Keepers of the Star

Firefighters dedicate decades to maintaining the Star in Castle Rock

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/6/20

When Jay Allen first hiked to the top of the Rock with the firefighters who maintain Castle Rock's iconic Star, the wind blew so hard that snow whipped sideways. By the time his mentors, Tammy …

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Keepers of the Star

Firefighters dedicate decades to maintaining the Star in Castle Rock

Posted

When Jay Allen first hiked to the top of the Rock with the firefighters who maintain Castle Rock's iconic Star, the wind blew so hard that snow whipped sideways. By the time his mentors, Tammy Denhard and Matt Rettmer, scaled their way down the icy, 40-foot by 40-foot star structure, they felt near frozen.

Allen ripped off his gloves and gave them to Rettmer. Denhard said the group looked like they'd been beaten up because their faces were so red.

“It was absolutely horrible out,” Allen said.

The trio didn't have a choice in working on the Star that day — it was one of the town's annual Starlighting celebrations in the mid-2000s, when the Star is lit for the holiday season.

They'd hoped for good forecasts in the week before to prepare the Star, but winter weather didn't cooperate, and they waited until they couldn't wait any longer.

In the hours leading up the event, which draws thousands of people downtown, Denhard and Rettmer installed all 100 of the Star's bulbs as Allen passed up tools from the ground. Somehow, they said, they got the task done and the celebration went as planned.

“We seriously talked about, can we honestly do this,” Denhard said.

Keepers of the Star

That was the day Allen learned maintaining the Star entailed far more than the average person realizes, he said.

The Star has shined from its place atop the Rock every holiday season since firefighters built it in 1936. The only exceptions were some years in World War II when there was an energy shortage, according to town staff.

On his first Star trip, Allen, a lieutenant in the department, offered to help out for an afternoon. Years later, Denhard told him they needed a true apprentice to learn about caring for the Star. She and Rettmer must one day pass the duty on to the next generation.

Denhard, 58, and Rettmer, 47, have volunteered their time caring for the Star for nearly 32 and 22 years respectively. Eventually, they came to be known as the “Keepers of the Star” among town staff.

“The important part for me was just the historic value of the firefighters originally erecting it,” Rettmer said. “I've always felt a sense of pride in maintaining that tradition.”

Denhard is retired from firefighting after starting with Castle Rock Fire Rescue in 1989, although she still volunteers with the department. Rettmer joined the department in 1998. They each volunteered to care for the Star the year they started.

The duo goes out a few times a year to repair the Star as needed. Sometimes that's replacing burned-out and broken bulbs or rewiring it altogether. Other times it's cleaning up vandalism.

The task means hauling supplies up the Rock, free-climbing the town's most famous natural landmark and then scaling the Star with climbing ropes. Work can take several hours. Regardless of the elements, Denhard and Rettmer said, caring for the Star is a physical feat.

“We're pretty in shape, and pretty fit, and you come down from there and you're exhausted,” Rettmer said.

They learned a few things along the way. Expect sore muscles. Only wear shoes with hard soles. A skilled climber — only town staff are permitted to climb the Rock while citizens are allowed to hike to its base — can scale the Star in just about any weather except for icy conditions. Extreme wind also poses a challenge.

A few days before the town's Starlighting ceremony, they go up to replace bulbs on the upper half of the Star. They complete the lower half the day of the ceremony, but the job isn't finished once they have the Star in working order.

Denhard stays atop the Rock on Starlighting days with a thermos of chili, keeping watch as many other department members are volunteering at a chili supper downtown at fire headquarters. At sundown she moves to the base of the Rock to avoid climbing in the dark. They've had issues with vandalism and pranksters in past years, she said.

In the late 1990s, a crew set up the Star, then ran to grab food at the chili dinner. When they returned to the Rock to turn the star on, someone had loosened its bulbs and only half the Star lit up.

“I decided that we wouldn't leave the Star unattended anymore,” she said.

In all her years working in Castle Rock, Denhard has never seen the Starlighting. It's not visible from the base of the Rock where she stays until fireworks have finished, she said.

What she does enjoy is a panoramic view of the town as fireworks flood the Rock with light and, “if the wind is right,” the sound of Christmas carols drifting up from the festival.

Throughout the event, Rettmer radios her updates from the ceremony stage downtown, letting her know when they're ready to turn the Star on. The entire event is scripted and orchestrated, he said.

An 'iconic' event

For the past two years, Allen has been training with Denhard and Rettmer. His blustery first trip up didn't scare him off, he said, much to Denhard and Rettmer's relief. They know they'll each phase out of the job eventually but haven't found someone willing to take over until Allen.

Allen grew up in Castle Rock, graduated from Douglas County High School and considers the town his home. Many people think of the Star when they think of Castle Rock, he said.

He's ready to take over whenever Denhard and Rettmer are prepared to pass the torch. That's easier said than done for Denhard. She's thought about retiring from the Star for several years, she said. The climb is getting harder on her.

But she's grown so invested in making sure the Star is taken care of she's not pulled herself away yet. Its caretakers can become possessive of it, she said.

“I'm not going to push,” Allen said. “It's yours, and when you feel like you're ready to turn something over, I will.”

Rettmer plans to care for the Star as long as he's physically able and employed with the department. To him, the job is more than making the sure the Star stays in good shape.

“It's one thing to help and it's another thing to realize that you're involved in such an iconic community event,” Rettmer said. “I think that's what kept me engaged.”

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