Star City

Anytime you can visit something prefaced with “the world’s largest…,” why wouldn’t you?  I had that opportunity recently during a visit to Southwest Virginia.

Just a half-day drive from Western North Carolina/Upstate South Carolina, the Roanoke Star is perched atop Mill Mountain. Built in 1949, it is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places and is the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star. (Say that three times fast!)

It’s original purpose was to kick-off the year’s Christmas shopping season. Over the past 60+ years, it has featured several different colors of lights – red, white and blue (for the bicentennial celebration in 1976), all red (to indicate a traffic fatality), and all white (in honor of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007).

Also known as the “Mill Mountain Star,” the structure is more than 88 feet tall and has more than 2,000 feet of neon tubing. It’s a short drive up the mountain to see it up close and in person, and once you get there, don’t miss the views of the city from the overlook.

Fortunately, exquisite scenery (and a zoo next door-that is NOT open off-season I learned the hard way) is not the only thing Roanoke offers. There’s also something for those interested in transportation, the arts, history and shopping.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation has been open more than 50 years, and while it represents all modes of transportation, it focuses on the rich traditions of railroads in Roanoke. It even features the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the south.

During my recent visit, I spent an entire afternoon exploring the Taubman Museum of Art in downtown Roanoke with a friend who lives there. At first glance, this beautiful, contemporary building appears out of place in the center of the city’s historical district.  But inside is a pleasant surprise that perfectly complements the past, present and future of the city.

Featured artists rotate on a regular basis, while permanent collections by internationally-acclaimed artists and experiences aimed at hands-on children experiences add to the charm of this free attraction.

It was only fitting that both Judith Lieber handbags (Earthly Delight) and Jane Weitzman shoes (Art & Sole) were featured exhibits during my recent trip. Looking ahead, a return visit may be necessary to experience the new “Tastings At The Taubman” events that will celebrate my second favorite luxury after shopping – wine and spirits!

A beautiful drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway made getting there half the fun. And since I only had a few hours to explore, I definitely plan to return soon to see even more of what the “Star City” has to offer!

The County Seat

The county seat is defined as the town or city where government offices and buildings are located. In Jackson County, North Carolina (population 40,271 according to the 2010 census), it also means a really big chair.

Webster, NC (population 363) sits in the geographic center of the county and was once the only township in Jackson County. It was designated as the “county seat” from 1851-1913, when it was replaced by the more powerful railroad center of Sylva, also the home of the Jackson County courthouse and library.

Even though Webster is no longer “officially” the county seat, it does HAVE a county seat thanks to local resident and former postmaster Mark Jamison. The story of how the chair came to be is long, complicated and somewhat political, but the important part is that it was built by Jamison in memory of his neighbor and friend, George Penland.

Small-town politics cageorgen often have a unique flavor that leaves a bad taste in residents’ mouths. That might be the case with the “county seat” in Webster, but Jamison is immune to the actions of what his late friend George called “The Nitpickers” in his town, and built the chair (and other oddities) in his front yard in spite of them.

After his friend passed away, Jamison decided to respond to “The Nitpickers” not with protests, petitions and social media posts, but with humor and creativity. (Maybe there’s a lesson there for us all.)

At 12 feet tall and more than 4 feet wide, many residents of the quiet town see the rocking chair (painted bright yellow) as an eyesore. Perhaps they should look at it from an outsider’s perspective. When I first saw it, it made me smile. And when I climbed up in it for a photo (even wearing my 5 inch heels), I felt like a kid again playing in the schoolyard. And for a brief moment, I was happy. (How could you NOT be happy sitting in something so overwhelming and fascinating?)

But then, I returned to my car and went back to work for the day, feeling a little like “Edith Ann” I must admit. But sitting in that chair was one of the highlights of my day and I found myself telling everyone I saw that day “Guess what I did today!?”  How often do youWebster NC Big Chair really get to say that?

Jackson County is relatively unknown to most outside of Western NC, but its’ beautiful scenery was featured in the 1993 film The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as the 1972 drama Deliverance and the 1996 comedy My Fellow Americans.

While the county seat (and library and courthouse and, well you get the idea…) is now in Sylva (population 2,588), the chair in Webster is more popular. It’s only an eyesore to those who have forgotten how to find amusement in life – like in the twinkle of a senior citizen’s eye or the giggle of a toddler, both of which the iconic chair inspires.

Jamison tells me he will be moving soon. After years of renovations to his house built around the same time Webster was formed in 1851, and years of public service, it’s time for a slower lifestyle. The chair, which meets all of the county building codes (much to the chagrin of “The Nitpickers”), is now for sale. Hopefully it will continue to bring delight to another small Southern town and passersby like me.

(To contact Jamison regarding purchasing the chair, email me!)


Memorial Belltower (NC State University)

belltowerThere are lots of things you expect to find in busy downtown cities…traffic, noise, pedestrians, restaurants and even shopping. And in state capitals, you even expect to find courthouses, offices and parking garages. But in downtown Raleigh, N.C., you might be surprised to find a small piece of history in the shape of a belltower.

The NC State University Memorial Belltower was originally built as a tribute to the school’s alumni who died in World War I. The cornerstone was laid in 1921, and after completion in 1937, it quickly became a landmark symbolizing inspiration to students, alumni and visitors alike. The belltower, which originally cost about $150,000 to build, is made of 1,400 tons of granite on a 700-ton concrete base. It stands more than 115 feet tall and is known as a “legend in stone.”

I was excited to explore this magnificent belltower and learn more about it during a recent trip to Raleigh.  While taking a few “selfies” in the hot, summer sun that Raleigh is somewhat famous for, I was approached by a gentleman wearing a “Wolfpack” shirt who asked if I wanted him to take a picture for me, so as to get the entire view of both me and the belltower in the photo.

I thanked him profusely, explaining I would be writing about the visit, and it would be a nice photo to have. He then surprised me by asking if I’d be interested in seeing the inside. My reply was quick. “The inside of what?”  His laugh was even quicker. “The inside of the belltower,” he chuckled.tom

And just like that, Dr. Tom Stafford introduced himself to me as “the man with the keys.” Dr. Stafford, a former vice-chancellor at the university, now volunteers his time to give tours of the memorial belltower, and he just happened to be walking by when he noticed me. (The 5” heels and dress I was wearing probably helped.)

A few students from neighboring Duke University were also there taking photos and videos, and he invited them to come along as well. Our enthusiasm was evident, as we all understood we were getting a rare, and unplanned, glimpse into a piece of history. We followed Dr. Stafford up the steps and to a small door. Then… he handed ME the keys!

Inside was small, but well-lit. There was a bench for meditation (I hope the next person to enter the belltower is still enjoying my sunglasses I left lying there) and a very large plaque engraved with names.

Dr. Stafford explained there are 35 names memorialized on that plaque – and 34 of them are NCSU alumni who died in WWI. But one name was mistakenly added of someone who had not yet died (Dr. Stafford prefers to say he was “still alive.”)  The name George L. Jeffers has been altered on the plaque to read George E. Jefferson, and that name now serves as a symbol of those unknown soldiers from NCSU and elsewhere who perished in the war.

More than 90 years after it was first erected, the Memorial Belltower at NC State University still stands as a symbol of hope to all who see it. On occasion, it is lit in red to celebrate the university’s achievements such as commencement, Founder’s Day, and even ACC wins, as well as on certain veterans’ holidays.

keysAfter retiring from his role as vice-chancellor, Dr. Stafford is not only “the man with the keys,” but also the man who gives tours and offers historical tidbits to unsuspecting tourists who are lucky enough to happen upon him.

If you’d like to see the inside of the Memorial Belltower, Dr. Stafford will be giving his next tours on October 1. The tours are free, but due to their popularity, advanced registration is required.