The next time you visit the Mill Mountain Star, stop and look at the plaque honoring William Henry Booth, the lead electrician when the star was constructed back in 1949. Booth and his wife Mildred lived on Bowman Street in Vinton for about 50 years.
Booth worked for Jefferson Electric Company in Roanoke, awarded the job of wiring the star, built by Kinsey Sign Company with assistance from Roanoke Iron and Bridge Works. Kinsey designed and erected the star; Roanoke Iron and Bridge Works designed the steel structure.
According to the City of Roanoke, the Roanoke Star was initially created to be a seasonal Christmas decoration shining over the city during the holiday shopping season. The Roanoke Merchants Association sponsored the project, and the star was supposed to be dismantled in 1950 after the holiday season. Instead, it still stands some 73 years later and has become a “regional icon” and popular tourist attraction.
An application for placement on the National Register of Historic Places explains further, “During the prosperous years after World War 11, the Merchants Association began thinking of ideas for decorations–something elaborate that would put Roanoke on the map’ and increase trade in the city. Although nobody knows whose idea it was, Roanoke’s Christmas Street committee is credited with the idea to build a huge neon star on top of Mill Mountain to tie in with the then-existing multi-colored stars on the downtown streets. It was decided that the star would be financed through contributions made by downtown merchants. The final cost of the project reached a little over $27,000.” Now, it’s priceless.
The application continues, “The citizens of Roanoke quickly fell in love with the giant neon Star and demanded that it remain illuminated every night of the year, and not just at Christmas, as was its original intent. Since 1949, the star has been painted, turned off, turned red, studied, argued over, suggested for removal, criticized, voted the number one ‘visitors attraction’ and ‘the place to take your mom,’ loved, worshipped, and adored, and is turned on every night until midnight. For many Roanoke Valley residents, it is the symbol of being home, and for all, it is the symbol of Roanoke.”
The star was so popular that it received nationwide attention, including coverage in Life Magazine and the newspapers of New York, Washington, Detroit, Memphis, Savannah, and even Australia.
The Mill Mountain Star is the most prominent free-standing, manufactured illuminated metal star in the world, visible 60 miles from Roanoke in the air. Roanoke became known as the “Star City of the South” after the star was first lit.
As for the specifics, the 88.5-ft. tall, 10,000-lb. Star is mounted on a 60,000-lb., 100-ft. steel tower. The eight-story high steel tower rests on a base of 500,000 pounds of concrete. Originally lighted with light bulbs, the Coming Glass Works later manufactured two thousand feet of neon tubing.
The Mill Mountain Star wasn’t the first construction project on the mountaintop. A wooden observation tower was built in 1910 but blew over the next year. In 1914, a 90-foot-tall wooden tower with shingles was erected, which allowed spectators mountain views all the way to the Peaks of Otter. A searchlight was added, but the tower was destroyed by fire in 1936 and never rebuilt.
In 1957, the Roanoke Valley Citizens Traffic Safety Council persuaded the Merchants Association to burn the star red to acknowledge traffic fatalities in the city. That 15-month trial period turned into 17 years. When a traffic fatality occurred, the police called the Kinsey Sign Co., which dispatched a man to throw the switch at the base of the star, and after a two-day mourning period, he returned to turn it off.”
“One exception was the lighting of the star for three nights when President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and five nights after the crash of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. The star was turned off in voluntary compliance during the energy crisis of 1973.”
In 2001, City Council changed the colors to red, white, and blue to honor those affected by the attacks on September 11. In April 2007, the star stayed white for over a month to honor the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting and then went dark a year later, on April 16, in remembrance of the shootings at Tech.
But back to its beginnings. The Mill Mountain Star was lit for the first time at 8:22 p.m. on November 23, 1949, by Roanoke Mayor A. R. Minton, with fewer than 100 people in attendance due to the cold weather and the Thanksgiving Holiday coming up the following day.
William Booth’s daughter, Glenda, remembers watching the Mill Mountain Star being lit for the first time that night in 1949 when she was just five years old and her brother William Booth, Jr. (Bill) was five months old. The lighting of the giant star was “magical” and made even more so since her father was the lead electrician who had wired it.
Glenda, her brother, and others in the Roanoke Valley have heard different versions of the lighting ceremony. Glenda says it always annoyed her mother that all the officials there were praised, but the workers, including the electricians, were never recognized. While news stories credit the mayor with flipping the switch to turn on the star, the truth might be that his switch was fake and that Kinsey and Booth were in the woods with the actual power switch.
William Booth was born in Franklin County on New Year’s Day in 1911. He and Mildred were married in 1940 and remained married for 57 years until his passing in August 1997. They both grew up on farms in the Hardy area. The Booths built the Vinton Bowman Street house for about two years and moved there in the early 1950s.
Bill Booth says his father was a self-taught electrician and used what he had learned to “help electrify the South,” serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s. After traveling all over the South with the CCC, he got a job with Jefferson Electric, where he remained until he retired in 1976.
In 2007, with the blessing of Roanoke City Parks and Recreation, Glenda and Bill sponsored the plaque placed beneath the star recognizing their father’s talents and contribution to the Roanoke Valley. The family also wished to pay tribute to all the steel workers, excavators, and other laborers who did the actual construction of the star.
They also transplanted some boxwoods from the family home in Vinton to be placed next to the plaque. Those boxwoods started from sprigs rooted at Booth’s parents’ farm in Franklin County at least 100 years ago.
Over this past summer, the family worked with Laura Reilly, Roanoke Parks, and Recreation’s Landscape Management Coordinator, to add new boxwoods where some of the original plantings had not survived.
The Booths chose boxwoods because their father was a “blue-collar man with no frills and a boxwood was similarly ‘no frills.'”
Bill and Glenda Booth have expressed their gratitude to Reilly, who “understood what we wanted and was generous in helping us accomplish it.”