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Long before the Cross of Peace, hundreds gathered at Bald Knob Mountain for Easter sunrise

  • Every year since 1937, hundreds have made the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.

    Every year since 1937, hundreds have made the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.
    Courtesy of Bald Knob Cross of Peace

  • Every year since 1937, hundreds make the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.

    Every year since 1937, hundreds make the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.
    Courtesy of Bald Knob Cross of Peace

  • Every year since 1937, hundreds make the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.

    Every year since 1937, hundreds make the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise.
    Courtesy of Bald Knob Cross of Peace

 
By Chanda Green
Contributing writer
updated: 3/28/2018 1:41 PM

The Bald Knob Cross of Peace, a national symbol of faith, sits atop one of the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in the Shawnee National Forest near Alto Pass. At 111 feet tall, it towers above the Union County landscape, and when the cross is illuminated at night, it's visible for more than 7,500 square miles.

Every year since 1937, hundreds have made the trek to the top of Bald Knob Mountain on Easter Sunday to usher in the dawn and celebrate with an outdoor service of worship and praise. Worshipers bring lawn chairs, blankets and a spirit of expectation as they sip coffee and wait for the sun to rise.

The idea to build the cross is credited to local entrepreneur Wayman Presley. As the story goes, Presley was talking to the Rev. W.H. Lirely in 1937 when the conversation turned to the need for a place where people of all denominations could gather for worship. As they talked, their attention was drawn to nearby Bald Knob Mountain.

That conversation led to the first Easter Sunrise Service, held on Bald Knob Mountain in 1937 with a small but enthusiastic crowd of 250. The popularity of the event led to a plan to purchase the mountain. Presley secured commitments of $100 each from 116 people in 34 communities in five states, made them all the first members of a newly formed not-for-profit organization, and used the money to buy the land.

Fundraising continued, and by 1953 the group had raised enough to construct the foundation of the cross. Most of that money, about $30,000, was raised by selling pigs.

Myrta "Pig Lady" Clutts is credited for the fundraising idea. As the story goes, after pledging $100, Clutts, a lady of great faith but not many resources, decided to sell the piglets that her sow Betsy was about to have. When she saw there were 21 of them, more than three times the average litter, she called it "an answer to faith and prayers."

She told Presley how she paid for her pledge, and he started planning a pig campaign.

Clutts gave Presley four of Betsy's piglets, and Presley built a large barn on Clutts' property to raise them. Farmers along his 67-mile rural mail route allowed him to glean corn from their fields for feed, Southern Illinois University let him have its garbage, and soon there were plenty of pigs.

Using a homemade trailer tied behind his Model A mail car, Presley distributed more than 1,600 piglets to farmers in 11 counties. The farmers sent the money from selling their grown pigs to the Bald Knob Christian Foundation.

In 1959, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in conjunction with the Easter Sunrise Christian Foundation.

In 1959, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in conjunction with the Easter Sunrise Service. The cross was completed in 1963, when the last of more than 900 heavy-gauge steel panels were affixed to the framework. The bright, white porcelain veneer on those panels reflecting 40,000 watts of lighting created a spectacular sight, quickly making the cross one of the most popular tourist attractions in southern Illinois, bringing visitors from all over the world.

But across the following decades, interest in the cross waned, and its structure suffered from lack of maintenance. By the early 2000s, disputes between board members had escalated, culminating in a lawsuit. In 2006, the court ordered that the properties be locked down until legal proceedings were concluded, and the cross continued to deteriorate as the dispute lingered in the courts.

In the summer of 2008, an agreement was reached. Board members stepped down, and the court appointed a temporary transitional board made up mostly of southern Illinois religious leaders. The final legal settlement became official on Christmas Eve 2008, and the seven-member transitional board met in January 2009 for the first time. By the winter of 2009, about $150,000 had been spent to remove the original panels and repair the superstructure.

In February 2010, the transition board held a press conference, disclosing the details of the settlement. New by-laws were passed, and an aggressive membership drive was launched to begin rebuilding the trust of supporters, old and new. And in a spectacular ceremony on Dec. 22, 2012, the repaired and refurbished Bald Knob Cross of Peace lit up Shawnee Forest in all its original glory and purpose as a place to feel the presence of God.