Why a West Texas businessman had a 99-foot cross erected — and where you can see it

Clouds pass over the 99-foot steel cross overlooking Ballinger. Businessman Jim Studer commissioned the cross in the early 1990s.
Clouds pass over the 99-foot steel cross overlooking Ballinger. Businessman Jim Studer commissioned the cross in the early 1990s. Abilene Reporter-News via AP

As thank-yous go, it’s a pretty big one. Nearly 100 feet tall.

Located on a hill about a mile and a half south of U.S. 83, this giant white cross is hard to miss.

In the late 1980s, Jim Studer convinced the owners of plant food maker Scotts Miracle-Gro to let him manufacture their product in Texas. Jim and his wife, Doris, lived in Florida but picked Texas for a simple reason.

“Texas is in the center part of the country, (and) it’s dry,” he explained. “Florida’s damp.”

A dry climate makes all the difference in making a powdered fertilizer. So, their first stop was Midland.

“You talk about shock,” Jim Studer recalled, laughing. “We’d come from the jungle; now we’re looking around saying, ‘What’s that smell?’ 

Ballinger won the family over. Today Studer’s company, Buddy’s Plant Plus, employs 150 people and is one of the nation’s largest producers of soluble commercial fertilizer.

In 1993, it was a blessing the Studers felt compelled to acknowledge.

“My wife said we needed to put something up there, a thank-you to the good Lord for all he’s done for us,” Studer recalled.

He took an informal survey: What would Ballinger think about him erecting a 40-foot cross on his property overlooking the city?

No one seemed to mind, so he started thinking about how to do it.

But first he visited his mother in Florida. Trimming fruit trees in the back yard, Studer picked up a blade mounted to an aluminum pole.

“My son said, ‘Hand me the pruning saw,’ ” Studer remembered. “As I swung it up to him, I hit the power line coming into the house.”

In Florida, he explained, humidity keeps you wet all the time. But even that wasn’t the first thought in his mind as electricity arced away toward the jagged teeth of the saw.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I owe you 60 more feet!’ ” he said. “It’s a miracle I’m not dead.”

Exchange West Texas Cross (6)
Jim Studer flips through a scrapbook of newspaper articles and photographs in Ballinger. The book depicts the construction of the 99-foot steel cross he commissioned on his property a mile and a half south of town. Ronald W. Erdrich Abilene Reporter-News via AP

When they returned to Texas, Studer drew the plan for his monument on notebook paper, basing it on a crucifix he owned. With a ratio of 10 feet for every inch, he came up with a cross measuring 100 feet, the arms 70 feet across.

“But then it was a little less because I checked with the (Federal Aviation Administration) and they said it couldn’t be 100 feet,” he explained. “I’d have to put a light on it. So it’s 99 feet.”

Steve Jansa, a local contractor at the time, headed the project. It went up in early October 1993, Studer said it took about a day and a half to build. It cost $70,000, all from his own pocket.

Locals came out to watch the cross go up. Some had their own thoughts about leaving the top off.

“Everybody was saying it would make a great deer blind,” Studer said, laughing again. “No, we’re not going to be shooting any deer from the top of the cross.”

In 1997, he was approached by the Guadalupe Society of St. Mary’s Catholic Church to consider creating a grotto near the site.

An oil rig had once occupied the hill, broken stones still littered the ground long after the roughnecks had departed. They became the bricks for the garden.

“I don’t want to sound too fanatical about God and what he wants, but all this stuff was right there. You just had to pick it up and place it,” Studer said.

Exchange West Texas Cross (4)
A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe is illuminated by glass prayer candles outside of Ballinger. The grotto bearing her name is located in a garden about 140 yards from the 99-foot steel cross overlooking the city. Ronald W. Erdrich Abilene Reporter-News via AP

A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe occupies the rear of the grotto. Glass blocks set into the stone glow with the outer light during the day.

It’s a peaceful, contemplative space with a wooden bench to sit upon. In the evening, glass candles cast their own warm light over the statue from a low rack near the wall.

The grotto builder’s name, a Latino man who didn’t speak English, is lost to Studer’s memory. When the man finished, he simply left.

“Everything he did was by hand,” Studer said admiringly. “I had a backhoe; he had shovels and picks.”

Now retired at 82, Studer still cares for the cross. It plays a deep role in the spiritual life of the community. People are married beneath it, ask for divine help in the notebooks Studer keeps there, and services, like the one at sunrise on Easter, are held.

He never locks the gate, not even after floodlights were stolen. Studer simply welded new lights into place.

But even so, one night around 11, the sheriff called. Someone had aimed all four beams into the sky.

Resetting the fixtures, Studer thought he was going to have to start locking the gate again. Then an older couple drove up with their grandson.

“They were on their way back from Abilene,” he recalled. “They’d just picked up the grandson from their daughter who was on drugs and were taking him to their home, wherever that was.”

Then a woman came up, asking him if she could visit the cross, too.

It was then Studer realized that he couldn’t lock the gate. Not now, not ever.

“If people are going to come up here at night for whatever reason to pray and thank the good Lord, then I’m not going to deprive them,” he said. “Too many people need to go up there.

“It’s not my cross, it’s theirs.”

Tall crosses

The Ballinger cross can be seen for miles away, but at least two other crosses in Texas are taller.

On the flat Texas Panhandle, the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ rises 19 stories at Groom on Interstate 40. The cross was built in 1955.

In southeast Houston, the Sagemont Church Cross is 170 feet high near the Sam Houston Tollway and Interstate 45. It was built in 2009.