Plains Folk: Iron Crosses

By Tom Isern, Professor of History, North Dakota State University

News, NDSU Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University, Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58015-5655, September 6, 2002

This is riveting. The artistry of traditional blacksmiths, as expressed in the wrought iron crosses of prairie cemeteries, has been matched by the artistry of its chroniclers. Im viewing Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains, a new documentary scheduled for broadcast debut on Prairie Public Television Thursday, 12 Sept.

Behind the production lies the drive and enthusiasm of Michael Miller, Germans from Russia librarian at North Dakota State University, who in the past several years has accomplished several successful collaborations with Prairie Public. Then there is the redoubtable Bob Dambach of Prairie Public, with his laudable commitment to portraying the glories of life on the plains.

And finally, most important in this case, there is the insider expertise, scholarly commitment and lyric eloquence of Tim Kloberdanz, folklorist from the NDSU faculty. No one else could have crafted and narrated this script. As the camera caresses the cold iron crosses with affectionate gaze, the poetic prose of Kloberdanz warms them, brings them to life with story and reflection.

Background, briefly. The tradition of wrought iron cross cemetery art goes back at least to the 1600s in Austria and Bavaria. It seems to have become pervasive among European peoples, but only some of them transferred it to the North American plains. Ukrainians, Metis, and Germans from Hungary are among those who did.

Most prominently, the Germans from Russia carried their iron cross traditions to the plains. Their artful smiths planted thousands of iron crosses across a 1,500-mile span of prairie from Kansas to Alberta. The greatest concentrations are among the Volga Germans of western Kansas and
adjacent areas; the Black Sea Germans of South Dakota and North Dakota; and the German-Russians of Saskatchewan and Alberta, who were mostly second-stage immigrants from the Dakotas.

Behind every iron cross there is a story, Kloberdanz observes. Woven into the documentary exposition, then, are voices from the grave--stories of individuals such as The Bride (who danced herself to death on her wedding day) and The Beet Worker (whose grave cross is adorned with iron sugarbeets).

Personal interviews give face to the tradition. The smiths themselves are gone, but when Marianne Baron tells of her father, Thomas Stebner of Mandan, with the old smiths beautiful scrollwork appearing over her shoulder against a cobalt sky; or when raspy Doc Edward Keller recalls the sparks flying through the dark smithy of his uncles Louis and Jake Schneider; then you know you have at least touched the hem of the garment of something grand.

A Volga German woman in western Kansas walks a cemetery and spills holy water on the grave of an ancestor. Her continued observance of tradition recalls the days of parlor wakes, pedestrian mourners following a black hearse, and the singing of the Schicksal Song as clods strike the casket.

The old dirge says we should be ready for death at any time, for everything comes to an end. The art of the smiths, however, taunts death, denying its sting. Roses, lilies, vines, branches, angels, hearts, sunbursts--the ornaments are emblems of life, not death.

And the iron cross tradition is not dead, nor is the culture of the plains. There are cycles of life on the prairies. Somewhere a forge is hot.

Reprinted with permission of Professor Thomas Isern.

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