LAKE MILLS — Dave Kriege spent 32 years giving checkups, filling cavities and recommending the right toothbrushes at his dental practice here just down the street from the American Legion hamburger stand.
But since 1987, time away from his downtown office has been consumed with optics, but not those found at the local optometrist. Kriege’s ocular fascination and passion measure two inches thick, range in diameter from 12 to 25 inches and are used to spot nebulas, quasars and galaxies light years away.
Kriege, (pronounced Kree-gee) who retired from dentistry in 2012, is the founder of Obsession Telescopes, located at his seven-acre property just a few miles northeast of Milford, off Highway A but not quite to Grelton. The portable deep-sky, large-aperture Dobsonian telescopes he builds in rural Jefferson County can range in price from $3,500 to $15,000 and are shipped to serious amateur astronomers around the world.
His telescopes have been featured in magazines and websites like “Sky & Telescope,” “Astronomy Magazine” and “Telescope Making Magazine”, where he was on the cover in the late 1980s. Kriege’s telescopes are an improved version of the telescope invented by John Dobson in the 1960s. They include smoother surfaces to turn and angle the 10-foot-high telescopes and are easier to take apart so they can be transported in a car and then reassembled, usually in less than 10 minutes. Instead of a large cardboard tube for the main body, fabric and aluminum poles are used.
“You can’t do deep-sky astronomy in an urban area. You’ve got to get out of the light pollution that everybody suffers from in an urban area,” Kriege said. “This one probably has 60,000 miles on it. It’s made a lot of trips. You can collapse it down, put it in your vehicle and haul it off to a dark spot.”
Kriege was standing next to a telescope he built in 1989. It’s made numerous treks throughout the United States, including several to western Oklahoma and star parties in Texas, Vermont and Colorado. The telescope’s home base is the House of Obsession, Kriege’s homemade observatory from Menard’s.
Constructed in 1992 for $10,000 and re-engineered with a sliding roof, the 26- by-27-foot pole shed is located 100 yards from his house and next to the pen where his daughter’s horse, Luna, resides. The observatory includes his 25-inch telescope, sky charts and sheets of plywood hinged to the east side of the structure that can be flipped up to block light from the Johnson Creek Outlet Mall three miles away. His latest addition to the building is an insulated room about the size of a small bathroom and equipped with a desk and electric heater.
“You can stay out here longer,” Kriege said of the warming room. “Usually the best nights (for viewing) are in the winter when it’s cold and clear.”
Kriege ships about 100 telescopes a year, about one third abroad. Each comes with a brass name plate that includes a serial number, date of completion and the name of the owner. Kriege showed off one nameplate for a customer in Russia. He advertises in trade publications and in 1998 published a 475-page book along with Richard Berry titled, “The Dobsonian Telescope: A Practical Manual for Building Large Aperture Telescopes.”
For Kriege, it’s all about sharing his design and making the hobby easier for astronomy lovers.
“All in all, I was very pleased with the performance and portability of the telescope,” wrote Tom Trusock, who does product reviews for Astronomy Magazine. “Everything that a telescope is supposed to do, it did. And quite well at that.”
Kriege grew up in Menomonee Falls, where he built his first telescopes while in middle school and high school but got out of astronomy when he went to UW-Milwaukee and the School of Dentistry at Marquette University. He started his practice in 1981 but got back into looking at the stars after going to a viewing party in 1987 in Ohio where he saw a version of the Dobsonian telescope in use. He built his own later that year and began selling telescopes in 1990. His website went up in 1992.
And while his dental practice has allowed him the resources to delve further into astronomy than most, his practice has also helped form the foundation for the telescope’s construction.
Kriege’s partner, Jim Imp, 67, who has also retired from dentistry, welds the telescopes while Donna Epperson, 70, of Lake Mills, a former patient and bridal seamstress, has, for the past 23 years, stitched the fabric light baffles.
Others among Kriege’s 300 parts vendors include Pete Welbourne, a local cabinet maker who handles the intricate wood work, and Wood Design in Fort Atkinson, which makes the Russian birch bases. The base holds the thick refracting mirror that accounts for about half of the price of each telescope.
Kriege’s 23-year-old daughter, Emily, a recent UW-Madison graduate who is planning to go to veterinary school, uses a spray gun in the basement of the family home to paint and stain pieces while her grandfather, 91-year-old Ed Kriege, puts together the $400 optical assemblies in his Menomonee Falls home where Dave Kriege grew up.
“People think I’ve got some big factory, but it’s all done right here,” said Kriege, as he nursed a cup of coffee last week at his kitchen table. “Twenty-five-hundred telescopes have come right out of that basement. People don’t realize how many hours of work there is in putting these together.”
Kriege has traveled the world looking into the heavens. He has been to Australia four times and for his next big trip, he’d like to go to Namibia in southern Africa. One of his favorite spots is on Mauna Kea, a dormant 13,803-foot volcano in Hawaii. The observatories are at 9,000 feet and Kriege would like a presence there. He’s thinking about putting one of his telescopes in a storage unit near the volcano for his customers to use.
“I thought it would be just a hobby business where I’d build a few and it would peter out in a few years,” he said. “It didn’t.”