Softness in hard times, light in dark days

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In the most difficult of times, some people show a certain softness. From darkness, light can appear spontaneously. Maybe it is as Eleanor Roosevelt said in the depths of the Depression, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Folks in Palmer Lake, seem to have taken that to heart years ago.

Every morning in December, if one turns North toward Denver, they will be guided by the huge lighted star on Sundance Mountain. Every night of the season until Jan. 1, everyone can see it on the steep slope to the Northwest.

“In 1935, during the dark days of the Great Depression, the former railroad company town of Palmer Lake found a way to light the holidays, beginning a tradition that continues today,” wrote Cathleen Norman in a 2008 story in The Denver Post.

“The 500-foot, five-point Palmer Lake Christmas star is the bright idea of B.E. Jack, who managed the Mountain Utilities electric company. He teamed up with Sloan’s Cafe owner Bert Sloan, who saw the idea as a way to draw drivers to his restaurant near Colorado 105, a popular route between Denver and Colorado Springs.”

Norman quoted Sloan in her story. “We tried to keep the town from dying, and make it a good place to live. We wanted to do something the town could be proud of for many years, and the star did just that.”

According to a story penned by Rod VanVelson and Jane VanVelson Potts in 1980 for the Palmer Lake Historical Society, “After coffee Mr. Jack took Bert for a ride and stopped about 10 miles south of town. Mr. Jack explained how he had visualized a giant star on Sundance Mountain that would be noticeable for miles. He felt such a star would be Palmer Lake’s contribution for many future holiday seasons. Bert agreed and knew this novelty would be enjoyed by many because in 1935 the Denver — Colorado Springs highway passed through the town of Palmer Lake. They spent most of that morning driving around looking at Sundance Mountain from different angles trying to imagine how the star would look and discussing the problems of its construction. Both men agreed to discuss this idea of a star with other Palmer Lake residents.”

As the story goes, a few days later, Jack gave the exact same tour to Richard Wolf, a linemen in his employ at Palmer Lake an the idea began to take shape as a very real possibility.

“Palmer Lake was a small town and the word of a star spread quickly. The back booth at Sloan’s Cafe had often been the favorite gathering spot for the young men of the town. They spent several summer evenings discussing and drawing plans over this back table before the actual work got underway. C. E. Rader, another Mountain Utilities lineman, drew the electrical wiring plans, as this was his line of work,” wrote VanVelson and Potts.

“Most of the construction organization was left to Bert Sloan, Richard Wolf, C. E. Rader and Byron Medlock, all residents of Palmer Lake. Because of his surveying experience Byron Medlock assumed responsibility for planning the size and layout of the star. Mr. Jack was physically unable to climb and work with the younger men but it was Mr. Jack who convinced Mountain Utilities to contribute used poles and cable for this worthwhile project. He gladly advised the volunteer crew and made available much of the necessary equipment. Sundance Mountain was a perfect place for the star but posed a real challenge. The 60 percent slope with its underbrush, yucca and rocks made working conditions difficult.”

Most of the work was done by hand, with many of the posts set in concrete because of the shallow depth of rock on the mountain. The concrete was mixed by hand and carried up in buckets.

“Finding time to work on the star was difficult since most of the men worked six or seven days a week. Many late evenings and Sundays were spent completing the task. Finding time was especially hard for Bert because summer weekends were the busiest time of all in the cafe. Nevertheless he found time as did Richard, Byron, C. E. Rader, Gilbert Wolf, Floyd Bellinger, George Sill, Jess Kruger and many other townspeople.”

Perhaps one of the truest heroes of the process was not a man however, or even human.

“One avid worker during the building of the star who deserves mention was Bert’s dog, a German shepherd, named Dizzy after Dizzy Dean the famous baseball player of that era. Dizzy was Bert’s constant companion. Bert made a small pack that he strapped to Dizzy. As the crews worked and moved about the mountainside Dizzy carried supplies from one group to another. Everything from hammers to electrical wire and even light bulbs were placed in Dizzy’s pack. A short whistle or a call of his name and ‘Ol Diz was soon there with energy left over.”

Beginning in 1936, the star has been lit each year from Dec. 1 until Jan. 1. The star is also lit on the Memorial Day weekend. Except for blackout purposes during World War II, the star has shined brightly since 1935.

“In the beginning, the city paid for the electricity until Dec. 15, while Mountain Utilities donated it for the rest of the month. This arrangement lasted for several years. In 1937, the Palmer Lake Volunteer Fire Department became custodian of the star while the city contributed financial support. The custody and maintenance of the star today still rests with the Volunteer Fire Department. Funds to maintain the star are partly raised at a widely attended annual ‘chili supper’ hosted by the PLVFD.”

According to the Palmer Lake Historical Society account, revised in 2008 by Rogers Davis and H. Edwards, “The cable, wiring and posts of the original star survived the tests of time until 1976. At that time as part of the bicentennial, Col. Carl Frederick Duffner, a Palmer Lake resident, spearheaded a fund raising campaign to replace the posts and rewire the star. This time rather than Bert, Richard, Dizzy and the rest carrying every ounce of equipment up the mountainside a helicopter airlifted the new wire and steel posts. The original cable installed in 1935 did not need to be replaced. Wet concrete was airlifted rather than carried up the mountain in buckets. This 1976 airlift of equipment took three hours compared to more than three months of labor in 1935.

In 2002, the star needed renovation once again. Project Engineer Todd Bell led a community project to rebuild the star. The 50-plus volunteers came from the fire department, Historical Society, town officials and citizens of the Tri-Lakes area. This renovation involved replacing the electrical wiring and other major components. A new automated controller complying with the American With Disabilities Act allows remote control operation of the star. A new type of connector was installed on all sockets to prevent wire damage and also allow bulb positioning adjustments. The lights were repositioned for symmetry and another bulb was added for a new total of 92.”

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