Prairie Gem: Artistic Treasures in Our Iron Crosses

Herzog, Karen. "Prairie Gem: Artistic Treasures in Our Iron Crosses." Bismarck Tribune, 7 December 2000, sec. 1C.

When Tom Isern stands before the curled iron of a shrine cross in some North Dakota cemetery and sees the hammer and tongs -- symbols of the blacksmith's trade -- on the central cross, he sees art.

"I would argue (it's) the most significant folk art that we possess within the borders of North Dakota," he said.

Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is director of a survey of many of the North Dakota cemeteries that hold iron crosses, calls these works "artistic treasures that are unparalleled."

His survey of the iron crosses started in the fall of 1997 as a continuation of work done 10 years ago by NDSU professor Tim Kloberdanz. It led to the placement of 20 cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places.

The newest survey, undertaken by the Institute for Regional Studies at NDSU, was supported in part by a grant from the Historic Preservation Fund of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Iron cross cemeteries are found from the Red River to the Montana line, Isern said. The largest group identified with the iron grave crosses are the Germans from Russia, along with Ukrainians, Germans from Hungary and to a degree, Poles and Czechs, as well as the Metis, Isern said.

Kloberdanz's 30 years of iron cross research have found that the oldest-known iron grave crosses are found in Germany, made by blacksmiths in the 1500s and 1600s.

Through some odd filtering process, Isern said, "many European cultures have wrought iron grave crosses - Norwegians, French, etc. - but only some groups brought it forward in Dakota."

The era of the iron cross in North Dakota, Isern said, was from first settlement, maybe the 1880s, to about 1940, with the highest concentration in the early 20th century.

"The iron cross work is more characteristic of Catholic communities (in North Dakota), but others have it, too," he said.

As the work of mainly local blacksmiths, iron crosses declined as blacksmithing did.

"In about 1940, we lost this tradition in North Dakota," Isern said. As 1940 came along, cars and farm machinery coupled to tractors meant local smiths could no longer make parts for machines.

"No use for a country blacksmith any more," he said. So iron crosses were replaced by stone markers and now are at a crossroads in their existence.

"People are concerned about theft and vandalism, and no doubt vandalism happens in cemeteries," Isern said. "We've lost a lot of iron crosses -- not to that, but to neglect. At the heart of cross destruction is the environment."

"The enemy of the iron crosses is snow."

The winter of 1997, for example, "smashed crosses all over the place," he said. The slow snow destruction was worsened by tree planting along the perimeters of the cemeteries, which, catching snow and creating drifts higher than basketball goals "crushed crosses like some giant sat on them," he said.

What's the future of the iron crosses?

Isern's hopes are for a program to restore and repair iron crosses, which needs a culturally sensitive blacksmith who knows the traditional restoration techniques.

Isern has lived all his life on the Plains, in Kansas, North Dakota and other prairie places. Stepping back, he said, "We see a rural landscape (which has) become an abandoned landscape. Where have the people gone?"

They've gone out of state or have been drawn to North Dakota's larger communities.

"But these are potential check writers," he said, "a possible source for an endowment" that could ensure the caretaking of these prairie places and artifacts.

Those in nearby cities, in a direct and physical way, need to be encouraged to assist with the curatorship of the historic landscape, Isern said. They should be "people who care or who can be made to care about country churches, country cemeteries, sacred sites."

Preservation is simple self-interest, he said, because "we don't know quite what the future holds in North Dakota."

The "bury and burn impulse," Isern said, means we tear down what's old and in disrepair.

But, he said, "we need landmarks in a landscape like the plains as crystallization points. We don't know that a schoolhouse or a church might have real use as a day-care down the line.

"This is more than sentiment," he said. "There's a big transition going on in the region. We don't know what will happen, so it's foolish to destroy our potential for connection with history."

Furthermore, the future of tourism is in fewer group tours and more independent travelers who are willing to travel some distances to see "real things," such as rural churches, cemeteries and artisans' work, he said.

How to help

Individuals can help locate and document iron cross cemeteries in North Dakota. People with information about crosses may contact Tom Isern at NDSU, Minard Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5055; by calling 701-231-8339; or by visiting the Web site of the project at

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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