Iron Work: Blacksmith's Tools, Artist's Hands: Herman Kraft Shapes Traditional Iron Crosses in Demonstration for Germans From Russia Gathering

Karen Herzog. "Iron Work: Blacksmith's Tools, Artist's Hands: Herman Kraft Shapes Traditional Iron Crosses in Demonstration for Germans From Russia Gathering." Bismarck Tribune, 9 August 2002, sec. 1B.

He started doing it for the babies.

So many babies died on the prairies in those early pioneer years. And in the 1920s and '30s, so many people left, fleeing the Great Depression.

In his hometown cemetery at Timber Lake, S.D., Herman Kraft noticed that the babies' graves - he found 16 altogether - around the cemetery perimeter were untended, forgotten it seemed, family long gone elsewhere.

Kraft wanted to honor those small graves. That's how he got started as an iron work hobbyist - a blacksmith he is not, he said - a skill that brought him to Bismarck Thursday to demonstrate the centuries-old craft of iron cross making.

Working at a small coal forge in Buckstop Junction east of Bismarck, Kraft and Ervin Keller, along with Kraft's grandson, Ben, 17, all of Timber Lake, worked some iron for a crowd of watchers in town for the convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.

On Thursday, it was pushing 90 degrees outside the small building, and hotter inside with the coal fire burning, turning the tips of iron rods red-hot, to be hammered in the small minutes before they cool. The smell of coal, tar, mixed with tang of heated iron as the three workers wrangle the iron pieces onto the anvil for pounding, or shaping around a rod held in the vise.

Iron crosses can be seen in many cemeteries in North Dakota. Many are endangered - time, snow and rust are claiming their beautiful spirals, curls and filigree.

Preserving North Dakota's iron crosses is the theme of the latest documentary on the Germans from Russia, produced through Prairie Public Television. The film premiered at the Heritage Center on Wednesday and will have its broadcast premiere on Prairie Public Sep. 12.

Few are left who know how to make the Crosses, Kraft said. He learned by calling people who had some bit of expertise and cross-examining them. He collected a forge and a trip hammer, essential equipment, along with a good table vise and an anvil.

Now Ben Kraft is learning from his grandpa. Here and there a few apprentices are soaking up the know-how. The skills that go into iron cross making were edging toward extinction by the 1940s and '50s as blacksmith shops closed up in small town after small town with the mechanization of farming, the retirement of horse-drawn farm muscle and the availability of interchangeable parts.

As many of the existing iron crosses began to disappear, an emerging appreciation for this craftwork of Plains immigrants led to efforts to catalog the remaining crosses. Michael M. Miller, bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Library at North Dakota State University in Fargo, pointed out several connections to iron cross making among the convention-goers.

Gary Just of Bismarck's Artistic Iron Works, looking on, is a contemporary iron maker. Marianne Baron of Mandan is the daughter of Thomas Stebner, who made a number of iron crosses, some of which can be seen at Mandan Union Cemetery and at Crown Butte.

Stebner's work is distinguishable by his unique way of making 'A's, and by his reversal of certain letters and numbers, Baron said. She guesses he may have been dyslexic. A porch railing he made for his home is now a fence at the newly dedicated headquarters of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck.

Making an iron cross - with its multiple heatings to create the curling arms and twisted uprights - might have taken an ironmaker two days, for which he got probably $5, according to the workers. And he still made money on it.

After twisting an iron rod into spirals like taffy, Keller moves to another table. Several thin layers of tin, flower-shaped, are slipped one after another, larger to smaller, onto an iron rod. Sparking a blowtorch, Keller heats the flower-shaped layers, bending each flat petal upward and sideways, shaping, shaping, shaping. At the end of perhaps 20 minutes, he knocks the vise open with a hammer and holds up an iron rose, full-blown and perfectly rendered, a metal masterpiece.

"Hey, those never need watering?" comes a josh from the crowd. "They come in other fragrances?"

Keller is ready for them. "Like an air-freshener," he retorts.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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