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It’s larger than you expect, but smaller than you suspect, too.
But the moment you peer out to the view from Gilbert Bachmann’s property perched high above Wheeling in the village of Bethlehem, you realize this is the star you’ve stared at, prayed to, and hoped with during those late nights after mother and father urged you to slumber before St. Nicholas came sliding down that living room chimney.
This is THE star, the one that Wheeling residents in Woodsdale, Edgwood, Dimmeydale, out the pike, and near Wheeling Park have enjoyed for decades and the same one travelers along Interstate 70 have seen and wondered about.
The Bethlehem Star.
Today it measures 20 feet from one point to the next, and that’s much larger than the one the Bachmanns first erected on the property in 1955.
“That first year Gilbert built a star that was 12-foot from point to point, and then in 1968 he made another one that was 14-foot from one point to the next,” explained Walter Doran, a lifelong friend of the Bachmann family. “He made the bigger one because he wanted it to be seen more clearly from down below, but as it turned out, he still wasn’t happy.
“Through the years the Bachmanns would always cut down anything in the backyard that might block the star from being seen by anyone. Gilbert would not have anything interfering with that star; that’s for sure,” he said. “He loved having that for everyone to see down below, and he believed it added to the Christmas spirit in the areas where it could be seen.
“And then, in 1991, he told me that he wanted it much larger than what it was, so that’s when I built the one we have up now,” the 63-year-old continued. “That was in 1991, and the new star was 20 feet from point to point, so I think people can see it pretty clear now.”
Doran used five pieces of Schedule-80 plastic pipe, and he attached 30, 15-watt bulbs to the frame. The star is hanging from a large tree branch in the Bachmann’s backyard and is secured by steel stakes and a roping system Doran also designed.
“Gilbert once had it hanging from the back of his deck on his house, but when he wanted it to be bigger, I looked up into that tree, saw that branch, and didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t use that branch and raise it up a little more than what it was,” he recalled. “That’s when Gilbert asked me to do it, so I did it.
“When you see it down below, it sure looks a lot bigger than what it actually is. It looks humungous, but when you get up to it, you realize it’s not very big at all,” Doran said. “Those are 15-watt incandescent bulbs, and one of these days it might be hard to find those. So far, though, I’ve been able to keep it as original as it’s been since I built it in 1991,” Doran said. “Most of the light bulbs that are being made today are too high in the wattage, so that’s why I will use these ones as long as I can.”
Gilbert Bachmann was a partner in the law firm Bachmann Hess Bachmann, and he lived to be 96 years old. When he passed in November 2014, no one knew what the star’s future would be.
“When Gilbert passed away last November, his niece asked me if I was still going to put the star up. She lives down in Dimmeydale, and could see the star very clearly from her home,” Doran recalled. “She told me that if I didn’t put it up, people would be pretty upset. She said a lot of people count on that star each and every year.
“So I told her that I would put the star up again if it’s OK with his son, Mark, and he thought it would be a fitting tribute to his father. He thought his dad would be very happy if I put it up again,” he said. “So I put it up last year, and I put it up again this year. Until I’m told otherwise, I’m going to keep putting it up.”
Doran, a retired heavy equipment mechanic for the West Virginia Division of Highways, was unaware of the star’s popularity until a family member told him last year that the annual ornament was being discussed on social media.
“To be honest, I had never really given it much thought until last year. My cousin contacted me one day and told me to get on Facebook because there were people talking about the star on a page called, ‘Memories of Wheeling,’” Doran said. “When I got on that page, there were a lot of comments, and there were some who said that they didn’t live here anymore, but when they come home at this time of year, they always make an effort to see it again.
“There were people who were asking who owned it, and they stated on there that Gilbert had passed and that they did not know if it was going to continue,” Doran said. “So I decided to post that it was me who takes care of the star now, and I told them that I plan to keep putting it up as long as the family wanted me to. After that? Oh man, I think there were more than 150 comments that were posted after that.
“I really didn’t realize how important that star is to so many people, but I certainly do now. I’ve always put up the star right after Thanksgiving, and I’ve always taken it down right after New Year’s Day. That’s the schedule Gilbert used for a lot of years, so I have just stuck with it, and there have been many years when the supports that I have for it are frozen into the ground, and that’s when I’ve had to wait until March or April to remove those posts.”
Doran has been married to his wife, Pat, for 30 years, but he has known the Bachmann family since his first day on Earth.
“My parents started renting from the Bachmanns about a year before I was born, and that house was just down Bachmann Drive from their house,” he explained. “It was so cheap, and the location was so ideal that my parents never did go looking for a house to buy.
“It was only $35 per month to rent the house we lived in, and it was really a great area to grow up in because we had all the yard you wanted to mow and all the garden that you wanted to plow,” he continued. “As I kid I had all the room I wanted, and it was a very safe area.
And, as Gilbert got older and after his wife had passed away, he needed me to continue doing things for him, and I guess I adopted him as my father after my dad died,” Doran added. “He was real good to me so, I wanted to do what I could for him, and that includes the star. I will put that star up and take it down every year in his honor.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)