Iron Spirits: North Dakota Blacksmith made Grave Crosses, an Exihibition and Publication

Marie Rudel Portner Germans from Russia Room, NDSU Libraries, Fargo

Courtesy of the North Dakota Concil on the Arts, Bismarck, North Dakota

Iron Spirits

Nicholas Churchin Vrooman and Patrice Avon Marvin, editors, Jane and Wayne Gudmundson, photographers. North Dakota Council on the Arts, Fargo, North Dakota, 1982, 116 pages, softcover.

Iron Spirits: North Dakota Blacksmith-made Grave Crosses, an exhibition and publication is a seminal project of national significance produced in 1982 by the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) and former NDCA folklorist Nicholas Vrooman.  It highlights one of the most distinctive and celebrated folk arts of the Northern Great Plains, the beautiful and cherished German-Russian and Ukrainian tradition of blacksmith-made wrought-iron grave crosses, or schmiedeeiserne Grabkreuze.

The project presents these elaborately designed and artistic crosses, their makers, and the cultural context within which the tradition lives.  The exhibit and book includes numerous stunning black and white photographs by Wayne and Jane Gudmundson.  Additional information is provided with text from members of the German-Russian community, the families of featured blacksmiths, and folklorists.  This effort helped usher a growing appreciation for and resurgence in the tradition that continues today.  In fact, many of the iron crosses, so wonderfully photographed, received National Register of Historic Places designation in the 1980s due to the early pioneering work of the German-Russian folklorist Dr. Timothy J. Kloberdanz (Professor Emeritus, North Dakota State University) and with later assistance from fellow German-Russian scholar Troyd A. Geist (current State Folklorist, NDCA).

The schmiedeeiserne Grabkreuze tradition, with its deeply-meaningful symbolism, speaks more about life than it does about death.  As Dr. Kloberdanz writes in Iron Spirits,

The wrought-iron grave crosses of the German-Russians – with their unbroken hearts of metal, brightly-painted stars, endless circles, banner-waving angels, sunburst designs, power-charged lightning bolts, exquisitely-formed lilies, and rose blossoms that rust but never wilt – evoke the defiant spirit of their makers.  In a bold effort to transcend the finite, this defiance was tempered and hammered into the timeless language of iron.


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