May 16, 2017

As Halley’s Comet approached Earth in 1910 amid dire predictions it would wipe out mankind, the Polk County Enterprise in Livingston warned tongue-in-cheek that subscribers should pay their overdue bills in preparation to enter the New Jerusalem.

Although it wasn’t the comet’s first visit – Halley’s Comet passes the earth about every 76 years – French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted that this time poisonous gases from its tail would have a deadly effect as it passed through the atmosphere.

S.E. Church, 83, of El Paso, recalled how she had seen the comet when she was 3 and living in New York. She lived to tell the tale.

The most excitement came on May 19, 1910, when a 500-pound meteorite fell just outside Charleston, Texas, about 300 miles north of Beaumont, as Halley’s Comet passed over. No one was hurt.

The comet returned 76 years later, in 1986. For most, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but more than 20 people in Jasper were able to witness Halley’s Comet a second time.

Their names were listed on documents buried in a time capsule on the grounds of the Jasper Public Library. The container will be unearthed on the next occurrence of Halley’s Comet, in 2061.

The project was the brainstorm of Lois Baker Gee, president of the Jasper Halley’s Comet Club. Lois was an elementary school teacher as well as a musician, but one of her greatest loves was astronomy.

Her 2006 obituary read, “It may be that her most lasting contribution to Jasper was as President of Halley’s Comet Club. In 1986, a time capsule was buried at the Jasper Public Library which contained letters and artifacts from the community.”

The club appealed to the Jasper community to gather items such as contemporary clothing, cosmetics, music and other artifacts representing everyday life in 1986 Jasper.

One of the items to go in the capsule was a King James Bible signed by the Rev. James Coleman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Other items reflected a pre-computerized era, such as video cassette tapes produced by the Jasper Chamber of Commerce and newspapers, catalogs and booklets on local business and industry. Material on that year’s Texas Sesquicentennial was included, as well as “A History of Parnell School” written by Lois Baker Gee’s daughter, Lois Gee Lacy.

The Halley’s Comet Club included lists of their current members, second-time-around comet sighters and first-time comet sighters. There were letters to future Halley’s Comet sighters in 2061 and memorabilia related to the comet’s 1986 passing.

On Jan. 29, 1987, at the unveiling of the capsule’s marker during the library’s dedication ceremony, City Manager Wayne Dubose thanked all those who had worked on the project, especially Lois Gee and the Halley’s Comet Club, the staff of the Jasper Newsboy International Halley Watch, and William C. Dexter of the Richard College Planetarium.

Everyone in Jasper had caught the Halley’s Comet bug.

Lois Baker Gee’s legacy didn’t end with the time capsule. Weeks before the dedication ceremony, she had received word that the International Star Registry of Northfield, Illinois, had named a star after her. The star, Lois Baker Gee, is Cygnus RA 20h 10m 48 sd 37 degrees 30 minutes.

Lois Baker Gee will always be a star.

Southeast Texas Tales is a weekly feature that revisits regional history.