Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Iron Crosses of the Plains

By Celia Yeary
Symbols of Strength and Spirituality

Imagine you are an immigrant, perhaps German or Polish, living on the Great Plains of America during the Nineteenth Century. An outbreak of diphtheria takes the lives of some friends, neighbors, and worst of all, your own little son. You go to the barn to find pieces of wood to fashion a small coffin. Heartbroken, you and your wife bury your precious little boy. You forgo the common wooden cross to mark the grave. 
TYPICAL PIONEER FAMILY
Instead, you visit the "smithy" in the village, another immigrant like yourself who understands you want a traditional iron cross, one that will last centuries.

You work with the smithy to create a special cross made of iron and other bits of scrap metal he might have. The cross will be unique, one of a kind, to mark the child's grave. The design will tell a story...

In September 2005, my husband and I embarked on our fourth and last trip to Europe. After landing in Frankfurt, we began a long trip by tour bus through Central Europe. I admit the trip did not interest me at first, but my husband thought we should see this area of Europe. By the time we finished the tour, I said it was second on my list of favorites.

We visited places in several countries (in order): Frankfurt, Berlin, Warsaw, Poznan, Auschwitz, Krakow, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Rothenberg. and back to the Frankfurt Airport.

During this long journey, I was enthralled with everything (except Auschwitz), but one vision remained with me--the iron crosses in cemeteries on the long drive between Eastern Germany and into Poland. The tour guide never mentioned them, but I'd watch out the bus window and see one cemetery after another among fields of flowers or crops of some kind.

The iron crosses were easily identifiable. The cemeteries always lay close to the road, and since the bus didn't travel very fast on the narrow roads, I had time to study quite a few.

When we arrived home, I looked up information about the Wrought Iron Crosses, and learned how and why they were made.

Several years later, we...once again...were on a tour bus. This time we were on one of several tours to SEE AMERICA FIRST. No, we saw it last! We flew to Denver and met our fellow passengers, and boarded the bus the next morning. (3/4 of the passengers were from the UK--I fell in love with the joyous group discovering America.)

CEMETERY IN KANSAS

On the first leg of the trip, we drove from Denver to Cheyenne and on to South Dakota to Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood.  Much of the countryside was flat--the Plains or Prairies. Once again I saw cemeteries with the iron crosses. I was thrilled, and tried to explain to others, but no one else seemed as excited.
The iron crosses are made and used by Germans from Russia, for the most part, and some were made by the Irish, the Hungarians, The Czechs, The Ukrainians, and others.

These immigrants who came to America during the migration to the West brought with them the blacksmiths and artists who created iron crosses for their deceased loved ones.
The unique crosses are scattered from central Canada to Kansas, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Those prevalent in the Dakotas are of the Germans from Russia.

The cross represents the sacred.

The iron represents strength.

Unlike wooden crosses, they were tough enough to withstand prairie fires, storms, and even time itself.
Each cross is unique, made from metals that were available at the time. The size, shape, style, color, design, and symbols all have cultural significance. Each one tells a story, and not everyone can "read" the story. For example, one features an iron snake crawling up the cross. At the very top of this same cross is an angel. It tells the story of creation, the fall of man, and heavenly salvation.
Common features were the sun, a heart, a star, leaves, flowers, a tree, and shapes of animals. Filigree was popular on many crosses.

Have you seen the Iron Crosses of the Plains of the United States? I'd love to know if anyone else has seen these, either in Europe or America.

Celia Yeary...Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
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Sources:
Wikimedia Commons
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains
Rural Kansas Tourism 


25 comments:

  1. What an interesting post, Celia. I learned something new today. And yes, we have been to South Dakota on a tour bus just two years ago but I didn't notice any of these iron crosses when crossing the plains. Perhaps they were there and I overlooked them.

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    1. I almost think they're a figment of my imagination. No one else has seen them...at least the people I've asked. Oh, and years later, I watched a tv program about them. Thank you for coming by.

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  2. Hi Celia: thank you for the interesting post. Something to watch for in the future.

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    1. Gini--hope you see some one day. Thank you for the visit.

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  3. In my travels through the Midwest I never saw any iron crosses. Your article interested me in that each cross is different and tells a story. Does that mean there are some standard symbolic designs families could choose from to include in their family member's cross? I know there are some standard symbols people use with headstones, but I'm trying to understand how they would do it with metal.
    I like the idea of how these crosses can withstand fire, flood, and time. What is the oldest cross you saw?
    My sister is an enthusiastic traveler. Not me. I have not gone beyond the North American continent into Canada and Nova Scotia. The only place I have ever wanted to see, but probably never will is Australia. I'm such a homebody--plus I am afraid of flying. LOL I'm one of those white-knuckle people that sits there stiff and terrified until I get my feet back on solid earth. LOL
    An excellent blog, Celia.

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    1. I wouldn't know about the oldest cross I saw--remember, I saw these from a moving bus. How do they make these with metal? The village smithy did it and he was an immigrant, too, and learned from others.
      Australia--I never had a yen to visit Australia. My husband did until he learned how long he'd be on a plane. He's slightly claustrophobic and always had a hard time on just a normal flight. He still mentions it once in a while.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  4. I never knew that bit of history about the iron crosses. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You're welcome...Thanks for visiting.

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  5. I have seen them, but you know I never gave it much thought. Now, I'll be on the lookout. Thanks for such a fascinating post, Celia.

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    1. YOU'VE SEEN THEM? I am so excited, Kirsten. Let me know if you ever find some. Thanks for the comment.

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  6. How fascinating! I loved the history behind the iron crosses. So many graves in my area of the country are unmarked that it's a shame we didn't have iron crosses around here, but maybe the salt air would rust them out.

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    1. In Poland, we walked through a very old cemetery in the middle of a town. Those were interesting, too. You could identify each grave as to it's native country by the materials used and also the design. I can't recall details..but some gravestones were actually replicas of buildings from that country, say, Poland. Another country might use carvings from sandstone or maybe marble to depict some image...and angel, God, Jesus on the cross. No iron crosses in the city cemetery, though. Those seemed to be in the countryside.
      Thanks for visiting and your comment!

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  7. Well shoot. I just got back from WY, SD and MT and never saw the crosses. Saw lots of other fascinating things--old towns, lots of nature with awesome mountatins, Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore, a animals galore, but no crsses, stc., etc.. Guess I'll have to to back sometime and I'm sure I'll find them fascinating. I so enjoyed this blog, Celia. Very interesting. Thanks.

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    1. Interesting how each of us see different things..especially on a tour of some kind. Some of the cemeteries were in Kansas, too.
      Well, you had a great trip, then...we went over those same stops and miles.

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  8. You hit upon something that is dear to me, cemeteries. The 'headstones' tell such stories. Thank you for sharing these with us. Doris

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    1. My two sisters and I have tromped through numerous cemeteries in Palo Pinto and Parker counties, looking for certain relatives. Oh, yes, we had such fun finding certain graves--like a treasure hunt. I agree--they tell a story.

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  9. I intend to look for them now, Celia. I love old cemeteries. My grandmother is buried in one near Blue Ridge which the State Historical Society has taken over but her cross was among dozens of wooden ones and we don't know which grave is hers. I wish she'd had an iron cross!

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    1. My great grandmother's headstone was a rough piece of wood with her name carved into it. I have a snapshot, for surely one day it will crumble.

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  10. I am quite surprised that I have never seen the iron crosses, considering that I was not only born in Kearney, NE and had traveled throughout the plains as a child. I also find old cemeteries interesting and have explored many; in particular, when we lived in Waynesville, NC, since there were many confederate soldiers buried there. I even did a rubbing on paper with a special wax for a friend whose ancestor was buried there.

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    1. I found photos of some on a Kansas Travel website...can't recall where else I looked.

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    2. My sisters and I did rubbings, but we used chalk. One sister told me I was doing it wrong--how could it be wrong? There seemed to be only one way. Such is the life of being a middle sister--you're always wrong.

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  11. Interesting post, Celia. I love learning new info about cemetery markers. This one I hadn't heard of before.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Karen. I find cemeteries very interesting...as do my sisters. They got me into it.

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  12. How interesting, Celia. I believe I've seen a few iron crosses but for some reason they didn't impress me at the time. On my next road trip I'll pay more attention. Fascinating post.

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  13. Great post, Celia. I have never heard about the Iron Crosses, although when we first moved west to Texas back in the 70s, I noticed wooden (many carved) crosses placed where people had died (like in car crashes, etc.) We saw them all along the route -- Ohio, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, etc. I still see them being placed along roads and highways in Texas. Never understood why someone would mark where their loved ones died. They are not buried there and it is sad and unsettling (for me) to see them. Very often flowers are placed on them -- years after they were erected. Maybe the people who do this are carrying on the Iron Cross tradition?

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