ST. LOUIS – Looming 11 stories atop southern Illinois’ tallest peak, the Bald Knob Cross of Peace was inelegantly showing its half-century age. Hundreds of white porcelain panels were rusting, missing or hanging on by coat hangers and bailing wire.
But the landmark’s luster is back, courtesy of a feverish restoration effort as deliberate as the one that brought about the iconic site after farmers sold pigs to help pay for it.
Just in time for the Christmas holiday, caretakers on Saturday will flip the switch on new lighting for the cross, officially concluding a three-year rehab funded with $550,000 in small donations despite tough economic times and an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by an atheist to have some state funding given back.
Those behind the makeover effort see it as a high point for the region, given the thousands who visit each year, making the landmark among southern Illinois’ biggest lures – and unquestionably the most visible as it rises above the 380-resident village of Alto Pass, about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis.
“We’re just a bunch of southern Illinoisans who were concerned and wanted this restored,” said D.W. Presley, president of the board that manages the cross. “This all just shows the magnitude of the importance that people find in this cross. Everyone just banded together.”
The panels and the electrical system have been replaced on the structure, which had been peeled back to its steel-and-concrete frame. Vandalism-prone lighting – 40 1,000-watt incandescent bulbs – at ground level have given way to elevated, more efficient LED illumination, and security cameras have been added.
“We can’t believe it’s to this point, really,” said a beaming Debbie Nash, secretary of Friends of the Cross, the landmark’s fundraising arm that ultimately collected $250,000 past its goal.
When the value of donated labor and equipment are factored in, Presley said, the project’s tab exceeded $1 million.
But $20,000 of the contributions rankled Rob Sherman enough to take the cross to court. The Chicago-area atheist, known for challenging religious displays in public spaces across the state, forced the landmark to defend against his August 2010 lawsuit, which challenged using a 2008 state grant to the restoration project. He argued using taxpayer money for the cross was unconstitutional.
Federal appellate courts have rejected Sherman’s claims, and he has taken the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Friends of the Cross insisted that the grant was related to the landmark’s tourism and had nothing to do with its religious aspect.
“I have no qualms about the restoration. I have qualms about how it was paid for. It’s not the job of Illinois atheists to pay for reconstruction of a Christian cross,” said Sherman, a retired Chicago-area radio talk show host.
Sherman said he is considering posing a distraction to Saturday’s lighting ceremony by flying circles over the cross in his orange, one-seater plane.
The questioned grant was used as a down payment on the upgrade of the cross, which as a fixture on the 1,025-foot-high Bald Knob Mountain has stood sentry over forests and the region’s orchards and winery grapevines, drawing thousands of visitors each year.
Easter services have been held on the mountain since 1937, not long before rural mail carrier Wayman Presley and pastor William Lirely envisioned a huge cross there that would be visible for miles year-round.
Their fundraising efforts got a big boost in 1955 when Presley was featured on television’s “This is Your Life.” Donations poured in. Schoolchildren and Sunday school classes collected coins for the cross.
Myrta Clutts called the cross “the greatest idea I’d ever heard” and pledged $100 to the project when she didn’t have $10 to spare. Clutts considered her pig Betsy an instrument of God when the animal gave birth to 21 piglets, three times the normal litter. She sold 14 of the pigs, paid her $100 pledge and had $400 left to pay her bills.
Presley set up a barn on Clutts’ farm, where more than 1,700 piglets were produced from Betsy’s original litter. Each was given to farmers who raised them and donated money from their sale – by some accounts, at least $30,000 – to the Bald Knob Cross fund.
Work began on the cross in 1959 and was finished four years later.
Now a half-century later, even with Saturday’s ceremony, the caretakers say there’s more to be done, including plans for a garden of bricks encircling the cross that donors may personally engrave for $125 to $250.