This story is first in an ongoing series called Honey, Stop The Car: Monuments That Move You, which checks out memorials across the country that inspire drivers to pull over.
Growing up in Union County, a farming region in southern Illinois, I heard stories about this enormous 700-pound pig named King Neptune. Old farmers made passing reference, but I never knew much about him until recently.
His memorial is nestled near a bench, shaded by oak trees at a well-manicured rest stop on Interstate 57 near my home town of Cobden. Tired families stretch their legs and few pay any attention to a simple boulder with a plaque that says: "King Neptune: 1942 to 1950. Navy Mascot Pig."
It was 1942 when a Navy recruiter hit on a gimmick: He would auction off parts of a hog, piece by piece, but everybody knew that the pig would never go to slaughter. Instead of taking home a slab of bacon, the winner would take home a war bond.
"And they had a gold crown with an elastic band under it to come around under his chin because he was King Neptune, so he had to have a crown," says Jim Goddard, a retired shop owner from Anna, Ill. "But he had a robe — a purple and gold robe with his name on it. And also United States Navy."
King Neptune lived on Goddard's grandpa's farm, and his dad would haul the pig around in his livestock truck.
Goddard was nine years old then, and he was part of King Neptune's entourage that would travel to all points in southern Illinois: West Frankfort, Vienna, Metropolis. When they weren't on the road, the Goddard family treated King Neptune like royalty on their farm, where he grew bigger and bigger.
"The hog was so fat, the fat had covered his eyes to where they were just little slits, so he couldn't see where he was going. So they would take their cane and tap him on the left shoulder and he'd turn to the right and vice-versa," Goddard says. "That's how they guided him around."
King Neptune was a prodigious fundraiser. During his career, he raised $19 million in war bonds to help fund the U.S. Navy in World War II.
And he became a celebrity.
"He was an icon. It's kind of like something you were proud of," Goddard says.
When he died of pneumonia in 1950, he was given a military funeral. Yes, a military funeral for a pig — a pig that earned the enduring affection of southern Illinois residents while helping win the war effort.