Custer Institute: A History

The Custer Institute had its roots long before it was formally established. Charles W. Elmer, co-founder of the Perkin-Elmer Optical Company, and an avid amateur astronomer and scientist, would invite and meet with his astronomy friends, including his future partner Henry Perkin, in his home at Cedar Beach, most every weekend.

Finally, in 1927, this group of friends decided to formalize their camaraderie and shared interest by establishing an astronomy organization. Charles Elmer's wife May, whose maiden name was Custer, was the Grand Niece of General George Armstrong Custer. To honor the many years she had been their gracious hostess at their weekly informal gatherings, this newly organized band of amateur astronomers chose to call themselves the Custer Institute.

In 1938, the group purchased the land the institute presently occupies and construction of the main (northern) building was begun. The new meeting place was completed in the spring of 1939.

In 1942, the Custer Institute, Inc was incorporated as a non-profit educational corporation in the State of New York.

In 1945, the southern second building, later dedicated in 1954 as the Dr. John W. Stokes Hall in honor of this long time member, was added with its seating capacity of 100+. It was at this time that Custer Institute began an aggressive schedule of both astronomy related and cultural presentations for the public. Though Southold was still mainly a farming community, these events usually played to an SRO packed house. This tradition continues today and has been expanded by adding the yearly Spring Family Astronomy Day and the Fall Custer Astronomy Jamboree.

In 1947, through donations by Charles Elmer and Mr. Polk, the 3-story tower and dome were built.

In 1954, Charles Elmer passed away. That same year, the Institute added the shed, which houses three sliding roof observatories.

In 1984, member Jeff Lichtman obtained a 3 Meter Satellite TVRO Dish and proceeded to do Radio Astronomy experiments at Custer. Jeff went on to become the founder of the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers, which today is an international organization with approx. 400 members worldwide.

During the early years through 1950, the membership of the Custer Institute boasted a number of world famous people. The list included David Rothman, Henry Fitz, and Dan Eichner. Today, the membership rolls continue the tradition with members like Phil Harrington author, Richard Berry author and past editor of Astronomy, and Dava Sobel author to name just a few.

In 2006, Custer's observatory was crowned with a brand-new 22-foot galvanized steel dome. See the photos here, and a dome raising video here.


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