Founding woman of the Springfield telescope makers, Stellafane

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – Gladys Alice Piper was the sole founding woman member of the Springfield Telescope Makers, later known as Stellafane, at a time when women were often excluded from many activities.

She was born Gladys Alice Dudman, Nov. 26, 1887 in Boston to Thomas William Dudman of England and Elizabeth Alice Garnett, also of England.

At age 27 in 1915, she married John Vincent Piper of Weathersfield, Vt. at her mother’s home in Pawtucket, R.I. John was then a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and while there he and Gladys had two daughters: Norma Elizabeth Piper and Janice Sanborn Piper. Upon graduation in 1916 John and his young family moved to New Brunswick, N.J., where he would continue his post-graduate studies in Botany at Rutgers University. In early 1917 John went missing and his body was found four months later with a bullet in his chest. After a high-profile criminal trial, a prominent local physician and war hero was acquitted of John’s murder.

Gladys moved her babies to John’s family farm in Weathersfield, Vt. John’s widowed mother had married Charles Wood Aldrich and John grew up on his farm with his step-brother, and later local legend, Augustus “Gus” Aldrich. The farm is now the Willis and Tina Wood Cider Mill. Later, with her mother joining her, Gladys moved her family to Springfield, Vt., where she taught in the public schools.

Russell Porter’s original group of amateur telescope makers, October 1920. Left to right: Oscar S. Marshall, Clyde P. Baldwin, F. Eugene Lockwood, Russell W. Porter, Raymond P. W. Fairbanks, Gladys A. Piper, Oscar P. Fullam, Ralph A. Baker, Frank H. Whitney, Roy J. Lyon, Everett H. Redfield, Carlton B. Damon, Ernest N. Brookings, Guy E. Baker. Missing: Albert A. Herrick, Charles A. Longe, and John M. Pierce. Photo provided.

A woman of many interests, Gladys responded to a notice in the summer of 1920 of a meeting for people interested in “making a reflecting a telescope for their own use.” Those interested were to meet on at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1920 in the Foreman’s Room of the Jones and Lampson Machine Company for “preliminary arrangements preparatory to beginning work” under the guidance of Mr. Russell Porter, the renowned telescope maker, artist and explorer.

Reportedly, that day 16 persons were enrolled: “Among these were one woman, Mrs. Gladys Piper, and one professor, John M. Pierce, head of the Springfield High School Cooperative Department. The rest were mechanics, engineers and foreman of Jones and Lamson’s”

The attendees were “considered charter members of this association, which may develop into a permanent enterprise for the making of optical devices of various forms.” The first official meeting of the Springfield Telescope Makers was held Dec. 7, 1923, but since Gladys Piper had moved to Windsor, Vt. in 1921 she never became an “official” member of the organization. Nevertheless, she was always proud of the telescope she made and spoke often of her experience.

In 1956 Gladys described in the Springfield Reporter the founding group’s making of their reflecting telescopes:

“…The evening came when the eager group started grinding. Barrels, filled with stone, were already in place for each member. Each had two plate glass discs of the same size, from four to nine inches in diameter. One glass, to be the tool, was stuck to the barrel-head with pitch, and to the other — the speculum — a wood handle was also stuck with pitch. Several grades of carborundum and plenty of water were used while the operator rubbed the upper disc back and forth over the under disc, and slowly walked around the barrel, keeping the strokes of equal length.

  “Mr. Porter said that that particular corner of the basement had been chosen because it was absolutely necessary to work in a place where the 24-hour temperature was constant, so that the expansion and contraction of the glass wouldn’t be too great. There was also pure running spring water. This was important because any grit left on the glass would cause pits when the grinding resumed. Mr. Porter warned against letting abrasives fly around. Care to be clean, lightness of touch, and patience were in the order…”

Gladys loved teaching. At age 15, she had a studio of her own in Pawtucket, R.I., where she taught dancing, elocution, and club swinging. As an adult she taught in public schools; first in Pawtucket, R.I., then in Springfield, Vt., and finally at the State Street School in Windsor.

Gladys met Oakey Smith Skinner in Windsor. He was a prominent pharmacist and owner of the Skinner Drug Store in the center of town. They married in February 1925 and had a daughter, Gladys Joy Skinner.

Gladys pursued her interest in art and became well known for her work in oils, pastels, and particularly in bas-reliefs. She studied with artists at the Cornish Arts Colony, the summer gathering of world eminent artists centered in Cornish, N.H., and Windsor, Vt. Her works were exhibited throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.

Gladys Alice Dudman Piper Skinner died Dec. 10, 1963 at Dartmouth Hospital in Hanover, N.H., surrounded by her daughters. Her husband Oakley Skinner predeceased her in 1962.

Her daughters and their families were Norma Piper Ambrose, Janice Piper Bonacquist, and Joy Skinner Newman.

Their children proudly donate their grandmother’s telescope to the Stellafane Museum.

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