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Amid darkness, the familiar Mount Battie star shines from above

“I refer to it as the community star of hope”

The Mount Battie star was lit up on April 9 in Camden, Maine.
The Mount Battie star was lit up on April 9 in Camden, Maine.

It’s been a symbol of hope and renewal that has shone from atop Mount Battie in Camden, Maine, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day for more than a half-century now.

The 100 LED light bulbs affixed to Mount Battie Memorial Tower are visible from the town’s Main Street and can be seen by ships at sea: a five-pointed emblem of holiday cheer shining brightly from 800 feet above Penobscot Bay.

But now, suddenly, emblems of cheer are in short supply.

So much darkness. So little light.

We endure daily bulletins about hospitalizations and deaths, about a ruined economy and a summertime without baseball, about the slim chance that face masks and social distancing will soon fade away.

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So an idea was hatched. It grew into a movement, fueled by this simple question:

Why don’t we relight the star?

A crew worked to install the Mount Battie Star on April 6 in Camden, Maine.
A crew worked to install the Mount Battie Star on April 6 in Camden, Maine.

“Great idea!’’ said Peter Rollins. “Yeah, we can do that.’’

Rollins, 53, has been a volunteer firefighter in nearby Lincolnville for nearly 30 years and has been a keeper of the star’s light atop Mount Battie at Christmastime for almost as long: 25 years.

He is among a close group of volunteers who each winter fill up a 2.5-gallon gasoline tank to fuel a 3,000-watt generator that lights the star.

Now, with the holiday season long gone, they are repeating the task in springtime, driving 20 minutes or so, opening a locked gate, flipping a switch, and then stepping back to watch the star as its lights twinkle and cascade down the mountain.

“It’s such an honor to be involved with the star,’’ Rollins told me. “The response has been phenomenal. Facebook is just blowing up. It’s been nonstop. We’re getting messages from all across the country from people who have lived in Camden.

“I’ll be at the gas station and I’ll have people honking at me because they recognize me.’’

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Here’s how the whole thing started:

A local merchant placed a Christmas star on the side of his downtown market in the mid-1960s. According to local history, downtown merchants decided it deserved a place of more prominence. A place on Mount Battie.

In early December 1966, a local newspaper reported that the star’s glow caused such a ruckus that public safety officials fielded frantic calls about the lights in the sky. A mountainside fire? A flying saucer?

No, it was the dawn of a new local tradition.

“For a lot of years, we put in regular household incandescent lights — old-fashioned light bulbs,’’ said Tom Jackson, 64, who was born and raised in Camden.

Jackson said the star burns about 2 gallons of gasoline a night. The new light bulbs, he said, are only 5 watts — one third the wattage of the old bulbs, but three times brighter.

“I’m really lucky to live in the community I live in – a heartfelt community,’’ he said. “I’ve had e-mails and phone calls from all over the country and I’ve had at least a dozen people offer to pay for the gas. At least a dozen. They say: ‘What can I do?’ I say, ‘We’ve got everything covered. Enjoy.’ ‘’

Over the years, the star has become so synonymous with Camden — with joy and with generosity — that people found themselves staring heavenward at a void in the dusk, wondering when the lights would return.

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That’s precisely what Heather Spencer found herself doing, gazing out her kitchen window. She missed the lights in the sky. She remembered the goosebumps she would feel looking at the star at dusk.

Her hometown is Easthampton, Mass. When she saw a notice on the Easthampton Facebook page about a star atop Mount Tom that was relighted as a beacon of hope — a symbol of solidarity against the virus — a light bulb went off. Quite literally.

“I posted a question,’’ said Spencer, who moved to Camden a little over two years ago. “I said, ‘This might be asking too much, but I wonder if I we could relight the star on Mount Battie.’ ’’

Before she knew it, she was inundated with responses like this: “Oh, my God! That’s the best idea.’’

In short order, she found herself acquainted with the crew who had been faithful keepers of the star over the years.

Logistics were considered. Red tape was cut. Insurance was arranged. A closed state park was successfully petitioned for access.

Early this month, a group of star volunteers unpacked the star from storage, and checked to make sure it was in good shape. They trucked the steel frame to Mount Battie. They carried more than 100 LED bulbs with them.

The 26-foot-tall stone Mount Battie Memorial Tower was built at the summit in 1921. It honors the men and women of Camden who were part of the nation’s World War I effort.

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Usually, it takes about two hours to assemble the star. But nothing’s as usual anymore.

The volunteers wore masks on Mount Battie. And gloves. And they complied, as best they could, with the social distancing that’s become part of our new regimen.

It took twice as long this time.

“We don’t have much control and it kind of symbolizes hope,’’ Spencer told me the other day. “Last night, I was standing at my kitchen window and I thought, ‘Maybe it will go on.’ I stood there for 5 minutes and — Bing! — it went on. It moves me to tears.’’

She’s not alone.

Five years or so ago, Randy Stearns was the leader of a group that worked to restore the Mount Battie star. The state hadn’t allocated any money for the job, he said, so his group raised $100,000.

“I refer to it as the community star of hope,’’ Stearns said. "The lights look good from town and they look good 30 miles out to sea, I know for a fact. It’s working very well.’’

Bob Cochran, a New Jersey native who runs a local tree service company, paused a moment or two to regain his composure when I asked him about the power of the tower star.

“You have tough, salty, gnarly fishermen and I think it gives them some comfort,’’ said Cochran. “And then you have retired people who live alone. And they don’t have family in the area and it’s something they see around Christmastime and it’s a surprise that brightens their day.’’

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The star, he said, is a symbol that a whole community has rallied around.

“It gives people a chance to be part of this community. There are a lot of individuals out there. People who have struck out on their own. Entrepreneurs or tree climbers or boat captains. It can be a tough life.

“When I see the star, it reminds me that I’m part of a community. I’m part of a team. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace. When people are under duress and all in the same boat, they really pull together. That’s an aspect of humanity that really touches me quite profoundly.’’




Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.