Iron Crosses in Area Cemeteries: Anamoose, Drake, Karlsruhe and Orrin

Gueldner, Rose Marie. "Iron Crosses in Area Cemeteries: Anamoose, Drake, Karlsruhe and Orrin." Valley Star, 12 June 1996, 1-2.

They stand pious and proud on the wind-swept prairie. Burned by drought, hammered by hail, scorched by hot winds, cooled by dew, they do not relinquish their assignment to mark, honor, and remind.

They are the old cemetery iron crosses that mark the final resting places of some of the area's German-Russian pioneers.

These Latin crosses (crux immissa) were made in a variety of sizes and designs. The largest stretch skyward, with assembled arms, bands, scrolls, filigree and curlicues measuring well over five feet.

The smallest, one foot high, are simple unadorned metal, at first glance they appear to be a Greek cross (crux quadrata), but a closer look reveals, lacking a cement base, the cross has settled into the earth to give the appearance the vertical arm is equal in length to the horizontal one.

The old cemetery iron crosses, like the people they memorialize, represent hard work and faith. Their story is predominately that of the Catholic Black Sea and Volga German-Russians who came to the steppes of the New World from the steppes of the old, South Russia. They brought with them the iron grave cross tradition which probably originated with the ancestors in various southwest German provinces during the Renaissance when ironwork was popular and the cross became the principal symbol of the Christian faith.

The iron grave cross tradition was practiced in North Dakota and in other parts of the plains states, with sizable Catholic German-Russian settlements from the arrival of the first immigrants from the 1880s to the 1940s.

Occasionally, an iron cross marks the grave of a departed who was neither Catholic nor German. The solitary black iron cross with its heart shaped motif in the Drake cemetery, a lacey white one covered with carefully shaped iron curlicues and a tall marker with delicate, airy designs surround the strong bands of a large black cross grace the final resting place of a German, a Norwegian, and a Ukrainian protestant.

The many iron crosses in Orrin's old Sacred Heart Cemetery and in the older sections of Anamoose's St. Xavier and in Karlsruhe's St. Peter and Paul's cemeteries, make their grounds seem like open-air churches, inspiring, reassuring, neither sad nor painful.

"Geboren 26 Dex 1877, Gestorben 30 Okt 1919, Geboren 15 Juli 1852, Gestorben 22 April 1923" is an inscription on one iron cross. Like many inscriptions, this one is in German with the German format of day, month, year, but written in English letters.

The inscriptions are easy to translate even for non-Germans. Geboren, frequently abbreviated geb, birth date, Gestorben or Gest is the date of death. The German word for the months of the year are so close to their English equivalent they are easily deciphered. For instance, Juli for July, Okt is the abbreviation of the German spelling of October, Dez is December.

Hier Ruht in Gott (Here Rest in God) is a common heading as it is elsewhere on grave sites today. With their biographic data, most markers speak to the viewer. One in Orrin bears a statement from the deceased to his family and friends.

The inscription reads, "Hier Ruht in Gott Gest 2 Juni 1910, Hier in Diesem Blumen, Garten Will Ich Meine Frau und Kinder Ewarten." Translated it is "Here Rest in God, Died 2 June 1910. Here in this flower garden will I wait for my wife and children."

Who were the blacksmiths whose metal-working skills with the bellows, anvil, forge and fire, hammer and pliers fashioned these works of art?

Cultural anthropologists refer to the iron crosses as folk art or cemetery folk art. But, likely, the village blacksmiths didn't think of themselves as artisans.

Those who shaped and welded iron to produce horseshoes, to repair wagon wheels and plowshares in those fledgling turn-of-century agricultural communities, were just helping a neighbor in time of need.

Often these black metal workers made the wrought iron crosses from iron from their own scrap heap. Sometimes the metal was supplied by the family of the bereaved.

Little is really known of the blacksmith who fashioned iron crosses (eisernes Kreuz) for the people of a parish. Longfellow's Village Blacksmith poem, memorized by grade school children, describes the black iron worker as one who works with strong arms and streams of sweat glistening on his face in the light of his forge. Using scrap iron, plate steel, and band iron, he shaped, bent, drilled, riveted, chiseled, and filed. Hold the iron, crank the forge, pound the heavy iron, keep the fire red hot. The iron crosses took skill, patience, and hard work.

An unadorned cross probably took a day or two to make while a tall, ornate one could take weeks. Some elaborate designs required more than 30 pieces. Sometimes the artisan would make these pieces during the mild days of winter and put them together when needed.

Historians who've studied more than 70 German-Russian iron cross cemeteries in the plains states say crosses were painted white, black, or silver. Many have a flat nameplate made in the shape of an unbroken heart or a rectangle placed at the intersection of the arms.

All the cast iron grave crosses (Gusseiserne Grabkreeuze) probably came from the Bismarck Foundry and Welding Company. Although there hasn't been a Bismarck foundry for decades, the Bismarck Granite Works now supplies monuments.

Friedhof and Gottesacker were the words most frequently used by German-Russians to refer to their cemeteries. Friedhof means a courtyard of peace and Gottesacker, God's field, describes the belief of these deeply religious people that the cemetery, albeit a burial ground, was a bridge between the dead and the living worlds, an expression of their personal relationship with God.

Like their ancestors in south Russia, like their ancestors before them in south Germany, the earthly remains of these people lie beneath a hand-crafted iron cross which serves to mark, to honor, to remind of such good workmanship. "Ruhe im Gott und Danke" for the iron cross heritage.

Reprinted with permission of the Valley Star.

Cast and wrought iron crosses at Old Sacred Heart Cemetery in Orrin.
Unique in design, this marker is in the Karlsruhe Cemetery.
This black cross stands in front of several white colored Crosses at the Karlsruhe Cemetery.
Wrought iron crosses sillouetted as the sun goes down in St. Xavier Cemetery in Anamoose.
Very ornate, this iron marker can be found in the Selz Cemetery.

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