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
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
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
"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
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