Preservation Recommendations from the Iron Cross Cemetery Survey

Preservation Recommendations from the Iron Cross Cemetery Survey

(The following recommendations and discussion are reproduced from the published report of the project.)

The preservation status of wrought iron crosses is the subject of considerable popular commentary that is more or less grounded in the facts as encountered in the field. The present survey produces new findings and perspectives on the preservation and loss of wrought iron crosses in North Dakota. The report goes on to make some specific recommendations whereby preservation of this priceless legacy may be encouraged.

National Register Recommendations

Essential to the preservation of wrought iron crosses in the cemeteries of North Dakota is the placement of additional cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whereas National Register Bulletin 15, How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, is basic to all nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, the process for cemeteries must be guided also (and in some matters instead) by National Register Bulletin 41, Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places.

Clearly, the cemeteries assessed as significant in this survey meet National Register criteria as explained in this bulletin. As shown in tables above, they are significant primarily under Criterion C:

Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
The explanation of Criterion C in Bulletin 41 goes on to show its applicability here by saying,
In central North Dakota, German-Russian Wrought Iron Cross Sites contain a dazzling array of intricately embellished hand-crafted grave crosses, a long-established Old World folk tradition brought to the United States by German-Russian immigrants. The crosses, some by highly-skilled blacksmiths whose names are known, and others by unknown artisans, display a balance of cultural tradition and individual creativity.
That passage, inspired by the earlier iron cross survey and nominations from North Dakota, is applicable by extension to the surveys newly comprehended in the current survey.

Those cemeteries assessed as not eligible in the current survey were so adjudged because they did not meet the tests of Criterion C. Almost any older cemetery might be assessed as having some historical significance, but the key point of assessment was the presence or absence of sufficient wrought iron cross art so as to meet Criterion C. This did not mean a set number of wrought iron crosses; a single piece of profound artistry might rate as significant. Rather the judgment was more holistic, but based carefully on the wording of the criterion, seeking assemblages that were "the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction." Thus identification of work with a known master smith carried significance; so did evident high artistic value of iron crosses, even if not identified by individual smith; and so also did identification with "a significant and distinguishable entity," such as the folk-art tradition of a particular culture. Where the crosses were unidentified as to smith, did not possess high artistic value, and did not fit with an identifiable folk-art tradition, the cemetery was assessed as not significant.

The cemeteries here assessed as significant are also significant secondarily under Criterion A:

Properties can be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
Among the previously identified historic context themes for North Dakota with which the cemeteries can be linked (and are so linked in site files) are Rural Settlement, Urban Settlement, and Religion. The emphasis in all these ties is in line with ethnicity. The iron crosses always are associated with the settlement and religion of certain ethnic groups, as described in other sections of this report.

Beyond the usual criteria and explanations, Bulletin 41 also sets forth a number of "Criteria Considerations" applicable to cemeteries. These reflect a general wariness toward the nomination of cemeteries to the National Register, but specify that certain justifications are sufficient to override that concern and make certain cemeteries eligible. Two of these Criteria Considerations have applicability to the cemeteries here treated. First, Criteria Consideration A:

A religious property is eligible if it derives its primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance.
Such is the case with the iron cross cemeteries, assessed as they are significant under criteria C and A.

Also applicable is Criteria Consideration F:

A property primarily commemorative in intent can be eligible if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value has invested it with its own historical significance.
The explanation of this consideration goes on to cite, as meeting the consideration,
A gravemarker significant primarily as a document of the traditions of an ethnic or cultural group.
Given the broad and apparent eligibility of iron cross cemetery sites, the logical course is to proceed with a multiple property nomination providing for the listing of the entire roster of eligible cemeteries. Tables below catalog such eligible cemeteries. It will be noted that in many cases there are additional features beyond the cemetery proper and its grave markers that are significant, are associated by proximity and significance with the cemeteries, and should be included in the nomination. Examples of such features (not an exhaustive list) are churches, parish halls, shrines, rectories, schools, fences, and even privies. All such features are documented in the site files.

Of such a nomination, Bulletin 41 says,

individual gravemarkers would be counted as separately contributing features in those cases where gravemarkers have been comprehensively inventoried and evaluated and those of outstanding rank can be determined.
Those gravemarkers "of outstanding rank" comprise the wrought iron crosses. They have been photographed individually and mapped individually on the sketch maps included in the site files.

In addition, it is the recommendation of this survey that cast iron gravemarkers, although not individually inventoried, be somehow noted in the nomination and stated as contributing to the listings.

Another question to be here resolved is the one of boundaries. Bulletin 41 says,

Boundaries should be drawn to encompass, but not to exceed, the full extent of resources which contribute to the significance of the property.
Such boundaries may be specified by legal description, by verbal point-to-point reference, or by use of a site plan or sketch map, "if the map includes a scale indicator." Sketch maps in the site files of this survey include scale indicators.

Finally, the investigators recommend that the iron cross nomination exercise the "Not for Publication" option stated in Bulletin 41, whereby the National Park Service is asked to restrict information on sites in order not to expose the properties to harm.

Other Preservation Recommendations

At this time there is a high degree of public consciousness of the wrought iron cross tradition in North Dakota. Nevertheless, the preservation of iron crosses in future will require ongoing efforts in public education. Moreover, this survey produces findings that should be incorporated into the public message. General points of new emphasis should include:
  1. The extensiveness and inclusiveness of the iron cross tradition. The bulk of the work, to be sure, is German-Russian, but other ethnic groups also had their traditions and have a stake in preservation. Speaking more broadly, dispelling the idea that the iron cross tradition is a German-Russian enterprise only will broaden public ownership in its preservation, so that all North Dakotans, not only one ethnic group, take protective pride in it.

  2. The variations and subtleties of iron cross design. There are myriad combinations of designs, motifs, and construction techniques in the field, and the combinations no doubt hold cultural meanings of which we are only dimly aware. It is not enough to preserve some outstanding examples of wrought iron crosses. It is our responsibility, if we care about the state's cultural heritage, to preserve the whole body of work.

  3. Integrity of piece, site, and context are vital. Active cemeteries are by nature organic sites undergoing additions, new burials, and other changes continually. Integrity of site must be defined somewhat differently for cemeteries than for, say, buildings. Nevertheless, when additions or changes are made to cemeteries, recognition of the historic and artistic importance of wrought iron crosses should cause those making the changes to consider their effects on the integrity of the iron cross burial areas. Most of all, it should be emphasized that a historic object is most significant in context. Moving or removal of iron crosses takes them out of historic context, reduces their historic value–and shows a lack of respect not only for the dead but also for the cultural traditions that they cherished.
Beyond general public education, certain other targeted efforts would assist in the preservation or perhaps even the restoration of iron crosses in the North Dakota landscape. Here are three recommendations worth considering.
  1. Issue a circular and use other means of communication to inform cemetery committees, boards, and caretakers of the dangers to funerary art posed by the elements–snow and wind in particular–in North Dakota, and how good management could moderate, rather than exacerbate, the damage. Tree-planting should be done in accord with well-established principles for farmstead windbreaks, meaning planting shelterbelts at a suitable distance from objects to be protected. Indeed, cemetery authorities should be encouraged to consider removal of tree belts that cause damage to grave markers. This is a practical matter of physical adjustment, of course, but there also is a cultural issue involved. Did the people who established these cemeteries surround them with trees? Historically, no; they knew it was best to let the wind blow the snow right through, and they also were at home enough on the open prairie to contemplate eternal rest in open spaces.

  2. Establish and provide technical support for a program of iron cross restoration. This report posits that a key cause of iron cross losses is that after crosses are damaged by wind and snow, they are removed. Caretakers and relatives do not have easy recourse to blacksmiths who could restore bent or broken crosses in a manner sensitive to cultural and artistic tradition. The answer is to recruit several master smiths who do ornamental iron work, consult with them about techniques for restoration of damaged crosses, inform them of the traditions behind the iron crosses, and publicize the availability of their services for iron cross restoration. The placement of restored iron crosses in historic cemeteries incidentally would offer spectacular opportunities for public information and education about the value of the iron cross tradition.

  3. Explore the possibilities for repatriation of wrought iron crosses that have been removed from cemeteries. There may be crosses in the hands of relatives, perhaps distant relatives, or other parties who, if informed of the importance of historic context to these pieces and offered assistance in correct placement of the crosses, would return them.

Areas for Further Evaluation

The possibilities for further enlightenment of the iron cross tradition in North Dakota are endless. There are many blacksmiths yet to be identified. Field material in hand deserves much more analysis to correlate and analyze artists, designs, techniques, disseminations, and influences. Finally, although the current survey is considered to be substantially exhaustive of iron cross cemeteries in North Dakota, without doubt there are more iron crosses to be found in isolated cemeteries. Discovery and inquiry on this subject will never cease.

Nevertheless, this survey lays adequate grounding in almost all respects to proceed with nominations to the National Register that will protect the substantial resources here documented. In that practical sense there is little immediate need for further evaluation. Here are three areas where the investigators feel additional research would strengthen the coming nominations.

  1. There should be another review of site files, possibly in conjunction with files from the 1987-88 survey, to make identifications of the work of particular blacksmiths not already made. This is first a matter of additional review at greater leisure, allowing the connections among pieces to become evident. It also may involve further inquiry of the public, as local persons might, if confronted with the crosses themselves or photographs thereof, be jogged into additional identifications.

  2. The German-Hungarian cross tradition wants better grounding in sources peculiar to that culture. This likely would involve some interviewing and field work in the German-Hungarian settlement area. This might identify artists and techniques not yet known.

  3. The history of the wrought iron crosses in St. Ann's Cemetery of Belcourt wants specification. As knowledge now stands, they cannot be assigned with certainty to a particular cultural tradition.

Summary of Recommendations

1. Pursue a multiple property nomination aimed at placing all significant wrought iron cross cemetery sites in North Dakota on the National Register of Historic Places.

2. Continue public education on the subject of iron cross cemeteries, incorporating new findings and concerns disclosed by the current survey.

3. Consider assertive new programs to educate cemetery caretakers about measures to preserve iron crosses; involve blacksmiths in iron cross restoration; and encourage repatriation of iron crosses that have been removed from cemeteries.

Center for Heritage Renewal