Cross for all creeds

Saturday, February 16, 2002

BALD KNOB, Ill.

The 111-foot-tall white cross atop this high hill near Alto Pass began as a dream of two Makanda men, rural mail carrier Wayman Presley and the Rev. William Lirely, a pastor.

It was 1936 when the two first began talking of a "united worship" for all denominations atop the hill, which commands a breathtaking view of the surrounding land. The first Easter service was held on Bald Knob in 1937. By the mid-1940s, the service had grown to 10,000 people. And those were the days when the steep, winding dirt road to the cross had just one lane.

The first crosses at the site were three simple wooden ones put together in 1937 by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which had a camp near Pomona.

But Presley and Lirely envisioned a huge cross that would be visible for miles around, to serve as a testimony year-round. It seemed an insurmountable task, but people pledged their time and money to help make the dream come true.

One was Myrta Clutts of Cobden, a widow with four children. She also had a cow, a pig, some chickens and a dog. Though she didn't have $10 to her name, she pledged $100 for the cross because, she said in a 1987 interview, "it was for all creeds, colors and denominations. I thought that was the greatest idea I'd ever heard."

Then Betsy, Clutts' pig, became an instrument of God. The sow gave birth to 21 piglets, three times the normal litter. Betsy could only nurse 12 of the piglets, but Flossie, the dog, had just lost her entire litter of puppies, and became surrogate mother to the piglets.

Clutts sold 14 of the pigs, paid her $100 pledge and had $400 left to pay her bills. She kept four pigs as brood sows. Presley set up a barn on Clutts' farm and more than 1,700 piglets were produced from Betsy's original litter. They were given to farmers who raised them and donated money from their sale to the Bald Knob Cross fund.

Boost for building effort

Schoolchildren and Sunday school classes collected nickels and dimes; motor caravans of church members went out to raise funds.

A huge boost for Bald Knob Cross came in 1955 when Presley was featured on "This is Your Life," a TV show hosted by Ralph Edwards. Donations poured in, and attendance at the next Easter service was about 15,000 people.

When enough money was gathered to actually begin work on the cross in 1959, the commitment continued.

The Deal brothers, who owned a blacksmith shop in Murphysboro, hand-dug the foundation, creating scaffolding to help them get out of the deep hole after each day's labor, said Tom Heil, a member of the present board. The Deals contributed both money and labor.

The cross, a massive concrete structure covered with porcelain panels, was completed in 1963. Forty floodlights were installed in 1964 to illuminate the cross.

The work continues, Heil said. Each spring through fall, a variety of fund-raisers are held in the welcome center. And those who have worked for the cross for decades continue to donate pies, cakes, needlework and crafts to help keep the cross as a beacon for all faiths.

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