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The Brightest Star in the Sky

Roanoke landmark lights up the holidays

November-December 2023

Construction of Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Star was initially commissioned by a local merchants association in an effort to draw traffic and trade into the city. (Photo by Daryl Watkins/Creative Dog Media)

Many people — native Virginians especially — have fond memories tied to Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Star, but Glenda Booth’s ties to the Southwest Virginia landmark are special. Her father, William Booth, was the lead electrician when the iconic structure was constructed in 1949. “My father was born in 1911 in Franklin County, Va., and took electrical classes through the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. He then went to work for Jefferson Electric in Roanoke, which was contracted to work on the star,” she says. “He actually was the one who flipped the switch for the first time once it was completed.”

At the base of the Mill Mountain Star, which has come to also be known as the Roanoke Star, is a plaque commemorating Mr. William Booth, surrounded by boxwoods from his home in Vinton, Va. “Those boxwoods, planted at the Vinton home in 1955, were grown from grafts of the original ones on my father’s family farm,” says Glenda Booth.

Her son, Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell, also has special memories of his grandfather and the star. “I can remember him driving me around in his Volkswagen Bug, pointing it out,” Surovell says. “Both my grandparents were very proud of their connection to it.”

The star’s construction was initially commissioned by a local Roanoke merchants association in an effort to draw traffic and trade into the city. Today, the beloved structure is said to be the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star and continues to draw visitors.

Resting nearly 850 feet above the city of Roanoke and visible for 60 miles from the air, it was originally intended to be illuminated only during the holiday season, but it eventually became so popular with Roanoke residents and visitors alike, that it is now illuminated every night, 365 nights a year. Its 2,000 feet of neon tubing can light up in three colors: red, white or blue. Standing nearly 90 feet tall and weighing in at 30 tons, it is responsible for Roanoke’s nickname as the “Star City of the South” and is visited by thousands each year.