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Fritel is a welding wonder

By Staff | Aug 21, 2009

When Jim Williams passed away in September 2008 his family knew they wanted to honor his memory in a special way.

Jim, who had served as president of the State Bank of Towner, had also been a farmer, a lawyer, had raised cattle and raced horses. He was also an avid hunter.

After moving to Towner he discovered the wrought iron cross grave markers that are common in German-Russian cemeteries in the area, and he and his wife, Connie, made a hobby of seeking out unique examples.

His daughter, Aimee Lehman, of Rugby recalls, “After he died, I called my mother and asked her if she had done anything for a monument.” When her mom said she had not, Aimee suggested an iron cross. Her mom said, “Yes, but where would we ever get one made?”

“I have the perfect person,” Aimee responded. So she asked Ron Fritel of rural Barton if he would build the marker and he said, “Absolutely.”

The large cross was set in place on Jim’s grave in Kidder County several weeks ago. The Williams family is still amazed at the ingenuity and workmanship which went into it.

Standing over eight feet tall and weighing nearly 800 pounds, the cross incorporates images representing facets of Jim’s life, as well as circular, oval and other ornate shapes made from flat iron.

Horseshoes represent Jim’s love of race horses, a scale of justice made of chain and disks from a farm implement tell of his days as a lawyer. Farming is illustrated by large stems of wheat, and the head and antlers of a buck signify his love of outdoor life and hunting.

Aimee said her sister, Michelle, came up with some of the ideas. Others were from Ron’s imagination or adapted from a book, ‘Iron Spirits’. The book contains many pictures and histories of wrought iron crosses built by blacksmiths in German-Russian communities in North Dakota.

Ron built the cross in his small welding shop on his farm north of Rugby. It was sandblasted, primed and painted with dark gray automotive paint by Todd Munyer of Precision Autobody of Rugby.

Ron started doing ornamental ironworks about 10 years ago as a side business, but said it really is more of a hobby. He makes candleholders which his wife, Melissa, sells at craft shows, and large table centerpieces which, with the addition of flowers or greenery, can be changed for each season. “I’ve built a lot of unusual stuff,” he said. “People either really like it or they really don’t.”

The cross he made for the Williams family is his most detailed piece yet. A few years back he made the front gate and a cross for St. Anne’s Cemetery south of Fillmore. “The St. Anne’s Cemetery cross is not as elaborate as others I’ve made,” Ron said.

A particularly meaningful cross was built for a family in Northwood. A nephew of one of Ron’s relatives died and his family could not afford a grave marker of any kind, so Ron made the cross and gave it to the family.

Ron starts each project by making jigs, or patterns, of large and small circles. Flat iron, about one-eighth inch thick and one or more inches wide, is heated in his gas forge. He bends the white-hot metal around the jigs for some of the designs, but says much of the work is done freehand, using just the forge, hammer, anvil and his experienced eye.

Ron got his start in welding in high school. He completed ag and welding courses at North Dakota State College of Science and attended horseshoeing school in Ardmore, Okla. Over the years he has farmed and ranched, and was a co-owner of Rugby Welding. He is now employed as a welder by CTI of Minot.

As far as he knows there are no blacksmiths in his German-Russian ancestry. Perhaps the cemetery folk art tradition practiced so widely in that culture became his by instinct. He certainly doesn’t think of his ability as unusual. “All the old German blacksmiths did it,” he said.

Aimee Lehman disagrees with that assessment. “It’s just that he’s a very modest and humble guy,” she said.

Talent aside, Ron’s interest and inspiration seem to come straight from the heart. “I just enjoy the old iron crosses,” he said.

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