The Unique Cemetery Art of a Czech Immigrant

"Dust you are and to dust you shall return."

When Charles Andera died in 1929, he left behind a unique legacy: hundreds of ornate distinctive cast metal crosses which mark the final resting place of  Roman Catholic Czech Americans in no less than twelve states. His beautiful grave markers have been found in cemeteries from Prague, Oklahoma to Bohemia, New York and from Pisek, North Dakota to Halletsville, Texas.  Almost exclusively these monuments are in Czech Catholic graveyards.  Loren N. Horton, Chief Historian for the Iowa State Historical Society, now retired, calls Andera's cemetery art a "Czech-American treasure."

In addition to his wonderful work, Andera left us with a number of questions: Where did he learn his many skills, where did he have his intricate crosses cast, how did he market them, and how many more are there that we don't know about? Those questions are all begging for answers. An effort is now underway to resolve them and to locate and catalog all of his wonderful grave marker crosses.

Andera came to this country with his parents and several siblings in the early 1860’s from Hrobska Zahradka (Garden of the Graves), a small village near Tabor, Bohemia. It’s name derived from the ancient burial grounds near which it was located. After a short stay in Toronto, Canada, the family settled on a farm near Spillville in Winneshiek County, Iowa. There in 1875 Charles married Barbara Dostal, the daughter of a wagon maker. Where he lived in the interim is unknown. Was it perhaps with an older half-brother near Charles City, Iowa who had trained in Vienna, Austria as a furniture maker? When the question came up, long after his death, no one had an answer.

Now a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker, Charles Andera opened a furniture store next to his small house in Spillville. His work included the construction of the communion rail and other wooden appointments in Spillville’s St. Wenceslaus Church. Bells of the clock he installed in the steeple sounded on the quarter hour and could be heard for miles. Commuting by bicycle, he crafted the altars in the Catholic churches in nearby Fort Atkinson and Protivin. He also made burial caskets.

The earliest crosses still in existence in the Spillville cemetery were made from wagon maker’s strap iron and may have been the product of John Dostal, Andera’s father-in-law. Was this connection perhaps what gave Charles Andera his cross-making start? There would have been wooden crosses of Oak, a common practice which in his native land, went back several centuries.

Charles Andera sculpted his crosses from wood and Plaster of Paris, then sent this pattern to a foundry to have them cast. The corpora, of which there were several sizes, as well as the small statues which adorn two of his designs, he carved from wood. The inscription plates he may have cast himself. The foundry was probable in Wisconsin but to date no solid evidence has been found.

Most puzzling is the question: how did this craftsman locate buyers scattered throughout such a wide region? Spillville was a village of less than 400 souls, Tremont less than a quarter that size. The sole Andera ad that has been found was a 25th anniversary history of the Catholic Workman, a Czech Catholic fraternal union, the Spillville chapter of which Charles Andera was the founding member. He was a also a charter member of the Western Czech Catholic Union which was incorporated in Spillville on 1 January 1899.

Branches of both organizations had formerly belonged to the Bohemian Catholic First Central Union which had formed in St. Louis, MO in 1877 and which used the newspaper HLAS as it organ. The paper’s readership extended throughout the country’s Czech Catholic community and was one of its prime means of communication. Was it somehow through this union that Andera learned of potential buyers?

The Andera grave marker crosses are rich in symbolism. His #1 was adorned with a skull and crossbones. (This did not indicate that the deceased had died from poison as one school child surmised, but was an image commonly displayed by Czech Catholics in centuries past as a reminder of man’s mortality.)  This style was also available with an abstract design. Other symbols and decorations that the cross maker utilized included angels, cherubs, crucifixes, the Lamb of God, statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the crown of thorns, quatrefoils, and trefoils.

States in which Andera crosses have been found are Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas.

Shown below are examples of the Charles Anderas crosses. Andera’s photos of the crosses he sold show eight different basic designs which, through markings, can be identified as his work. Each cross could be obtained with a variety of stone or metal bases. Strangely, there appears to be no pattern in the manner in which Andera marked his crosses. Some simply have his intials, “C.A.”; others include his intials or name, the words “Spillville. IA” or “Tremont, MO” and may include the date of manufacture.  Some, on the back of the heart shaped inscription plate, are marked “No. 5” or carry the outline of a cross. Many monuments, otherwise indentical to the marked crosses, are unmarked.

If anyone has knowledge about Andera crosses, contact
Cyril M. Klimesh, Sebastopol, CA
or Loren E. Horton, 3367 Hanover Court, Iowa City, IA 52245


Andera Cross

Grave monument of Vojtech Krall in Sec 46 of the
St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Newport Township Johnson County, Iowa

andera cross types

Information for this article was provided by Pat Krall Skay, a member of the Iowa City Genealogical Society.
The web page was created by Harvey W. Henry, Webmaster and a member of the ICGS

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