifying a few of the attendees. But, otherwise a good report. We were already looking forward to the next year. The Winter Star Party was off and running to become one of the best 10 star parties in the world!