Towering cross on mountain in southern Illinois draws thousands of tourists, ire from atheist

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Farmers sold pigs to help raise money to build the towering cross on southern Illinois' highest point as a year-round testament to faith. The 11-story monument draws thousands of visitors each year, and supporters say it has promoted self-growth and reflection for nearly half a century.

But over the years, the once-glistening structure about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis began to show its age. The 650 or so white porcelain panels that cover the concrete and steel frame rusted or fell off. Some remained attached with only coat hangers and bailing wire.

A group cobbled together $360,000 of the $550,000 needed to restore the Bald Knob Cross of Peace, including a $20,000 grant from the state of Illinois. Now, a Chicago-area atheist who objects to the grant as a bit of unconstitutional pork has threatened to sue if the group doesn't return the money to the state.

Pitching the project as the renovation of a major tourist attraction "is a nice cover story," Rob Sherman said in a telephone interview Wednesday. But the retired Chicago-area radio talk show host who successfully fought Illinois' "moment of silence" in public schools said he thinks it would be more appropriate to use the money for such public interests as schools and roads. If it isn't returned, he promised "a long and expensive" lawsuit.

That didn't deter the Friends of Bald Knob Cross. The money was used long ago as a down payment on the renovation of the monument near Alto Pass, Ill., said Bill Vandergraph, a minister and Friends board member.

"We're not shaken in any way," Vandergraph said Thursday. "We're trying to stay low-profile, and that's not out of fear. We're absolutely not intimidated."

His group applied for the money only after a state senator said they'd be eligible for it, he said. And, the landmark has proven versatile, housing federal government transmission equipment and used by Union County's conservation department.

Standing sentry over forests and much of the region's orchards and burgeoning wine country, the cross has been a fixture on the 1,025-foot-high Bald Knob Mountain for nearly a half century.

Easter services have been held on the mountain since 1937. Rural mail carrier Wayman Presley and pastor William Lirely envisioned a huge cross there that would be visible for miles and serve as testimony 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.

Widow 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.

Vandergraph said he expects the rehab to be done by September, regardless of whether Sherman files a lawsuit.

Sherman previously sued to have a state law requiring a daily "moment of silence" in Illinois public schools overturned. A federal judge ruled in his favor in January 2009, saying the law showed an unconstitutional intent to introduce prayer into schools.