Atlanta star-gazers head to east Georgia for darkness, fellowship

SHARON, Ga. – Taliaferro County is one of Georgia’s poorest, least developed and under-populated – perfect for an astro-village.

A what?

The Deerlick Astronomy Village, a second-home enclave for Atlanta stargazers, sits amid the wooded plains of eastern Georgia in one of the darkest corners of the entire eastern seaboard.

It is that very blackness, though, that makes Deerlick special. Atlanta’s suburban sprawl and attendant light pollution render next-to-impossible a clear view into the heavens. Taliaferro, 90 miles due east of Atlanta, is virtually free of subdivisions, streetlights, mega-watt billboards and fast-food neon.

“Growth means lights,” said Chris Hetlage, a Deerlick co-founder who lives in Peachtree Corners. “Taliaferro is one of the least-developed counties in Georgia and that’s what attracted us.”

Georgia joins Florida, Arizona and New Mexico with established astro-villages. Deerlick, which opened in 2006, has grown quietly popular, a testament to Atlanta’s under-the-radar amateur astronomy community. Twenty-eight lots, each two acres, were subdivided and offered for sale to weekend astronomers. Only five remain unsold.

A star-gazing guest area, with heated showers and 800-amp hookups, attracts dozens of campers and RVs on warm, cloud-free weekends.

But to call Deerlick simply a geeky weekend retreat for Atlanta’s telescope crowd is to call the Horsehead Nebula just another starry region. Yes, the middle-aged men (they’re just about all men) are self-described science nerds who first scanned the skies with dad at the neighborhood park. And, yes, they profess an adolescent’s awe for John Glenn, the space shuttle and the Hubble.

But these latter-day Galileos seriously and expensively pursue their celestial dreams. Telescopes alone cost upwards of $10,000. Lot prices start at $38,000. The custom-built observatories, equipped with roll-off roofs or peel-back geodesic domes, can run another $15,000.

About one-third of Deerlick habitués call themselves “astro-photographers” scanning, via computer, the skies to pinpoint galaxies millions of light-years away. They layer time-elapsed photos, shot over many nights with numerous filters, to produce fantastic color-enhanced images of nebulae and galaxies.

One recent cloudless night, with the moon finally in bed and Mars straight overhead, a half-dozen Atlantans star-hopped their way across the universe. Deerlick was pitch dark, except for a few red-bulb running lights marking a gravel road. White lights burn too bright, constrict pupils and are forbidden at Deerlick which strictly enforces its light-pollution covenants.

The usual suspects – the Big Dipper, the North Star, the Orion Nebula, the Seven Sisters – were visible by eyeball. Dan Llewellyn, perched atop a ladder, zeroed in his Starmaster telescope on Saturn to the east. Suddenly, the planet’s rings and three of its moons quivered into beautiful sight.

“Oh, man, this is really hot,” said Llewellyn, 46, of Decatur. “Jeez. It’s mind-blowing.”

Eastern Georgia, between Atlanta and Augusta, has a rich celestial history. In 1900, for example, a scientific expedition left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for nearby Washington, Ga., to view a rare total eclipse of the sun.

Taliaferro’s heavenly fame, though, pre-dates the Boston viewing party. Deerlick sits on a former plantation owned by Aaron Grier Sr., a Revolutionary War general and father of Robert Grier (1780-1848). Robert, an amateur astronomer, published Grier’s Almanac, a compendium of sun, moon and weather predictions considered the “Bible for the southern antebellum farmer.” Published today in Atlanta, Grier’s counts 3 million subscribers.

A roadside marker touting the Griers’ achievements intrigued a wandering Hetlage back in 2004. Hetlage and friend Donovan Conrad scoured the region for cheap timberland. They had graduated from weekend trips pulling a trailer-full of telescopes, cameras and tents up to the north Georgia mountains in search of dark-sky aeries.

“We were looking for a small place just for ourselves, but interest from others just bubbled up,” said Hetlage, 49, a health care information executive. “Most amateur astronomers go by themselves into their backyards or the woods. We wanted to bring like-minded people together.”

Of most importance: a plot of land whose nights were as dark as coal. Hetlage consulted the World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness. Its maps showed an eastern United States all but covered up with red, orange and yellow splotches indicating various degrees of light pollution.

But three dark pockets, all within two hours of Atlanta – a key criteria for Hetlage and other members of the Atlanta Astronomy Club – intrigued the co-founders of the nonprofit Deerlick Group LLC. The west Alabama site, though, was too far from Augusta, Savannah, Washington, D.C., and potential club members. Sprawl threatened to overrun the north Georgia site.

Taliaferro, popular with Hollywood for its stuck-in-time towns, proved ideal. Its population (1,863) continues to drop and there’s little chance Wal-Mart will build a superstore with flood-lit parking lot nearby.

“When they first came in here, nobody was really interested in them. People still don’t know they’re there,” said Crawfordville Mayor Herrman Milner. “The most attractive thing about the village is that these people don’t have any demand for county services, but it is the most expensive property in the county and, therefore, the most highly taxed.”

Hetlage, Conrad and a handful of financial partners set about clearing most of the 96-acre property. A timber contractor chopped down 70 acres of trees leaving a vast, open field for stargazing. The partners subdivided the lots, put in a road, electricity and the Internet and built a pavilion and bathhouse for weekend guests (individual membership: $35 ). Deerlick, named for a cluster of galaxies, recouped up-front costs once the 20th lot sold in 2008.

A company called Backyard Observatories builds most of the cabin-sized structures with roofs that automatically roll back to allow mounted telescopes unobstructed skyward views. Subdivision covenants ensure that windows are lined with foam board or other light-blocking material. Nocturnal wanderers use flashlights with red bulbs.

Nearly all owners and part-time members belong to the Atlanta Astronomy Club. Yet Deerlick also counts members from Florida, Washington and Detroit. Executives, military retirees, quality-control inspectors, Delta pilots, professors and other financially sound stargazers also belong.

The Astronomy Club, established in 1947, keeps a telescope on its plot of land. Its annual star-gazing party attracted 120 people to Deerlick last October.

“Astronomy gets you out there with nature and reintroduces you to what the skies used to be like before all the growth and development,” said Keith Burns, the club’s president, who lives in Marietta. “We’ve got a lot of members, either former Boy or Girl Scouts, who say, ‘I remember this when I used to go camping.’”

What’s new, though, is deep-sky imaging, using computers and digital cameras to photograph far-off galaxies once the sole purview of NASA and other space agencies. Hetlage and fellow astro-photographers rarely step outside their mini-observatories. Their computer-run, camera-attached telescopes dial up amazing pictures of the Crab, Flame and Elephant Trunk nebulae light years away.

“I don’t consider myself an astronomer; I’m an astro-photographer. I’m in it for the art, not the science,” Hetlage said. “We’re shooting things tens of millions of light years away. That’s hard to comprehend some times.”