Gerald Cain has been putting on his suit and fedora and driving to the top of Bald Knob Mountain almost every Easter for the past 70 years.
"I only missed once when my wife was sick," said the 87-year-old farmer from Jonesboro.
Gerald was one of an estimated 1,000 people who attended last Sunday's sunrise service at Bald Knob Cross of Peace near Alto Pass, about 90 miles southeast of Belleville.
Why is the annual pilgrimage so important?
"Jesus Christ is important," Gerald said. "He has been wonderful to me and my family."
Last weekend's crowd celebrated not only the Resurrection of Christ but the 50th birthday of the 111-foot-tall white cross, which has become a local landmark and tourist attraction.
It's open every day to anyone willing to drive to the 1,034-foot summit on a 5-mile blacktop road that winds through woods.
"People come here from all over the world," said Janet Merz Whitmer, of Pinckneyville, a board member for the non-profit corporation that owns and operates the site.
Prayer and fellowship
On Sunday, Janet and board member Helen Heern served coffee and doughnuts to visitors in a white, sided building that serves as Bald Knob Welcome Center.
Everyone seemed to have a story to tell.
"The road (to the cross) used to be gravel and only one car wide," said Twilla Smith, 41, of Anna. "If you met a car coming down, you both had to give a little and pray that you wouldn't fall off the mountain."
Linda Hutchcraft recalled her first Easter service 45 years ago.
The West Frankfort woman had decided not to go to church that Sunday because she couldn't afford new clothes for her two children. She loaded them up in pajamas and drove to Bald Knob.
"(After the service) my 4-year-old said, 'That's the prettiest thing I've ever seen,'" said Linda, 68. "They loved it, and so did I."
Vickie Martinez got involved with the cross as a youth leader in the Christian Motorcycle Association.
On Sunday, she was selling T-shirts for the 21st annual Blessing of the Bikes, which is April 28.
"It depends on the weather, but they've had up to 5,000 bikes on the hill," said Vickie, 54, of Vienna. "It's usually on the news. They serve roadkill (vegetable beef) stew and chili."
Ahead of their time
Bald Knob Cross of Peace was the brainchild of mail carrier Wayman Presley and the Rev. W.H. Lirely.
On a Sunday walk in 1936, they discussed the importance of unity and the need for a place where people of all faiths could occasionally meet for combined worship.
About 250 people attended the first Easter service on Bald Knob the following year.
By the time Gerald showed up in the early 1940s, organizers were mounting a wooden cross on a fire lookout tower and stringing it with Christmas lights.
"There was a farmer named Henry Rendleman who had a tractor, and he pulled a generator to (provide electricity)," he said.
People eventually came up with the idea of building a permanent cross on the mountain. Wayman took out a loan to buy 36 acres and persuaded 116 "trustees" to pay $100 each and form Bald Knob Christian Foundation.
The original board included women and blacks.
"The people involved in this project were innovators," said Wayman's grandson, D.W. Presley, 31, of Carbondale, a firefighter who heads the current board. "They were ahead of their time in terms of inclusiveness and unity."
It took several more years to raise enough money to build the cross. The effort attracted national attention, and Wayman appeared on the TV show "This is Your Life."
Some donors were inspired by trustee Myrta "Pig Lady" Clutts, who had covered her $100 pledge by selling piglets from her sow's abnormally large litter.
"A strategy was devised to challenge (other) people to raise pigs, sell them and turn profits over to the cross," according to a foundation history.
Workers broke ground for Bald Knob Cross of Peace in 1959. Four years later, they attached the last of about 900 steel panels with white porcelain veneer.
"(It created) a spectacular night sight, which could be seen for 7,500 square miles after it was illuminated with 40,000 watts of lighting," the history states.
People continued to visit Bald Knob and attend Easter services over the next four decades. Gerald served on the board for 30 years.
But the cross gradually deteriorated. Panels fell off the frame, vandals broke lights and partiers littered the grounds.
"Fourteen years ago, there were a lot of bad things happening out here," said Roger Gibson, 56, who now serves as caretaker.
Reversal of fortune
Bald Knob hit bottom in the mid-2000s, when disputes among board members resulted in a lawsuit. A judge suspended their ability to raise or spend money for repairs or maintenance.
That's when a group called Friends of the Bald Knob Cross of Peace came to the rescue.
Janet, D.W. and other members raised more than $400,000 through cross walks, fish fries, quilt raffles and T-shirt sales.
"It's a cross of peace," Janet said. "And in my opinion, that's the only thing that's going to help us. I come from a military background, and if we stop working for peace, we've lost everything."
Another turning point was Roger's appointment as Bald Knob caretaker, responsible for mowing 16 acres of grass and performing other maintenance.
He later moved into the Welcome Center with his son, Dave, and pit bull, Samantha, which has helped keep out troublemakers at night.
"There will never be drugs or alcohol allowed on this mountain as long as I'm here," Roger said. "We get too many kids who don't need to see that."
$1 million renovation
The courts appointed a transitional board of Southern Illinois ministers for Bald Knob in 2008. It evolved into a permanent board for the non-profit corporation with Wayman's grandson at the helm.
In the past four years, members have overseen about $1 million in cross renovations, including $650,000 in cash expenditures.
"There are untold numbers of people who have provided free and discounted services," D.W. said.
For example, a wilderness rescue team volunteered to remove old panels from the cross.
"It was a chance for them to practice rappelling," said project manager and Bald Knob board member Ron Stork, 58, of Sparta.
Workers power-washed and repaired the frame, then attached new foam panels that are strong and resistant to condensation. They're covered with a white metal finish.
Ron, who owns J.M.S. Metals, has been impressed by the performance of the original frame under harsh conditions.
"This is about as tough as it gets unless you're in a hurricane," he said. "(The cross) sets up on top of a mountain, and there's nothing to block the wind."
'It belongs to everybody'
The Easter sunrise service at Bald Knob last Sunday featured gospel singing, bagpipe music and a message of unity by the Rev. Steven McKeown.
Bundled-up visitors sat in lawn chairs and looked out on the foggy hills and valleys of Shawnee National Forest.
"I loved hearing 'Amazing Grace' on the bagpipe," said Ellie Rush, principal at Red Bud Elementary School. "And seeing so many people here, just coming together to hear the word."
It was the first time Ellie and husband, Jeff, had been on the mountaintop.
An estimated 400 to 500 people visit Bald Knob each weekend. Some hold family reunions at the pavilion or spread out blankets for picnics.
Last year, dozens of couples got married on the grounds. Admission is free.
"Really, the cross belongs to nobody, or it belongs to everybody, depending on how you look at it," Ron said.
Bald Knob T-shirts, mugs and other souvenirs are sold at the Welcome Center. Donations also are appreciated.
Roger doesn't keep set hours of operation, but he gladly serves as tour guide if he's not too busy.
"A lot of people come here because they're hurting," he said. "This is a very spiritual place. They come to pray under the cross. They come for healing. God can heal you anywhere, but this is such a wonderful place."
Bald Knob Cross of Peace
Size: 111 feet tall and 63 feet wide
Elevation: 1,034 feet
When built: 1959-1963
How to help: Workers have completed renovations on the cross, but they're still making improvements to the grounds. Architectural plans call for a circular plaza with walkways, trees and flowers. People can buy engraved pavers for $125 or $250. Other donations also are welcome.
Information: Visit www.baldknobcross.com, call 618-893-2344 or write 3630 Bald Knob Road, Alto Pass, IL 62905.
Directions: From Belleville, take Illinois 13 to Pinckneyville, Illinois 13/127 to Murphysboro and Illinois 127 to Alto Pass (about 13 miles south of Murphysboro), then go left toward Chestnut, right onto Chestnut and slightly left onto Bald Knob Road.