In the spring of 1949, there was no star. Only a wish.
Months later, on a cold, windy Thanksgiving Eve, speeches were given, patriotic anthems sung and a switch was thrown. A burst of white phosphorescent light illuminated the top of Mill Mountain and forever changed the skyline of Roanoke.
The Mill Mountain Star was turned on for the very first time on Nov. 23, 1949 — 65 years ago today.
It almost didn’t happen.
Instead of a star, we could have had a giant cross on a downtown building or strands of colored lights in the shape of a Christmas tree strung in the treetops on the mountainside. Or, we could have had nothing at all, which is what many clear-headed, cost-conscious people preferred.
“The star idea was not immediately embraced,” said Nelson Harris, a church pastor and former Roanoke mayor who wrote about the star’s origin for his 2013 book, “Hidden History of Roanoke” (History Press).
City council members were especially hard to persuade, Harris said.
“Some people feared it would be tacky or gaudy,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “It wasn’t as popular an idea back then as everyone assumes.”
But following a vigorous promotional campaign by the local downtown business association, a whirlwind fundraising effort and a breakneck construction in terrible weather, Roanoke got its very own 88 ½-foot-tall star, complete with 2,000 feet of luminous tubing.
For 65 years, the star — which most locals still know as the Mill Mountain Star despite recent marketing efforts to call it the Roanoke Star — has been the city’s front-porch light, warm and welcoming to friends and strangers alike, beckoning people to come and visit and stay awhile.
A cross, a tree or a star?
The Roanoke Merchants Association needed a big idea in 1949. Some downtown business owners believed that Christmas shopping had been declining in recent years, so they needed to draw more people.
That’s when someone on the association’s Christmas Street Decorations Committee pitched the idea of erecting a giant cross on top of a building for the shopping season. Someone else suggested stringing lights across the side of Mill Mountain in the shape of a Christmas tree — anything to grab attention.
Both ideas were shot down. Then, somebody suggested building an illuminated star on top of Mill Mountain in time for Christmas. According to Harris’s book, Edward “Ted” Moomaw, the association’s president, said many years later that it was either Kirk Lunsford Jr. or Fred Mangus who came up with the idea.
Harris also wrote that Roy Kinsey, owner of Roanoke’s Kinsey Sign Company, likely suggested the idea to the committee after having seen a large decorative star in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Kinsey, whose company would design and build the star, became its staunchest proponent.
Members of the decorations committee loved the star idea. The city council, as well as other business owners, was less enthusiastic.
Council members wondered how much this neon monstrosity would cost. Also, the location where the committee wanted to erect the star was a plot of ridge top where the council was considering building a new watchtower and overlook to draw tourists. Nobody seemed to know whether the star was a temporary or permanent fixture on Mill Mountain. Could such a thing be moved once built?
“From reading the council minutes, you could see the hesitancy and reluctance,” Harris said. “And with good reason.”
The Merchants Association proposed that the cost of the project would be around $25,000 — a complete guess (the project wound up costing $28,000). The association said it would lead a fundraising effort to pay for the star, which irked a few of its own members.
Some downtown business owners believed that the decorations committee had forced them into financially supporting a project that had not been approved by the entire association.
The Merchants Association had even recommended to some businesses the amount they should donate, based on the size of their company — a ploy that rankled members even more. As Harris wrote, “one businessman sent in a ten-dollar bill with a note that he was donating for them not to build the star!”
But the city council eventually agreed to the project, with the caveat that the city could move the giant star off the mountain any time officials wanted.
Now, somebody just had to build the thing — fast.
To build a star
Even in 1949, long before there were such things as Black Friday, doorbuster sales and big-box retailers, Thanksgiving was the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season. The Merchants Association wanted its enormous Christmas promotion to be glowing by then.
The Kinsey Sign Co. worked around the clock to fabricate the aluminum star and its glass tubing. Roanoke Iron and Bridge Works built the 100-foot-tall steel structure that would hold the star in place. Some city leaders were shocked by the size of the project they had approved.
“Most people thought, ‘Gee whiz, we don’t need something that big,’ ” said Bob Kinsey, who was a 24-year-old former World War II Navy mechanic in 1949, when his father put him and his two older brothers, Warren and Roy Jr., in charge of building the star.
The Kinseys knew that even if the object lit up like a Christmas tree, it needed to be large if anyone was going to see it from the valley below.
“Once you take it outdoors, it shrinks,” said Bob Kinsey, who is now 89.
The Kinsey crew built three inlaid metal stars that would be assembled on the mountain; a small star within a medium-sized star within the largest, 88 1/2-foot star. The glass lighting tubes would run along those frames. The builders laid out the star in an airplane hangar at Woodrum Field, where the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport sits today. Then, all the pieces were taken to the mountain.
Bob Kinsey said that, even though nobody knew how long the star would stay on the mountain, the workers had no choice but to build it to last. The star’s structure was designed to withstand winds up to 100 miles per hour.
With just weeks to go before the city’s planned opening ceremony, the star was erected in cold, windy conditions. Men worked without safety harnesses — except for the parachute harness Roy Kinsey Jr. had from his days in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Nasty conditions caused the crews to miss many days of work. In fact, just three days before the opening ceremony, The Roanoke Times reported that foul weather might force a postponement.
The weather relented, however, and the work was finished ... almost.
The star’s lighting truly was a huge event. Roanoke Mayor A.R. Minton had invited 225 mayors from neighboring states to watch the spectacle. Hundreds of local people attended the mountaintop ceremony that frigid Thanksgiving Eve. Movie star John Payne, a Salem native who had earned lasting fame as the lawyer who defended Santa Claus in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” returned home to the Roanoke Valley as the event’s special guest.
Three local radio stations broadcast the dedication live on the air. Loudspeakers carried the program throughout city parks. Nationally renowned radio broadcasters Lowell Thomas and Ted Mack mentioned the star on their news programs.
With just hours before that historic first illumination, Bob Kinsey was asked to do an impossible task. Mayor Minton wanted to flick a switch to turn on the light in front of the throng. Kinsey knew it would take hours to re-wire the star’s intricate electrical system to build such a device for the mayor.
Instead, he rigged a dummy switch with a wire that disappeared into the bushes, making it look as if it was connected to the star. When the moment came for the mayor to light the star, Kinsey, hidden behind a large circuit box, manually flipped a lever — and became the first man to turn on the Mill Mountain Star.
At 8:22 p.m. on Nov. 23, 1949, the Mill Mountain Star flickered on, then off for just an instant, before lighting up for good.
Former U.S. Rep. Clifton Woodrum hailed the star’s illumination as a testament to the “industry, friendliness and progress of the City of Roanoke — the Star City of the South,” which gave the one-time “Magic City” a new nickname.
A church choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the valley below, traffic snarled on Brandon Avenue as drivers stopped to look at the star.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Bob Kinsey proposed to his girlfriend, Lois Lackey, beneath the star. The couple married three months later and have been married for 64 years.
Over the next several years, some people spoke disparagingly of the star; others wrote editorials that it should be moved. But as time passed and generations of Roanokers grew up having never seen Mill Mountain without its crown jewel, the star became a fixture. After 65 years, the Mill Mountain Star is as much a part of Roanoke as the City Market, railroad tracks and even the mountain itself.
“The star is a sign of peace and goodwill and thanksgiving,” said Bob Kinsey. “That’s the idea that took hold despite whatever the original intentions were. It’s a symbol that we’re thankful for this place.”