The star that beams down from Rock House Mountain upon the city of Irvine has become a community icon, cheering the hearts of Estill Countians as they look forward to the Christmas season each year.
The iconic star has been around for so long that the story of how it came to be has become a mystery to many.
There are a few individuals who still remember the details. One of them is Dave Cox, a former WIRV radio personality, who now lives in Flagler Beach, Fla. The 73 year-old’s recollections remain quite vivid.
Actually, there have been two stars
Cox said in a recent telephone interview that there were two stars; the first was installed by an early Jaycee chapter in the early 1960’s, possibly ‘62 or ‘63. Most of those members, Cox explained, have since “departed the planet.”
According to Cox, Kenny Farley, who once owned a restaurant called “Kenny’s,” (where the Mexican restaurant on River Drive is now located), had seen a star in another town and approached the city of Irvine about installing one here.
Frances Green Miller was mayor at the time and Johnnie Hall talked to him about putting the first star together. Hall built the star and welded it together, then the star, smaller than the one in place now, was installed on a 50-ft. TV tower.
Cox recalls that around Thanksgiving every year, the bulbs would be replaced, because they typically got shot out each year.
That chapter of the Jaycees broke up, and Cox said he doesn’t think the star was lit for a few years.
A new chapter of the Jaycees eventually formed, and they decided to rebuild the star.
Christmas star, version two
“A group of us got together,” said Cox, and John Nelson, president of the Jaycees at the time and an employee at Southeast Coal, got permission from Southeast to build a new star there.
The company donated the metal for the star, and a fellow named Jack Jenkins designed the star.
Homer Norman, who was pastor of the Cedar Grove Methodist Church and very active in the community, built the star. He also worked as a metal fabricator and a welder at the Southeast Coal Company.
Cox described the outline of the star as being made like a box with three sides which were open in the front, so bulbs and sockets could be placed inside. These box-like channels were covered with plexiglass, making it at least more difficult to shoot out the bulbs.
According to the Dec. 23rd, 1976 issue of the Estill Herald, the star is 17 feet, 5 inches tall, from tip to tip, and it was welded from angle iron. It weighed about 400 pounds and was about twice the size of the original one.
Larry Davis, another Jaycee active at that time, had this to say: “The star that was built at southeast coal was made from aluminum with plexiglass covering over the bulbs. My step dad was Jack Jenkins, a heavy equipment operator supervisor at Southeast. He laid out the design for Homer Norman who was a welder at southeast in the big shop building at southwest. Homer took the aluminum and formed the aluminum into channels that would hold the light bulb sockets and wiring for the lights.
Davis said he spoke with an uncle who worked in management at General Electric in Richmond, and they volunteered to furnish the light bulbs for a few years.
The climb to Rock House Mountain
After the star was built, it was transported in sections to the top of Rock House Mountain and assembled, according to Cox. Norman had also built a mount on it with which to attach it to the tower.
An old military 4 wheel-drive truck was used to haul the star to the top of the mountain.
Cox said he and another Jaycee, he doesn’t remember who, were hoisted up to put each section together.
Pepper Hardy was a member of the Jaycees at that time, and he also remembers the day the star was installed. He was driving an old 62 Scout 4-wheel drive which belonged to the Hardy brothers, and he hauled some of the other fellows who went up to install the star. He recalls that there were “about 15 of us.”
They were able to drive up to the “rock house,” named thus because the large rock on top of the mountain is said to resemble the shape of a house, but they had to carry the star around the cliff where they installed it on the old television tower.
Cox said he moved to Richmond in the 1980s and became out of touch with the star’s history, but he does remember that the tower eventually fell and damaged the star.
Herbie Rogers, who volunteered for the rescue squad and fire department, helped rebuild the base of the tower. The star was put back up, but not as high.
Every year, the Jaycees would have to do some maintenance on the star. While the plexiglass slowed down the shooting out of the bulbs, it didn’t stop it.
After the Jaycees became inactive, the city of Irvine took on the responsibility of maintaining and lighting the star, which they have continued doing for decades.
Vandalism still a problem
Current Mayor James Gross said that city employees Calvin Plowman and Jeremy Stepp recently spent most of a day readying the star to be turned on this year.
An anonymous individual had installed green bulbs on the star earlier in the year to commemorate Covid-19 victims, but most of the bulbs had been shot out.
The city ordered LED bulbs and replaced what few bulbs were left. Gross said on Monday that many of the new bulbs have already been destroyed.
The old road up there, (which once also led to a rock quarry), is so rugged that city workers drive up as far as they can in a side-by-side ATV and hike the rest of the way, carrying what they need to work on the star in backpacks.
Gross budgets a couple of hundred dollars each year to keep the star lit. Last year, a new breaker box was installed after the old one was destroyed by vandals.
The city must also keep the right of way cleared so the power can be turned on. When Gross first became mayor, he said city workers spent three days working with chain saws to do that.
Mayor Gross said he thinks the star needs to be reworked so that it can be disassembled and stored each year.
“There’s no good way to patrol it,” he said.
So, for now, the star shines bright over Irvine and beyond, a symbol of hope for Estill Countians every year, but especially this one.
Re-doing the star would involve considerable time and expense, Mayor Gross said.
Time will tell if Estill Countians value their Christmas star enough to keep it lit.
Editor’s note: I have relied heavily on the memories of a few who were involved with building and installing the Christmas star. If other readers out there have recollections they would like to add, just for the record, I’d love to hear them.