Iron crosses at St. John's Blumenfeld Cemetery near Drake reflect the tradition of Germans from Russia.

Unique Markers: Cemetery has Large Collection of Iron Crosses

Cantlon, Cleo. "Unique Markers: Cemetery has Large Collection of Iron Crosses." Minot Daily News, 25 August 2001.

Drake - One of North Dakota's most outstanding folk art forms are iron crosses that mark cemeteries of settlers who migrated from Germany to Russia and later to the new world.

One of the largest collections of iron crosses, most of them handmade by local blacksmiths, is in St. John's Blumenfeld Cemetery northwest of Drake.

Although the church was last used in 1968 and later torn down, the cemetery still reflects the frugal character and heritage of its parishioners.

Some crosses still show their prior history as parts of farm machinery, reworked on a local forge.

Monignor Joseph Singer, Minot, ND

"Blumenfeld church reached its peak, about 100 large families, many with 10 children, just after World War II," Montsignor Joseph Senger of Minot said. "The veterans came home and started families, and the church was heartily optimistic then."

Senger, who grew up in the area, said the church began as a mission from the Orrin church. The Rev. A.A.A. Schmirler, one priest who served there, rode the 10 miles from Orrin on horseback in summer and used a "snowplane" during the winter.

The church had a resident pastor from 1944 to 1968 but because of its remoteness it was not a popular post.

"If you got in trouble with the bishop," he said, "people would warn you that you would be sent to Blumenfeld."

Poor farm economics after the war and decreasing family size doomed the parish; in 1968 it closed.

"It was blasphemy that the church was sold and used to store hay bales, with the altar still sitting in it," Senger said. "Hogs were raised in the basement."

However the beautiful cemetery with about 125 graves, which was located closer to the center of church population, is well kept. There also are 11 graves at the church site.

The crosses reflect the frugal character and creativity of the local blacksmiths who made them, Senger said, showing signs of their history as farm implements, horsehandling equipment and other tools of rural life.

The iron crosses were used most extensively between 1880 and the 1940s. In the early 1900s, use of cast-iron crosses began.

"When people got a little money, they would buy stamped or foundry crosses," Senger said. "Poor people continued having the local blacksmith make them."

The craftsmen worked in a variety of ways. Some kept a few on hand, some charged or bartered while others made them free for friends and relatives.

Many cross-makers carved wooden molds with names, dates or epitaphs. They poured melted aluminum into the molds to form the letters.

In the 1982 book, "Iron Spirits," Timothy Kloberdanz wrote, "The wrought-iron grave crosses with their unbroken hearts of metal, brightly-painted stars, exquisitely formed lilies and rose blossoms that rust but never wilt evoke the defiant spirit of their makers."

Senger, who visited the Russian homeland of his ancestors this year, said honoring the dead is also an important tradition there. Many graves, individually fenced, include benches or small tables where relatives gather to observe the anniversary of a death.

"With Blumenfeld, it might appear it was a mistake to build a church which lasted just a few years," Senger said. "But we got full value and our money's worth because that church served us well by educating our children and people in our faith."

The Blumenfeld Cemetery with its unique markers is also a reminder of the abiding faith of the Germans from Russia.

Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.

St. John Blumenfeld Cemetery, North Dakota

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