German-Russian blacksmiths who made wrought-iron crosses in central North Dakota and the Northern Plains continued a tradition well-established since the sixteenth century when creating wrought iron crosses flourished during the Renaissance. When Germans migrated to Russia, they brought various traditions, including the art of cross-making. They continued this tradition when they later immigrated to the United States, especially in North Dakota.
German-Russian blacksmiths began making wrought-iron crosses in North Dakota as early as 1884. The hand-made crosses were most prevalent in central North Dakota from the late 1880s to about 1925, when marble and granite became more popular for grave marking. Most wrought-iron crosses appear in Catholic graveyards, although a few of these markers are also found in German-Russian Lutheran graveyards.
- Design & Construction
Making a wrought-iron cross was complex and required various specialized tools and techniques. Using a leg vise was a crucial part of the cross-making process. The vise held the strip of iron as the blacksmith hammered, bent, and welded it. They could purchase the iron, but blacksmiths often used leftover pieces from buggies and wagon tires.
Despite their practical nature, blacksmiths carefully decorated each cross with a unique feature, ranging from scrollwork to delicate metal flowers. The smiths were guided by cultural tradition and individual creativity, with each cross-maker developing their preferred style and design known throughout the community and state.
Artists such as these focused on creating balanced and symmetrical crosses. Symmetry was important not just for aesthetic reasons but also because it provided a sense of order and comfort in the face of the chaos, grief, and heartbreak associated with the death of a loved one. Although the crosses were related to Christian beliefs, they were created by ordinary people, and churches did not have a strong stance on their use. The wrought-iron crosses may have challenged religious orthodoxy. Unlike traditional symbols of death, such as skeletons and hourglasses, the German-Russian crosses had a more positive design that evoked the spirit of their makers.
Dambach, Bob., and Timothy J. Kloberdanz. Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices : Iron Crosses of the Great Plains. Fargo, N.D: Prairie Public Broadcasting, 2002. (Click here to watch on YouTube) (Buy a copy)
Isern, Thomas D. (Thomas Dean), and Kevin. Nesemeier. Wrought Iron Cross Cemeteries in North Dakota: Continuing Survey, 1998-99: (Public Report). Fargo: NDSU Institute for Regional Studies, 2000. (Catalog)
Research records for Wrought Iron Cross Cemeteries in North Dakota—Continuing Survey, 1998-99, MS 298, Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo.
Kloberdanz, Timothy J. Unser Lieber Gottesacker (Our Dear God's Acre): An Iron-Cross Cemetery on the Northern Great Plains. Article. In Markers XXII, XXII:160–81. Greenfield, MA: The Association for Gravestone Studies, 1980. (Catalog) (Buy a copy)
Sperry, James E. German-Russian Wrought-Iron Cross Sites in Central North Dakota. North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office. National Register of Historic Places, 1989.