The Table Rock cross was built in 1956 by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, otherwise known as the Jaycees club of Boise. The Jaycees were originally founded in 1946 as a national organization for the purpose of “free enterprise and community involvement” but in the 1950s turned its focus into promoting Christianity. In Boise, this is reflected in the envisioning and planning of the Table Rock cross. It is also a reflection of the Red Scare of this era –during the 1950s a wave of McCarthyism and anti-Communist sentiments swept the nation and the cross was built on the assumption that Communists were “atheist” and the cross would serve as a beacon of anti-communist sentiment for the city of Boise. It stands today as a Cold War religious monument.
Originally the cross was built on land owned by the Idaho Department of Corrections. The idea for the cross came from an episode of “This is Your Life,” a program airing in the 1950s, in which a rural mail carrier was honored for helping his community during his mail route for more than 35 years. His dream had been to build a cross overlooking his town, and the community made this happen. In 1956 the Jaycee board approved the plan to build a similar cross in Boise and the Merry Milkman asked kids to help build the cross –the kids ended up financing the $880 required to build, and during the cold of December of 1955, Dick Wilcolm worked with two volunteers, Rich Jordan and Chet Shawver, to dig a hole for the 60-foot steel cross that would finally be finished by January 8, 1956. Towering over 3,629 feet above sea level, six stories high, and weighing 4,500 lbs, the cross used 2,100 watts and cost around $60 a month to power, funded by the Capitol Jaycees. In 2011 these costly lights were replaced by 2,600 LED lamps which reduced the monthly bill to only $20.
The cross has a long history of controversy. In 1971 a similar cross in Eugene was ruled by the Oregon state supreme court as violating the separation of church and state. The Jaycees, fearing a similar controversy would surround the cross in Boise, petitioned the Board of Corrections for a 44 by 70 foot parcel of land around the cross, but in 1971 the Correction board turned the land over to the Idaho Board of Lands. An auction was held quietly in November of 1971 to turn the small parcel of land over to the Jaycees club, which would make it private property and therefore immune from most legal attacks. It was sold for $100.
The next few decades marked a relatively quiet period for the Christian monument, save for the efforts of a few vandals and storms. In the 1960s, the Jaycees coated the cross and lights with plastic, and in 1987, the cross was coated with plexiglass. At the base there rests a large bronze plaque which reads “In appreciation of those who by their gifts and services have made possible this cross on Table Rock, this plaque is gratefully inscribed and dedicated. May this cross inspire those who see it to better citizenship, higher ideals and happier living.” Table Rock today is a popular landmark in Boise –both for hikers and bikers and those who go to watch the sunset. It also marks a popular hangout for kids for years past. At one point the great “B” located right below the Table Rock Cross, back before it was encased in cement and paint, was composed of only loose rocks. Several kids rearranged it into a giant peace sign.
In the 1990s opposition to the cross once again arose. The American Civil Liberties Union, in 1994, accused the Land Board of unconstitutional and illegal sale of the land, alleging that it had been a “closed auction.” Remember the Land Board sold the cross in a quiet auction to the Jaycees to protect it from legal action. But if the sale could be proven illegal, then the cross could be challenged. It could be ruled as violating the church and state separation, and torn down. Fortunately for supporters of the cross, in 1995 the Land Board voted to uphold the sale of land to the Jaycee Club, but soon more opposition came from Chicago, Illinois, in the form of an atheist named Rob Sherman. Sherman, in 1999, backed by the Idaho Atheists, gave a speech at BSU threatening to take the cross down. The community rose to protect the monument. On November 27th, over 10,000 locals marched to the capital to save the cross. They raised signs reading “Save the Cross!” Larry Butler, a man who didn’t consider himself religious, led the movement. He and his family began building 2-foot high white wooden crosses, spray-painted with the words “Save the Cross.” The community bombarded him with requests for crosses and in return Butler asked for donations to the Jaycees and for building costs. An article was published in the New York Times documenting the crisis. The cross successfully remained standing when Sherman announced he would stop challenging the monument because of a federal court ruling against atheists in California. Now the only major threat occasionally arises from ruffled citizens with shotguns. Fortunately the LED lights are somewhat resistant to small-caliber ammunition.
The cross is a sentimental landmark to many residents of Boise. On April 30, 2006, Kim and Brenna Forney were married under the cross. There are also countless stories of hope for the suffering centered around the cross. As the landmark is clearly visible from many windows of St. Luke’s hospital of Boise, Phyllis Kelly tells of the cross giving her and her husband a sense of comfort and care before his heart surgery, scheduled for the next morning. Nancy Berry tells of her husband looking to the cross from his hospital bed where he lay paralyzed from a cancerous tumor and feeling a sense of peace. It serves as a sort of lighthouse for travelers returning home and a symbol of “faith, moral values and integrity” in the community, in the words of Louis and Betty Demster. The cross also marks the place where the Table Rock quarry was once actively in use, employing people of many nationalities (Basque, Italian, Swedish) and providing stone for many of Boise’s downtown buildings. All of these people responded to a call by the Idaho Statesman to send their thoughts and stories regarding the controversial issue in 1999 and the march to occur on November 27th. Most argued for its continual stay, and only a few objected, some on the grounds that it drove home to immigrants that they were “strangers in a strange land.”
Today the controversy surrounding the cross is often regarded as the largest battle for separation of church and state in the state of Idaho. It still stands today, despite being the center of many disputes, and for many Boise locals, represents the peaceful and loving community in which they reside.