When you, your brothers and your dad did the work that would come to give “The Star City of the South” its name, you tend to have strong recollections about those three months of work to have the switch ready to flip (well, almost ready to flip) on Thanksgiving Eve, 1949.
Note: The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2014 issue. For the full story download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
Left: Bob Kinsey, 89, was a young man of 24 when, unseen to the 250 attendees at the dedication of the Mill Mountain Star, he turned on the lights as the mayor flipped a yet-to-be connected switch. (Photo by David Hungate)
Upper right: Roy Kinsey at work in his Kirk Avenue office, circa 1923.
Bottom: The infrastructure of the star was built to withstand winds of 100 mph, with an additional 30 percent safety factor. The star is actually three individual stars, as evidenced by this piece being lifted into place.
The story of our star, which turns 65 this November, begins in an eighth-grade classroom in Roanoke in 1905. Young Roy Kinsey sat dutifully with his geography book open in front of him. But there was a catch.
“One of the Roanoke Hobie brothers – maybe Dexter – used to tell the story of Dad having a sketch pad inside the book,” says Roy’s son Robert A. “Bob” Kinsey of Roanoke. “And Dad would spend his class time practicing his lettering.”
By age 13 Roy Kinsey began making small signs, and by 1908, at the age of 15, he was listed in the Roanoke City Directory as a sign writer.
“His first real office for Kinsey Sign Company was in a little office on Kirk Avenue in 1920,” says Bob Kinsey, “with five or six employees.”
Roy Kinsey’s company would be selected, of course, to erect the Mill Mountain Star in 1949, with the assistance of his sons Warren, Roy, Jr. and Bob.
The idea was hatched for Roy Sr. on a driving trip through Chattanooga, Tennessee, when the senior Kinsey – by then the owner of Kinsey Sign Company – noticed decorative light fixtures in the shape of a star on one of the mountainsides. The city had used the side of the cliff as the structure to support the fixtures.
Back home in Roanoke, the Merchants Association’s Christmas Street Decorations Committee had been discussing the idea of a star at the top of Mill Mountain – to promote the downtown shopping for the holiday season. A need and an idea were about to meet.
In the last week of August, 1949, Kinsey Sign Company received the contract to build the Mill Mountain Star. The contract also called for 100 three-foot stars to hang from the lamp poles in downtown Roanoke.
“The contract called for the work to be completed by Thanksgiving eve,” says Bob Kinsey, “for a grand total of $28,000.”
Roanoke Iron and Bridgeworks was given specs to build a steel structure that would support the star. Bob Little, an engineer at Roanoke Iron, was advised the star would need to withstand 100-mph winds, plus a 30 percent additional safety factor.
Kinsey Sign took the star’s fabricated pieces to Woodrum Field where they were placed face down on a large concrete apron that was not in use for aviation. Three star panels with openings between them to reduce the wind load would be used to hold the neon tubing. The sheetmetal edges were turned up three inches to contain the light, making the illumination much sharper. Angle irons were placed on the back to match the horizontal angle irons on the steel support structure on the mountain. Bolts were used to secure one set to the other.
An astronomical time clock would light the star automatically and turn it off as daylight approached. A crane was brought in via the old wagon road off of Yellow Mountain Road to lift the heavy objects into place.
A bulldozer was rented to dig two trenches for the foundation blocks. Some 130 square yards of concrete was furnished by Roanoke Ready Mix Concrete. The concrete was mixed in tubs mounted on old G.I. trucks. The steel frame was then anchored to the blocks, each block 10 feet deep.
Old overhead copper streetcar wires – cut into lengths, rolled up and stored in a junkyard when the trolleys had shut down in 1948 – were purchased by the Kinseys and wrapped around the base of the concrete blocks. The copper wire was then brought up to ground level and wrapped around the anchor bolts on each leg of the framework. This was to prevent lightning from damaging the structure during electrical storms. (The copper is still visible today where it comes up from the ground and attaches to the legs.)
Attendance at the Thanksgiving Eve dedication was by invitation only, and through the afternoon, Bob Kinsey was busy running electrical tests in preparation for the big event, when Roanoke Mayor A.R. Minton would throw the switch to illuminate the star for the first time.
“Turns out,” says Bob Kinsey, “we did have everything ready. Except the wiring to that switch.”
So on that chilly evening in 1949 as the mayor flipped what was an inert switch, an unseen Bob Kinsey peered out from behind and activated power to the star at the moment the mayor “threw” the ceremonial switch.
Among the estimated 250 on hand for the occasion was Roanoke native John Payne, then a leading man in Hollywood, and best known for his role in, and funding with his own money, “Miracle on 34th Street.” He also starred in the NBC television series “The Restless Gun.”
The 20-minute ceremony was broadcast on three local radio stations and was also heard on loudspeakers in Elmwood, Wasena and Jackson parks, as well as at the airport. The event was covered in newspapers from New York to Savannah, and national broadcasters Lowell Thomas and Ted Mack covered the event, as did the million-plus-circulation Life magazine.