Community effort restores nighttime lighting on Square Butte cross

Kathleen Gilluly
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Photo courtesy of Rosalee Rupp                        A helicopter piloted by Steve Arnold carried volunteers and a 600-pound solar lighting system to the top of Square Butte last month. The volunteers installed the new system and the lights now shine brightly on the cross which was originally installed in 1953. Top - This undated photo of Square Butte and the cross was taken by Robert Lubbers, the son-in-law of Gene and Melvin Williams, from a seat in a plane flown by Robert Western.

Photo courtesy of Rosalee Rupp
          
            A helicopter piloted by Steve Arnold carried volunteers and a 600-pound solar lighting system to the top of Square Butte last month. The volunteers installed the new system and the lights now shine brightly on the cross which was originally installed in 1953. Top - This undated photo of Square Butte and the cross was taken by Robert Lubbers, the son-in-law of Gene and Melvin Williams, from a seat in a plane flown by Robert Western.

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Photo by Kathleen Gilluly
          
            Rev. John Farnes in the sanctuary of the Family Church in Laurel. The church’s men’s group raised funds and volunteers to replace inoperable lights on the cross on Square Butte. They installed a solar system with LED lights with the help of community members from Laurel and Park City.

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From the Laurel Outlook archives
          
            Newspaper article about the Ku Klux Klan meeting on Square Butte. The article appeared in the Laurel Outlook Sept. 16, 1925.

Fall sports begin at area schools!

Although Rev. John Farnes remains modest about the role of the Family Church in replacing the light on the cross atop Square Butte, it may have been in the dark for a few more years without the church’s assistance.

“We’re just a part of a long line of folks who have helped at different times,” he said. “The cross was a project of the Methodist Youth Fellowship when it was first installed in 1953. It’s my understanding they were reclaiming the site from the Laurel Black Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

As reported by James O. Southworth in an article in last week’s Outlook, the Klan held a huge rally at the base of Square Butte in 1925 while they burned a cross and brandished torches on the top. The rally made the front page of the Outlook at time because it drew so many Klansmen and the flames could be seen from the city. According to the account in the paper, there were about 2,500 “Kluxers” in attendance with 100 or more candidates inducted that night.

Long before the Klan rally, the butte had served as a lookout and communications point for area Native Americans. As noted in Southworth’s report, the distinguished Crow Chief Plenty Coups was involved in a battle there between ranchers and members of the Blackfoot Tribe who had reportedly stolen horses from the ranchers. There are also headstones from a cemetery that was at the base of the butte from the 1880s, although the graves were later moved to the Park City Cemetery.

For many years the Merkes family who live below the butte had paid for the electricity to light the cross. According to Marcy Merkes, the electrical cords from their property to the cross at the top of the butte eventually became worn and were a fire danger. In 2017, the cables were removed by members of the Family Church and they began a fundraising campaign to replace the lighting system.

The cross, which was built by Richard Hageman and Keith Goman out of railroad timbers donated by then Laurel Mayor Pete Thomson, was set into a hole in the sandstone. According to a photo caption of the 1953 Easter sunrise dedication, the completed cross was carried to the top of the butte by Richie, Ronnie and Gary Hageman, Don Dilly and Forest and Keith Goman. “The Reverend Clarence Spellman conducted the dedication service, written by MYF members,” the inscription reads, continuing, “The weather was wet and rainy and heavy clouds covered the area. Suddenly, the clouds opened and the sun shined through sending streams of light and warmth.”

In 1963, Donald Hoppel placed the first lights on the cross. It was fitted with a white steel metal covering in the 1970s by Alan and Scott Richardson, and Jerry and Steve Shay.

Other churches followed suit and held Easter sunrises services at Square Butte in later years, including the Family Church which continued the tradition from 2009 to 2017. When climbing to the top of Square Butte became difficult for attendees, services were moved to the base of the butte.

“In addition to the sun coming out for that first Easter service, the cross has withstood weather and natural disasters,” Rev. Farnes recounted. “During the 2006 Benedict Gulch fire the flames stopped just 30 feet from the cross.”

By 2009 the bottom of the timbers had rotted. “Glen Ford who lived below at the time, took the cross down and replaced them. Our men’s group then returned the cross to its spot,” he said.

After researching the best and most lasting replacement for the original lighting, church members decided to invest the funds raised in a self-contained solar system.

“It should last eight to 10 years without any problems,” Rev. Farnes said, “and there is enough in the maintenance fund now to replace any batteries or equipment.” He emphasized that while the Family Church took charge of replacing the lighting, many folks assisted and have continued to champion the cross.

“This particular cross has special meaning for people in Laurel and Park City,” he said, “but many people have taken it upon themselves to help with it. Someone hiked up there carrying a ladder and equipment and repainted it white this spring.”

It took a lot of planning and help to get the new 600-pound solar system to the top of the butte. A friend of Merkes from Park City, Kent Potter, referred the church group to Steve Arnold, a helicopter pilot who gave the volunteers a great deal to haul them and the equipment to the top.

“This isn’t our cross,” Rev. Farnes explained. “We just happened to be able to help.”

The Family Church continues to work in that spirit. With the new Grace Baptist Church under construction, the Family Church has opened its doors for their services and programs. They also recently assisted members of the Big Timber community replace a large cross.

The land that is home for the local cross belongs to the state and some of it is leased to other entities. On the north side of Square Butte is the Yellowstone Bowmen’s range. Part of the land may be school trust property or BLM land, the pastor said.

“The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that crosses with historical significance aren’t unconstitutional in public spaces,” Rev. Farnes explained. “For Christians it means one thing, obviously, but for others it is a symbol of sacrifice— in battle or otherwise.”

According to those who have seen the lighted cross at night, it is an awe-inspiring sight.

“It is so bright, it can be seen across the valley,” Merkes said. “Folks can see it from the interstate and someone told me they could see it from the new road to Red Lodge. I’m grateful to everyone who made that possible.”

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Upcoming Events

Wednesday, September 18, 2019
10 a.m., Laurel Public Library, 720 West Third Street, Laurel, 628-4961
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., check www.laurelexchangeclub.org for more info. Find them on Facebook www.facebook.com/laurelexchangeclub . Email them to find out meeting time and to join: clubinfo@laurelexchangeclub.org The club will have a meeting or volunteer activity. Meeting location is Sid's East Side Bar & Grill on first and third Wednesdays of each month. Members and guests eat free.  Volunteer activity on the second Wednesday of each month. Check their facebook page for updates.  Every fourth Wednesday is for a club social activity. 
Saturday, September 21, 2019
Third Saturdays, 1 p.m., The Crossings, 600 Roundhouse Dr.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Tuesdays, Noon, Beartooth Grill, 305 1st Ave. S.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Fourth Tuesdays, 7 p.m., Eagles Hall, 313 W. Main, 628-4503
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
10 a.m., Laurel Public Library, 720 West Third Street, Laurel, 628-4961

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