Iron Crosses: Sentinels of the Prairie

Winistorfer, Jo Ann. "Iron Crosses: Sentinels of the Prairie." North Dakota Living, April 2003, 18-20.

It was the winter of 1891-92. Diptheria had invaded the rural sod home of Mercer County pioneers, Gottlieb and Dorothea (Habelmann) Krukenberg. Note the spelling variation on Kruckenberg-Krukenberg surname.

Their youngest child--7-year-old Friedrich--had been severely stricken by this deadly disease. Symptoms included high fever, swollen glands, and a thick, choking coating in the throat that made breathing and swallowing difficult. Already this winter, diphtheria had taken the lives of others in the area. The nearest doctor lived in Bismarck, too far away to help.

Trying to save her "little Friedele," as she called him, Dorothea likely tried various folk remedies she had learned from her female German-Russian ancestors back in Bessarabia, Russia, their former homeland: throat swabs; powdered alum administered to the back of the throat; a hunk of salt pork wrapped up in a woolen sock and tied around the neck. And, most certainly, prayers. Lutheran prayers, recited in German.

Yet despite these efforts, death stepped in to claim little Friedrich on January 15, 1892.

Looking back through the veil of time and tears, one can imagine the grieving father hand-hewing a small coffin to hold his boy.

Diggers wielding pickaxes and shovels, building fires over a pit, coaxing a grave from the frozen earth.

Horse-drawn sleighs carrying mourners to St. Peter's Cemetery. Relatives and neighbors bidding their last goodbyes. And wafting over the scene, the sad German funeral hymn: "Wo findet die Seele die Heimat, die Ruh?" (Where Does the Soul Find its Home, its Rest?")

A century and a decade of years after Friedrich's death, an iron cross in a peaceful country graveyard north of Hazen still marks his resting place.

Gottlieb and Dorothea Krukenberg, pioneer homesteaders north of Hazen, lost their youngest child, Friedrich, to diphtheria in 1892. An iron cross marks his burial site in St. Peter's Cemetery.

Symbols of Strength, Spirituality

Friedrich's wrought-iron cross is typical of thousands found in cemeteries around the American heartland--from central Canada to Kansas, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. The cross represented the sacred; the iron represented strength--attributes of the pioneers they honored.

The iron crosses were particularly suited as prairie monuments: Unlike wooden crosses, those made of wrought iron or other metals were tough enough to withstand prairie fires, storms--even time itself.

Often, these wrought-iron crosses were crafted by local blacksmiths, in shops called "smithies." Using hammer, anvil and forge, these early artisans crafted crosses of iron, steel and other metals, often from pieces of scrap material. They worked in unlit buildings, watching with practiced eye the changing colors of the heated metal, pounding it as it melted, bending it until it formed the shape of a cross.

Many pioneer North Dakota crossmakers learned their craft in the Old Country, serving for years as apprentices to experienced smiths before becoming smiths themselves.

These crossmakers were of various nationalities: Irish, German, Hungarian, Czech, Ukrainian, French/Metis and others. But most prevalent in the Dakotas are the iron crosses of the Germans from Russia. These "Eizenkreuzen" were crafted for generations by blacksmiths on the steppes of the Volga and the Black Sea region of Russia. These skills came with the smiths as they immigrated to America.

Dr. Timothy J. Kloberdanz, associate professor of sociology-anthropology at North Dakota State University, is considered an international expert on iron crosses. Writer and narrator for the recently released documentary called Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains, Kloberdanz points out that these crosses often contain a human touch. "The iron crosses talk to us, they tell stories," he says. "These crosses have a lot of heart and soul in them."

Designs and styles varied according to the creator. Some were simple and symmetrical; others more ornate. Popular designs included leaves, flowers, sunbursts, stars and angels. Some were personalized with the deceased's initials or name, a favorite flower or other appropriate symbol--in the case of a farmer, for example, stalks of wheat.

Kloberdanz stresses that the size, shape, style, color, design and symbols all have cultural significance.

"You have to know how `to read' each cross and understand what everything means," he says. "One iron cross, for example, features an iron snake crawling up the cross. At the very top of this same cross is an angel. This cross tells the story of creation, the fall of man, and heavenly salvation. And it is all done in the silent language of iron, without a single written word."

While some older German-Russian Protestant cemeteries--particularly those in the Mercer County area--contain iron crosses, it was most often the Catholics who honored their dead with these monuments. Crosses in Catholic cemeteries sometimes incorporated crucifixes into the design.

This Richardton-area iron gravemarker, complete with crucifix, is typical of those from Catholic cemeteries.

One Catholic cemetery near Hague, N.D., features around 70 iron crosses. Creator of most of these crosses was Deport (Tibertius) Schneider (1877-1941), Hague. An accomplished blacksmith, Schneider used his imagination to invent his own patterns and designs. No two markers are identical.

From 1870 to around 1930, iron crosses flourished. In addition to handmade prairie crosses, firms in Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Bismarck mass-produced elaborate, machine-made versions.

After World War II, as the demand for the services of the smith--from sharpening plowshares to shaping metal--declined, so did the iron crosses. Tombstones of granite, marble or concrete, or machine-made metal markers, gradually relegated the iron crosses to relics of the past.

Treasured Folk Art

In recent years, appreciation for these sentinels of the prairie has grown along with recognition that they are a vanishing folk art, and as such, must be preserved.

At a Kruckenberg reunion held in Hazen some years ago, some family members recalled Dorothea's oft-stated wish that the aging iron cross marking the grave of her "little Friedele" be replaced with a nicer marker.

"The cross was all broken and wired together," says Verna Maas Hoffer of Hazen, great-granddaughter of Dorothea and Gottlieb. "It was falling apart."

The reunion committee members then visited the cemetery, intending to carry out Dorothea's wishes. Verna herself had been planning to purchase the new headstone.

But when the Kruckenberg family beheld the iron cross over Friedrich's resting place, they recognized it as an item of historical relevance. "Instead of replacing it, they cleaned it up and gave it a fresh coat of paint," Verna says.

Thus Friedrich's cross, more than a century old, lives on as a symbol not only of his brief life on earth, but of the era of iron crosses.

Malvin Miller points out an iron cross crafted by his blacksmith father, Samuel Miller Sr.

Crossmaker's Son Proud of His Heritage

Malvin Miller of Golden Valley is proud to be the son of a pioneer iron crossmaker, doubly so because he himself is an avid historian and genealogist, deeply involved in the heritage of his ancestors, the Germans from Russia.

His father, Samuel Miller, a lifelong blacksmith and a German from Russia emigrant, crafted unique grave markers for people in the Hazen-Beulah-Zap-Golden Valley area.

Unlike more traditional iron grave markers, Samuel's ironwork features a fenced metal enclosure framing the gravesite, with an ornamental cross at the head and the name of the deceased crafted in large metal letters at the foot. His designs, bold but simple, incorporated circles, triangles and bars as well as scrollwork. Samuel's ironwork serves as a legacy to the departed whose graves they frame, as well as to the creator himself.

Samuel was born in Kronenthal, Crimea, South Russia, on April 27, 1884. He married Maria Boeckel in 1909 at Kronenthal.

Samuel Miller, 1902, at age 18. Photo taken in Crimea.

Samuel learned his craft in the Old Country and brought his skill with him when he imigrated to Mercer County. "He came to America in June of 1910 aboard the Lusitania," notes his son. The ill-fated vessel was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans in 1915.

Samuel was one of 300,000 Germans from Russia who migrated to America between 1872 and 1914.

When he first came to North Dakota, Samuel homesteaded 14 miles north of Golden Valley, then worked at Kasmer, N.D. Samuel and Maria had four children: Sam Jr. (who would later become his dad's blacksmith assistant), Ella Onstott, Eugena Stockberger, and Emil. Maria died in 1917.

Ten years later, Sam Sr., married Louisa Harsch. Samuel and Louisa had four sons: Ervin, Elmer, Gilbert and Malvin. Louisa died in 1991 at age 89.

Sam Sr., was a blacksmith in the Zap area from 1925 till 1947, when he purchased a smithy in Golden Valley. When his shop burned down in 1949, Sam retired. In all, Samuel Miller Sr. was in the blacksmithing business for 52 of his 80 years.

Sam Sr., assisted by Sam Jr., made numerous iron crosses throughout the area--mostly for family and friends. These crosses are among those featured in the video Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains.

Samuel Miller Sr. died September 3, 1964, in a Bismarck hospital. He is buried in a cemetery north of Golden Valley.

While Samuel's grave features a stone marker, Malvin hopes someday to erect an iron cross that reflects his father's artistry as a pioneer crossmaker.

A crew prepares to film iron crosses in a prairie cemetery near Rugby for their Prairie Crosses/Prairie Voices video. Pictured (left to right) are videographer Dave Geck, Prairie Public Television; Bob Dambach, Prairie Public Television; and Michael M. Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer, NDSU Libraries.

Prairie Crosses Video Available

Now you can own your very own copy of an award-winning documentary on the iron crosses of the prairies.

Titled Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains, the 60-minute video with bonus footage tells the stories of pioneer Germans from Russia emigrants whose graves are marked by these crosses, and of the blacksmith artisans who created them.

Prairie Crosses is the third in a series of documentaries co-produced by Prairie Public Television and North Dakota State University Libraries. Major funding was provided by the North Dakota Humanities Council, NDSU Libraries and by members of Prairie Public Broadcasting. The project was supported in part by a grant from the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

To order Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices, send $25 for each videotape ordered plus postage and handling ($4 each for shipping in the U.S.; $5 for shipping to Canada; $8 for shipping via air mail outside the U.S.). All videotape orders must be in U.S. dollars, with check or money order payable to NDSU Library.

Mail to: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Prairie Crosses Videotape, NDSU Libraries, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599.

You can also purchase Prairie Crosses by calling Prairie Public TV at (800) 359-6900.

Reprinted with permission of the North Dakota Living.

Additional information about the iron crosses can be located at the following website pages:

1. Iron Spirits, 1982 book:

2. Photo Notecard Series:

3. Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains, 2002 videotape documentary:

4. Survey of Iron Cross Cemeteries in North Dakota:

5. Videotape Documentaries & Other Projects about Iron Crosses:

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller