Signs of the Cross Documentary Profiles Iron Landmarks of the Great Plains

Gilmour, Deneen. "Signs of the Cross Documentary Profiles Iron Landmarks of the Great Plains." Forum, 1 September 2002, 1B.

The cross makers are long gone, buried beneath the prairie where they scratched out a living and raised families. But their works of art – iron crosses shaped by fire and human muscle – stand tall and strong in plains cemeteries, enduring reminders of an art form that has faded but will not disappear.

This traditional ethnic art form is the focus of "Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains," a new video documentary to premiere September 12 on Prairie Public Television.

"Prairie Crosses" is co-produced by Prairie Public Broadcasting and the North Dakota State University Libraries. It will air at 8 p.m. September 12.

The documentary follows the history of the traditional iron cemetery grave marker as the art form migrated from Germany to the Russian Ukraine, and eventually to the Great Plains of North Dakota and Canada.

The iron crosses – some intricate, some simple, but no two quite the same – are found in cemeteries and in agricultural fields across the region.

"The Germans from Russia were a frugal people whose blacksmiths used wagon-wheel rims and scrap metal to fashion markers for the graves of the dead," says Timothy Kloberdanz, an NDSU professor who’s an expert on the subject. "Yet the crosses are a distinctive and beautiful art form – with unbroken hearts of metal, brightly painted stars, endless circles, banner-waving angels, exquisitely formed lilies, and rose blossoms that rust but never wilt."

Many in North Dakota

The crosses can be found from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to New Mexico. Kloberdanz, who has researched them for 25 years, believes they are most numerous in North Dakota.

Most were fashioned by small-town blacksmiths in western North Dakota communities settled by Germans from Russia.

"They used any material that was available," says Brother Placid Gross of Richardton, N.D., who was featured in the documentary. "The German Russians don’t waste anything. The say, 'Whoever does not honor the penny does not deserve a dollar.'"

Katie Wald of Strasburg, N.D., also was interviewed for the documentary. She comes from a German Russian family.

The ethnic group was, indeed, frugal, she says. They had to be because they often were raising large families of a dozen or more children while trying to grow crops on the harsh, volatile northern plains.

"They used nuts and bolts and anything they could get a hold of – and look at the beautiful symbols they came up with," Wald told filmmakers.

Each has a story

For five decades, from the 1870s to 1930s, iron crosses dominated cemeteries in German Russian communities. Eventually, they were edged out by factory-produced cast iron, concrete or granite grave markers.

However, a thousand or more crosses remain, and each tells a story.

Each cross was personally made by a local blacksmith, who typically fashioned the iron grave marker to perpetually and silently tell the life story of the deceased.

For example, the documentary details how a sugar beet worker’s grave marker features iron sugar beets. Similarly, children’s crosses often are diminutive and simple; a young bride’s cross features the flowers of her wedding bouquet and a widow’s marker is dominated by a large open heart.

Behind the cameras

"Prairie Crosses" is the third in a series of collaborations between executive co-producers Bob Dambach, of Prairie Public Television, and Michael Miller, NDSU Libraries bibliographer.

Dave Geck of Prairie Public Television was videographer and Kloberdanz, associate professor of sociology-anthropology at NDSU, is writer and narrator.

Kloberdanz says large-scale immigration of German-speaking settlers into Russia began in 1762 with the ascension of Catherine the Great to the Russian throne.

The Czarina’s manifesto offered western Europeans willing to farm in Russia free land, local self-government and freedom from military service.

In 1764, the first great wave of German-speaking agricultural settlers journeyed to the lower course of the Volga River in Russia. By 1897, the population numbered more then 1.7 million.

In the late 19th century, Catherine’s manifesto was rescinded. Between 1872 and 1914, 300,000 Germans from Russia obtained passports and began their migration to America.

Although they settled in almost every area of North America, most preferred the open spaces of the Great Plains. And it was there that Germans from Russia in America maintained their language and culture the longest.

The documentaries

The first German-Russian heritage documentary presented by executive co-producers Dambach and Miller, "The Germans From Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie," premiered on Prairie Public Television in February 1999.

It has aired on 70 public broadcasting stations in 26 states and four Canadian provinces. It won the top prize for historical documentaries at the 1999 Telly Awards and a bronze plaque award in humanities in the Columbus 47th annual International Film and Video Festival.

The second documentary in the series, titled "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia," has also been honored with a Telly Award.

Major funding for their latest documentary was provided by the North Dakota Humanities Council, North Dakota State University Libraries, the North Dakota Council on the Arts, which receives funding from the state legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the members of Prairie Public Broadcasting.

Buying a tape

A copy of the video "Prairie Crosses" is available for $25 by calling Prairie Public Broadcasting.

Or, it can be purchased by going to:

Photographs from the videotape can also be seen at the NDSU Website.

The North Dakota State University Libraries site at offers detailed information about the history and culture of Germans from Russia, including publications, oral interviews, folklore, food traditions and an events calendar.

Prairie Public Broadcasting’s Web site,, offers teaching materials, links and historical information.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum
Photos by Michael M. Miller

Lace-like curved crosses were often made by blacksmiths for women’s graves. The traditional iron grave marker as an art form migrated from Germany to the Russian Ukraine, and eventually to the Great Plains of North Dakota and Canada.
Some of the crosses are located in cemeteries, but many also can be found in overgrown family plots throughout the upper Great Plains
Each cross maker had a distinctive style, recognized by those in the community, and in more recent times, by those who study the ethnic art form.
This grave marker for a boy who died at age 10 is an example of how ironmakers designed smaller crosses within the large cross to signify the grave of a fallen child.


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