Just after Thanksgiving, the star atop Chimney Rocks seems to magically appear.
Blazing bright from dusk until midnight, the star overlooking Hollidaysburg has become a heartwarming tradition to locals.
Many Blair Countians, however, might be unaware about the star's birth, and its history, which dates back almost a half century.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
A star shines from Chimney Rocks, Hollidaysburg, during the Christmas season.
It was 1964 - the year the Hollidaysburg and Altoona Jaycees combined. The local civic group decided the town needed a Christmas star.
"Every year we would take on different projects to do something in Hollidaysburg," said Dick Meadows, who was president of the group that year. "One of the projects was to put a star on Chimney Rocks."
Meadows, whose family owns the custard business in Duncansville, remembered his grandfather placing a lighted star on top of the scrapple plant (behind the custard stand) during Christmas time.
"He would put a star up there every year at Christmas time," Meadows said.
So, the Jaycees placed the old wooden star, 8 feet high and 8 feet wide, on top of Chimney Rocks. A few of the Jaycees hefted the star up the rocky, muddy mountain trail to the top of Chimney Rocks.
"It was very heavy. It was made of two-by-fours," said Meadows.
At that time, electricity on Chimney Rocks wasn't available, and the star needed to be lit. They Jaycees quickly solved that problem by lugging a generator up the mountain to power the star. A conundrum arose when the Jaycees discovered the generator ran out of gas after a couple hours. But they didn't give up.
"For the first couple years, we would take turns sitting up there at night with the generator to keep the star on. When it would run out of gas, we could go to get gas," Meadows said. From sundown to a little after midnight, the Jaycees made sure the star never extinguished. "I don't know why we did it but we did."
A couple years later the Jaycees decided the old wooden star wasn't big or sturdy enough, so the Jaycees decided to construct a new 15-foot-high aluminum star with 72 light sockets. J. Terry Wilt of Hollidays-burg was in charge of this rebuilding project at the time and he and a group of Jaycees built the star in the driveway of his father-in-law's house.
Because the star was so large, it was carried in two pieces to the top of Chimney Rocks. At the top, they dug two holes for two light poles, and bolted the star on the poles.
"That was some job. Oh, man. That was something, taking that up there. That's all rock up there. It was a dandy alright, but we did it and it looked great," said Wilt.
Around that same time Wilt convinced Penelec to provide power to the star.
"Probably for several years we left that star up there," said Meadows.
Then, in 1980 the Jaycees decided once again they needed a bigger star, so they built a 20-foot-high aluminum star in the basement of one of the Jaycees members. At that time they also built a cross in the middle of the star which was lit at Easter. (Once the Hollidaysburg borough acquired the Chimney Rocks property, however, they were no longer permitted to light the cross because of the religious implications.)
A few years later, the Jaycees disbanded, and the star wasn't lit for at least one Christmas because there wasn't an organization to maintain, repair and light the star.
"I was very disappointed, but it was more than one person could handle," said Meadows.
The Hollidaysburg Ambucs, another local civic organization, took over the star in 1983.
"We do the maintenance for it and it's something nice for the community that we wanted to continue," said Dr. Rick Centar, president of the Hollidaysburg Ambucs.
About 10 years ago, the star was rebuilt again and moved slightly. The original location was too accessible to the public. The star is between 30 and 35 feet high and is lighted by 100 25-watt bulbs.
"The one we took over from the Jaycees, it was closer to the lookout. It was right behind the lookout. Because there was so much vandalism to it, we moved it down a little further so there wasn't easy access to it," Centar said.
Every year the Jaycees spend $300 to $500 a year for repairs, maintenance and electricity.
This year Ambucs started selling candy to raise money for the cause.
"We're trying to make more money for the star fund," Centar said. "I think it's just part of tradition. It just brings people together. People enjoy seeing it on the hillside. It's good for community spirit."
Though Meadows and Wilt are no longer involved with the maintenance of the star, they fondly remember the project that first put the star on Chimney Rocks.
"It really makes me proud to see it still burning. It has turned into a real Christmas tradition," said Meadows.