Iron Crosses Made Mark on Prairie

Pates, Mikkel. "Iron Crosses Made Mark on Prairie." Forum, 28 October 1998, 1C.

If Tom Isern had a Halloween wish it would be that North Dakotans walk through their local cemeteries and report back to him what they see.

The North Dakota State University history professor hopes they’ll tell him about wrought-iron grave markers used by German-Russian Catholics and others in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The "iron cross" art form originated in the Black Sea area of southern Russia.

"They were made by blacksmiths," Isern said. "Some were made by foundries. They are the best thing North Dakota has to offer in folk art, an artistic accomplishment."

The crosses were often painted silver, black or white, according to others. Most were 2 to 6 feet tall. Some were made for American Indians who admired them.

Infant crosses were quite simple. Those for adults could be quite elaborate, depending on the artistry of the blacksmith and the ability to pay.

About 10 years ago, Tim Kloberdanz, an NDSU anthropologist, surveyed 20 cemeteries in Pierce and Emmons counties that contained about 400 of the crosses. As a result, 14 of those cemeteries were placed on the National Register of Historic Places and are maintained by the National Park Service.

In 1982, photographers Jane and Wayne Gudmundson and editor Nicholas Curchin Vrooman and Patrice Avon Marvin published a book on the subject called "Iron Spirits."

"In the current survey, we’re going statewide, with special attention to the west river, and covering other ethnic groups besides Germans from Russia," Isern said.

The iron crosses offer messages of life, Isern said. That’s a contrast to some symbols from Czechs and others that would use a skull-and-crossbones.

"The motif would show triumph over death, things of eternal life and resurrection," Isern said. "There might be an angel blowing a trumpet, an iron rose, hearts, sunbursts. The blacksmiths of the northern plains, the German-Russians, had triumphant symbols."

Why the difference?
"That’s one of the questions we’re looking at," Isern said. "The German-Russians clearly wanted to express eternal hope. On the other hand, some markers made by Czechs and some other ethnic groups don’t embrace that hope. By golly, a final resting place may be a final resting place."

The researchers need the help of North Dakotans because they physically can’t get to all of the cemeteries in the state.

He wants to know the name of the cemeteries that contain the crosses, their location (directions or legal description). "We’re also looking for people who have knowledge of blacksmiths who made these iron cross grave markers, either in their communities or even in their families."

Individual locations of the markers won’t be revealed to the general public.

Information will be catalogued and kept on file at the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck for release only to legitimate researchers. Among other things, it’s important to photograph and catalog artifacts to help ensure their preservation.

Reprinted with the permission of The Forum

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