Coming back to Gimli


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I come to Gimli. That’s probably because my father died three years ago and my mother died last December.  My family is out at the Coast, my sister-in-law, my niece, my nephew. My daughter is on the island with her family and my son and his family are just across the border in the States. A ferry ride and an hour’s drive and I’m at their front door. Now that my parents are gone, will I come back every summer as I have done for fifty-one years?
I was brought up in Gimli. Did all those Gimli things. The Christmas concert at the Lutheran church, the orange and the bag of hard candy. Skating on the edge of Skorbahutch’s land where the railway spur and the track made a Y. Hunting rabbits in the brush piles. It took two of you. One to kick the brush pile, the other to shoot the rabbit that came running out. Skating on the outdoor rink, then indoors once the new rink was built. Curling. Lots of shouting by the skip and the sharp sound of the granite rocks hitting each other.
Hanging around Mary’s restaurant. Sitting in the booths eating hamburgers and chips, not those things in bags but home made French fries drenched in vinegar and salt. Playing the pinball machine beside the front door, trying to get an edge by lifting it a little only to have it flash TILT. Later, sneaking into the pool room through the back door to shoot pea pool and snooker.
Struggling through snow up to my knees to deliver The Winnipeg Free Press. I hated collection day because every time I went into a house to collect the money and give out the ticket that proved the subscriber had paid, my glasses fogged up. Solid white. It was like going from a freezer into a sauna at some places, then back into the freezer.
I went to all the hockey games I could afford and when I had an extra quarter, I watched cartoons and News of the World and feature films in Greenberg’s theatre on Second Avenue.
Fished on the outside of the dock for perch and swam in the harbour. There weren’t a lot of boats in those days and the water was still clean. I didn’t swim much because I was afraid of the water. Sometimes we went to the little dock and the other guys, the ones who loved the water, would dive all the way to the bottom and bring up stones to prove they’d been there.
But what is it that brings us back from far places? When we left school there weren’t many opportunities in Gimli. Some already had a plan, a goal or, like me, no plan, no goal, but grandparents in the city who wanted me to be something other than a laborer on the highway or a fisherman. Nowadays, it’s okay to be a fisherman but in those days my father would often fish for two months and come home owing more money than when he started. A lot of fishermen lived in shanties. Now, they live in mansions.
We went off to learn how to dress different, talk different, have different manners, think different, sneak our way into being pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, that sort of thing. I say sneak because a friend of mine told me that even though he had a Phd. and was the head of a university department, he kept waiting for someone to turn up and reveal that he was a fraud. I know how he felt. When I was at the university, I kept waiting for someone to stop me in the hallway and say “What are you doing here?”
We were all imposters of one kind or another, pretending we weren’t just small town kids who snuck in the back door.
Maybe that’s partly why we come back to Gimli every summer. To be ourselves. To be the kid in the third seat in the window row in Miss Greenberg’s class. Or the best forward on the PeeWee hockey team or the best goalie for the Midgets. Or, maybe, just to be the kid who, after a good day’s fishing, goes home with fifteen golden perch on his string.
When I got married and had a couple of kids, we used to go once a summer to have tea with Miss Stefansson. Miss Stefansson was very special. She was educated, sophisticated, and completely and totally dedicated to her students. She never married. We told each other stories about why that was. Given the kind of person she was, it had to be some tragedy in her past. We thought maybe it was a fiancée killed in WWI. I and my wife and kids went there and she made tea and we told her about ourselves, what we were doing, what we hoped for. Her house is gone now but when I walk past there, it is still there in my mind’s eye and I can still see us standing at the door and she is letting us in for our annual cup of tea and I’m going to tell her about my successes so she’ll know that the trouble she took with me was worthwhile.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the memories. When I was in Iceland the first time, my host took me on a two day journey. He frequently stopped to point out places and explain why they were important. Sometimes it was just a rock but it was important because something important had happened there. Maybe Gimli is a bit like that. When I walk on the dock, a thousand earlier ghosts of myself walk with me. When I sit on the sand, I sit with endless overlapping memories of having sat there before.
I sat there as a small child with my mother. I sat there later when I was old enough to come with boys my own age. I sat there as an adolescent with adolescent friends. I sat there with my wife. Then we sat there with our kids. A later, much later, I sat there with my grandkids.
Sometimes, I say to people, “This happened here.” Or “That happened there.” But often I don’t tell anyone except myself. This is where I kissed a girl for the first time. Here is where we had our dances and we wore drapes and the girls wore poodle skirts and a scarf around their neck and we danced slow dances close together. The guys who were cool popped their collars and, if they could afford it, wore leather jackets. Here is where we spent lazy summer afternoons playing baseball. Here….
The community hall is gone now but it was there that we danced to music made for teenagers, music that scared some adults but not my parents. They were so young they thought the beat was great. Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Here is where we rocked and rolled. It was in Harold Bjarnason’s parent’s living room lying on the floor, watching TV that we saw Elvis sing with his hips cut off at the waist so we wouldn’t be driven into a sexual frenzy by his moving hips.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. The memories are sharp, there are so many of them. The ages of the memories are all mixed up. The sound of a machine gun firing at the Gimli airbase when they had air force day. The hard, metallic, brutal sound of it. The sand around the target kicking up in spurts, the brass casings flying away from the gun, glinting in the sunlight. Being helped into a cockpit of a plane and sitting there imagining myself flying through the sky. Stopping a game of tin can cricket to watch a Harvard trainer diving down, straight down until it disappeared behind some trees. The game was on this piece of boulevard.It’s here we watched someone die.
Maybe a life is more than the present or maybe it can be more than the present. If you are lucky, that is. There are, after all, those who disappear. They never come back or they come back for a day or two if someone dies, then they’re gone again. They live in the two dimensional world of the present. History makes life three dimensional, a world of overlapping sights and sounds and smells and feelings. If you’re lucky. If you walk down the street where you lived and it is all right for the remembered past and the present to become one.

Gimli: 125th Anniversary

What has brought me back to Gimli, Manitoba every summer since 1961? What has brought me back from Iowa, Missouri, and British Columbia for 51 years?
 This year’s Fjallkona, Connie Magnusson Shiminowski and  her attendants.

There’s the place, of course. Small town, Manitoba, but there are lots of small towns. Most of them are in decline or have already disappeared as farms have become bigger, farming equipment has got bigger, fewer people are needed to farm larger and larger areas. The people in Barry Broadfoot’s book of memories, The Pioneer Years, talk about how many people it took to break the land, sow the crops, build the houses. Pictures of harvest crews show a line up of fifteen men and, behind them, out of the picture, are all the women and children preparing food to feed them. Bull work. Physical work.
My father, when he started fishing, rowed to his nets. Twice a day in summer. Bull work
Farming and fishing have needed fewer and fewer people to provide the harvests and the catches. Arnes, Hnausa, Finns, Camp Morton, have faded away. The local stores have shut down. The car is partly to blame. You used to have to have a store close by because a trip to town with a team and buggy or sleigh took a long time. Now, people think nothing of driving to Winnipeg for bargains at Costco, Superstore, the Shopping Malls.
Some towns have been fortunate. Stonewall. The nearby federal prison provides steady employment. Other people’s tragedies are someone else’s silver lining. The town is within easy commuting distance to Winnipeg. The car taketh away and the car giveth. Teulon. Selkirk has turned into a city and is sluburba-ing toward Winnipeg. It’s had the steel mills.
 My aunt, Florence Valgardson and Jack Fowler on their wedding day in Gimli.

Gimli has had it good. The WWII airbase. The Gimli girls didn’t have to go far for husbands, although once they married airmen, they began a lifetime of traveling. The airforce brought money into town. I got some of it as a pin boy at the bowling alley. Great beaches meant cottagers and cottagers meant grass needed cutting. I got some of that.
The airbase finally shut down but the government eased the situation by helping create an industrial park. Then Gimli’s pristine water brought Seagram’s distillery and wine bottling plant. The wine bottling plant didn’t last but the distillery is still in operation. Good wages and benefits.
Gimli started as an Icelandic settlement in 1875. The Ukrainians came later, around 1890.
Now, the town’s origins are fading away. The Icelandic conversation in the stores has turned into an Icelandic conversation group that meets at Amma’s café once a week. The fish boats have largely been replaced by expensive pleasure craft. The fish processing sheds at the harbour have disappeared. The fish is shipped to the Fresh Water Marketing Board or filleted and sold locally.
Nobody talks about it much but the Ukrainianness of Gimli has also faded away. Like the Icelanders, they’ve intermarried, the kids have left the farms and become doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers in the city.
A lot of culture is based on animosity. Us against them. It’s partly prejudice, fear, a need to feel exclusive, superior. However, it’s hard to keep up those feelings when your son in law or daughter in law is from some other ethnic, religious group, when your grandkids have married people from places you didn’t even know existed. You have to work hard at keeping the us in Us.
There is still a Roman Catholic church, a Greek Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a Unitarian church. I grew up Lutheran so that’s the church I know about. The Ladies Aide that my mother belonged to has given up making sandwiches and dainties and serving food at funerals. The members are too old. That probably says it all.
It’s not about being or not being Christian. It’s about the exclusivity of community, about origins, about the old country. That’s pretty well faded away with the dying of my parents’ generation. My kids don’t see themselves as Icelandic or Irish or English. The grandkids even have a little German and Russian thrown in. They see themselves as Canadian. Or American. They’re not hyphenated anything. They’ll leave the ranting and raving, the comedy and tragedy of ethnic identity to new immigrants.
New houses are going up regularly west of town. Strangers. Or not strangers, often people who had cottages and want to retire here. Or people who worked here for a time and want to come back. Gimli is a good place to retire. All the advantages of a small town but two good highways leading to Winnipeg and Walmart. If you’re that way inclined, you can go to see The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and drive home in the same evening. Or attend a hockey game.
The town is small, a mile by half a mile. The lake on the east, the railway track on the west, deep government ditches on the north and south. Winter houses are replacing the cottages to the north and south. Small developments are appearing where there used to be farms along the lake. An enclave of expensive houses have appeared beside a golf course at Pelican Beach north of town. Birds of a feather, or, in cases like this, birds of a chequebook. The local council makes them pay through the nose for the privilege. Taxes are shockingly high. A friend of mine pays double what I pay in Victoria, BC for a house of about the same value.
  
The Vikings believed a man had to have luck to succeed. Without it, intelligence and physical strength didn’t come to much. Gimli has luck. The first Icelandic celebrations were held in Winnipeg. They moved to Gimli. Hnausa, a small community to the north, also had an Icelandic celebration for a while but finally quit. Gimli was closer to Winnipeg on the rail line. Now, Islindingadagurinn is the event of the year. Figures vary about how many people come but the town is jammed with tourists looking for an Icelandic experience on the first long weekend in August. They bring money. Also, the Celebration provides a recognizable tourist identity.
Part of Gimli having the Icelandic celebration is luck but, for twelve months every year, local people work at making it a success.    
It’s a strange mix. Icelandic settlement, Ukrainian settlement, fishing village, cottage country, WWII airbase, industrial park, home of excellent whiskey, bedroom community for Winnipeg. Maybe all of those things, plus lifetime friendships, are what draw many of us back to Gimli every summer.
However, where other communities have disappeared or are just shadows of themselves, Gimli continues to prosper. Maybe it’s the sand beaches, the lake that reaches to the horizon, the history, the sunsets, the location. Maybe the Vikings were right. Maybe part of it is good luck.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

The Vikings are Coming

Photos by W. D. Valgardson

The vikings will be on the hill at Gimli. In their chain mail and metal helmets. They’ll roast meat on a spit. Work at Viking crafts. They’ll have mock battles. A short distance away is the Gimli Viking. Although he’s not authentic because of his horned helmet, he’s much loved. Thousands of people have been photographed standing in front of him. Bring your camera.
You know that it’s Icelandic Festival time in Gimli when you see the Viking tents go up, when you see people wandering the streets in clothes from Viking times. Islindingadagurinn. Icelandic Celebration. The long weekend of eating vinarterta, pönnukökur, rullupylsa, kleiner. Of drinking authentic Icelandic beer. Skal. And drinking kaffi. Kaffi is the national drink. At one time Icelanders infused a local moss to make a tea like drink but once kaffi appeared, no more drinks made from moss.
They used to put a hard piece of sugar between their teeth and suck the coffee through it. One piece of hard sugar might last three cups of coffee. My great grandparents saucered their kaffi, pouring it into their saucer (yes, coffee cups in those days had saucers, fairly deep ones) blowing on it, then slurping it. Their kaffi was saucered and blown.
Vikings didn’t have coffee. Tough on them. They had to put up with weak beer and mead (if they got to Europe). Icelandic Vikings must have had a hard time having fun. There wasn’t a lot to have fun with. No coffee, no brennevin, lousy accommodations on a long boat, having to row day after day. No wonder they were so grouchy when they finally arrived somewhere. The Vikings on the hill, I expect, in spite of doing their best to replicate Viking life, drink coffee. I think I’ve seen some takeout coffee cuts in the trash.
They don’t take slaves. The Vikings were slave traders. That’s one way to make sure your business makes a profit. Grab some people and put them to work without wages. Authenticity or not, I expect that the tourists would object to being carried off as slaves. Especially as when the weekend is over the vikings go back to jobs in grocery stores or shopping malls. It’s one thing to be carried off by a Viking in full armour, it’s another to discover he sells light bulbs for a living.
I like these Vikings. In spite of the swords and shields, the spears, they’re friendly. They really know their stuff. They love answering questions about all things Viking. They’ll even sell you some of the crafts they make.
I like hanging out on the hill. Just so long as they don’t make me drink mead. I drank mead in Sweden. From a horn. It was terrible. The mead, not the horn. The horn was rather attractive. The mead, not so much. If you want to get an idea of what it is like, put a shot of vodka into a glass with half a cup of water, three tablespoons of honey and stir. Don’t do this if you’ve got diabetes.
The Vikings will also be in the parade. These are the kind of Vikings that throw candy to you instead of pointing their spear at you and stealing your candy. Come and see for yourself. On the hill in Gimli, beside the harbour. The first long weekend in August.

Manitoba mosquito

Mosquito sculpture by Marlene Hourd (nee Magnusson)
What a bunch of whiners Winnipegers have turned into. Headlines in the Winnipeg Free Press say Winnipeg expecting an early mosquito invasion. Mosquito invasion? Like, it’s Dunkirk or the Alamo or Vimy Ridge all over again?
When I was a kid, Gimli, Manitoba was mostly swamp. The lot beside us filled with water every spring. Two feet of water with holes so deep a kid could drown in them. One lot over, the people who lived in a shack marked the high water levels every year on their kitchen wall. When the water got passed their knees, they moved out until the flooding was over.
Water came from West. Out West, that is West of Gimli, there were gravel ridges and between the gravel ridges there were swamps, not little swamps, big swamps, swamps filled with cat tails, reeds and mosquitoes. There was little drainage and still water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Every spring Gimli flooded. My mother used to let me float myself around the basement in a wash tub. The sump pump went night and day. We poled ourselves along the ditches and through cottage yards, using wooden sidewalks for gondolas.
Mosquitoes bred in those yards by the millions. If you touched a caregana hedge or a fir tree, mosquitoes rose in black clouds. At night, funnels of mosquitoes formed in the sky like tornados.
We used to cut off poplar branches and make smudges in the back yard. We’d start a fire with dry wood, then throw on the green branches. We’d stand in the smoke because it kept off the mosquitoes. We smelled of smoke until after Halloween.
We learned to hope for light breezes from the lake. When there was a breeze there were no mosquitoes. They settled in areas protected from the wind.
There are gnats in Iceland but no mosquitoes. The Icelandic settlers had no immunity to mosquito bites. We can only imagine what they suffered. There was no DEET. Even now, Icelandic tourists who come to Gimli for Islindingadagurinn react so strongly to mosquito bites that they sometimes end up at the Gimli hospital. It’s a standard joke that after suffering mosquito bites, some visiting Icelanders saw dragon flies and panicked and fled into their host’s house. I don’t blame them. They were covered in large, itchy, sore lumps. The idea of being bitten by something as big as a dragonfly would have me hiding in a locked room. Some Icelandic visitors have had to have antibiotics because the bites infected.
When the Ukrainians followed the Icelanders into the Gimli area, they settled West of the town. Right smack in the middle of the swamps. Andrew Hutch says, “We hired a merchant to transfer us to Gimli. This cost us $25. He drove a team of horses and took us through bush and swamps. Although we suffered from mosquitoes when we were in the loft, when we were driving to Gimli we thought that we would be eaten alive. (Spruce, Swamp and Stone, Michael Ewanchuk)
How big were the mosquitoes? In Komarno, a village west of Gimli, there is a statue to the mosquito. It is fifteen feet high. Kamarno means mosquito in Ukrainian. If we can have statues of trolls and museums about witches, why can’t there be statues (this works like a weather vane, moving with the wind) to mosquitoes? This statue tells you how much a part of daily life the mosquito was.
Komarno mosquitoes, Frazerwood mosquitoes, Gimli mosquitoes were no ordinary mosquitoes, no wimpy little grey Winnipeg things. They were big, when they filled up with blood and you smacked them, they exploded like a blood filled bomb.
They drove people and horses mad.
Many a summer’s night, I fell asleep under a sheet (we had no mosquito netting), listening to the blood thirsty little buggers circling, looking for any opening so they could fill up with my blood and have more mosquitoes.
I’ve seen today’s Winnipeg mosquitoes. Urban mosquitoes. Wimpy mosquitoes. Pests. Nuisances. Mosquitoes bred in water filled tin cans or old tires. Mosquitoes with no pedigree. Not only that but Winnipeg will have the lowest number of mosquitoes this summer in thirty years. Yet the headlines trumpet, Winnipeg expecting early mosquitoes. In Victoria, we get the same kind of headlines during the winter except it’s Victoria expecting snow and reporters stand around on street corners watching for the occasional snowflake.
Even when they do appear, these Winnipeg mosquitoes won’t be those large, black, ferocious mosquitoes that bred in Interlake swamps, mosquitoes that left the drained husks of man and beast in the fields. They won’t be the mosquitoes that inspired the fifteen foot mosquito of Komarno.

Embrace your heritage

 Photograph taken by Kristin Johnson (Valgardson), their daughter.
These are my great grandparents, Ketill Valgarðsson and Soffia Sveinbjarnardóttir.
Ketill did not come to Canada to steal, rob, pillage, burn down buildings, kidnap people and sell slaves. He worked in Iceland, like his father, as a laborer. He came to Canada to work.
He did not wear a Viking helmet with or without horns.
In Iceland, he took care of dairy cattle and sheep. He cut hay. He fished. He had no future. He had no opportunity to advance beyond being a hired man. He worked for his room and board, a small amount of money and some cloth with which to have clothes made.
He was the son of Valgardur Jonsson and Kristin Brynjolfsdottir. His mother died in Iceland and his father, who was seriously ill when he came to Canada, died in New Iceland and was buried at Sandy Bar outside of Riverton in an unmarked grave.
Ketill came to Canada in 1878 on the SSWaldensian. He and his father traveled from Quebec City to New Iceland. Ketill worked on the railway and as a fisherman.  He moved to Winnipeg, married Soffia, and worked for the city as a laborer and then as a foreman.
In 1894, 16 years after his arrival in Canada, he was able to start a dairy business and to buy land at the northwest corner of Simcoe Street and Ellice Avenue. He had a business there until 1903. He then moved to Gimli and set up a flour and feed business that lasted until 1909. He bought a farm outside of Gimli which he called Adabol. He lived there until 1920. He moved back to Gimli, built a house there, a house in which I lived for the first year of my life.
He was not a pagan. He was a Christian. He didn´t worship Thor or Odin or any other gods. He was one of the founders of the Tjaldbud congregation in Winnipeg in 1893. When he moved to Gimli he became a member of the Lutheran church council.
He was active politically in that he was a member of the first council of the Village of Gimli in 1908.
He wasn´t a goði or a bishop or even a rich farm owner. He was a farm laborer. He came from a hard life to a hard life. It was no fun being a laborer on the railway. I expect it was no fun being a laborer for the city of Winnipeg.However, his work and his thrift meant that he could save money and buy land and start a business.
He and Soffia had three children. In Iceland those children would have become farm laborers, if not paupers. Raised in Gimli, one son, Sveinbjorn, became a master carpenter; the other son, Valentinus earned a gold medal in Mathematics at the University of Manitoba and a Master´s degree and became a high school Mathematics teacher in Moosejaw; Kristin, his daughter, became a bookkeeper and an accomplished artist.
In his retirement, he was financially independent. He’d raised and educated his children so that they did not have to be indentured servants. He owned his own house. He’d owned businesses. He could afford to keep a fine coffin in his basement for when he died. He wanted no pauper’s grave.
He and Soffia are my heritage. I’m proud of them. They’re the heritage I embrace. Ketill never killed anyone, stole from anyone, burned down any houses or monasteries. Soffia never scared off a bunch of angry aboriginals by beating her bare breasts with a sword.
They came with little or nothing. They made a good life for themselves. Their descendants have prospered.
Ketill’s story is not unique. I expect it is the story of many, if not all, of the people who came with him on the SSWaldensian. This is our real heritage. Laborers, farmers, domestics, paupers. Seeking opportunity. Building a life, a shovel full of earth at a time, adapting to a new society, learning a new language, adjusting to foreign neighbours, finding hope and solace in their church. Being brave.
My last memories of Ketill are the taste of peppermint and his woodpile. The peppermint because he always gave me a peppermint when I went with my father to visit him and the woodpile because it was while he was chopping wood at 84 that he had a heart attack and died.   

Saving our heritage: a child’s Íslendingadagurinn

Paul Gottskalkson (he changed his last name to Olson) and his sister,  Guðrun Fridrikka Gottskalksdóttir, in Fridrikka´s front yard on First Avenue in Gimli, Manitoba. Rikka, as she was called, was my great grandmother. She came with her parents to Gimli in 1876 and lived until 1958. I knew her when I was a teenager. She was three when she arrived, lived in Gimli until she went to work at Fort Garry, married a soldier and then they moved to Gimli and he became a fisherman. Her brother, Paul, was a fisherman. No vikings there. Just hard working, dedicated pioneers. The kind of people we celebrate at Íslendingadagurinn.

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Imagine a celebration more exciting than Christmas? Pretty hard isn’t it.

But, when I was a child, when the long days of summer started with the early sun rising from the east over Lake Winnipeg, then slowly, slowly, climbing golden in the clear blue sky, seeming to barely move as my mother made lemonade and sandwiches and walked with us to the beach two blocks away, two hours later we came home, my brother and I,  exhausted by running in and out of the water, building dams in the ditch that ran through the sand beach, making castles of sand and stones, recouped by having a nap while our mother prepared supper, wakened to eat and to play in the declining, softening light, riding our tricycles up and down the sidewalk, or playing tag on the boulevard or hunting frogs in the ditch in front of the house, the sun slowly, slowly descended to the west, brilliant red and purple, and we finally went to bed exhausted, as we slept, we dreamt of Íslendingadagurinn.
Our summer days were filled with great events. Bonfires in the back yard in which our father put potatoes sealed in Manitoba clay and left them to roast among the coals. We melted fishing leads in a tin can on those coals, made slugs, and pretended they were coins. The swampy cottage lots behind us had fences heavy with squasher vines, those thick tangled vines with egg sized and shaped fruit, and we engaged in squasher war, delighting as the green fruit splattered delightfully on anyone they struck.
During thunderstorms, we lay outside on the covered front porch with lightening fiercely making ragged bolts from sky to land, with thunder shaking windows and rolling overheard. Snug on a comforter, beneath a blanket, we lay and watched the gods throwing furniture in heaven. Or so my mother said.
Always, though, the nights led us closer to Íslendingadagurinn, the Icelandic Celebration held in the Gimli Park. 
For there would be the excitement of our relatives coming from near and far, there’d be potato salad and ham, pickles, fresh buns, and pönnukökur, rúllupylsa on dark rye bread, rosettes, vinarterta, and handshakes and conversation, laughter, and bedding down in a tent so adults could have our beds.
There’d be the runners from the long distant race arriving, we’d stand and clap them to the finish line, for ever since its beginning, the Icelandic Celebration, in Winnipeg, Hnausa and Gimli, included sports.
In spite of our constant going to the gate to watch people streaming by toward the park, the adults would spend Saturday catching up their lives.

 (Violet Einarson in her Fjalkona royal robes. Violet was one of Fridrikka’s daughters. She took the opportunities presented by life in New Iceland. She became a real estate and insurance agent and, for a period of two terms, mayor of Gimli.)

On Monday, we stood on our boulevard to watch the Fjalkona in her robes and headdress, descending regally from a car to set a wreath before the cairn my grandfather helped to build, local stone topped by a massive boulder, dedicated to the first pioneers, then we’d rush to the park to see her arrive and be led with her princesses to her throne. The park would be aswarm with people, women in Icelandic peysuföt or upphlutur, regal and exotic. We’d be kissed by relatives, for kissing is a thing these Lutherans do in spite of sermons against our fleshy sins.  But after that we’d drift away for speeches are for adults while in the north-east corner there were races with cash prizes for which we could compete.

Everywhere, there were Icelandic flags.
It was a gathering of the clan, a reassembling of a community already dispersed. From near as Husavik, as far as Vancouver Island, they came, these people with impossible names. Our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, would hold us close and often slip a nickel into our hand.
At night, the pavilion shutters were up, the hall was lit, the music drifted through the warm night. We sat on wooden benches along the walls or sometimes got together with other kids and practiced dancing in one corner of the hall. There was talk, and talk, and talk, and laughter, and lives were once more joined.
Icelandic flags and food and friends. Remembering was easy, for in the forties and fifties, we were not so far away from those first barges that landed at Willow Point in cold and storm. My great grandmother was one of those first pioneers and still alive and so were others who were among the first to arrive. And many others, like my father, born in 1918, only 43 years from that arrival in the promised land.
Icelandic flags and food and people streaming by and visiting, and forming bonds again, assuaging loneliness of far places for jobs were scarce and many had left for work out West. But Íslendingadagurinn was magic. Somehow, it drew them back and we were all one again.
Flags and food and Icelandic songs and talk, a day reminding us of 1875, a beach already cold with frost, heavy clouds presaging winter.
Although I did not know it then, what we were doing was reaffirming our identity, momentarily recreating our community, teaching and reinforcing our story of our people’s emigration, our history and links with Iceland. 
As people met and visited, listened to speeches, participated in races, attended the traditional dance, we were saying, although we have become far travelers in our quest for education and jobs, although we now live among people with different stories, we are still community, there’ s still history and tradition that bind us, and define who we are.
Íslendingadagurinn is held on the first Monday of August and, the local joke is that God loves Icelanders for there have seldom been anything but clear skies and warm days on this celebration. But, just as certain, this Monday is a pivot point for once it’s over, the air turns colder and, although, there’s still a month of summer, now you can feel the days move toward the fall. Gimli quiets. The summer visitors become less and less. But that was fine, for we’d had our Íslendingadagurinn and with it memory-locked, we use it to keep us warm through the coming winter.
Before we went to sleep, we’d lie awake and think about the day, and in our dreams, there’d be talk and talk and talk, and flags, and the Fjalkona in her robes, and running fast for quarter prizes, and relatives of every size and shape, and bowls of skyr, and by these things we’d get a sense of who we were.

Living in the home of the gods (part 2)

Like the Icelanders before them, the Ukrainians were attracted to Brazil. There was free passage, lots of land but conditions, it turned out, were very bad. In Reflections and Reminiscences, Michael Ewanchuk reports that in 1895, Indians attacked Ukrainian settlers. A woman and four children were killed. Dr. Oleskow says “People die there like flies. As it appears, the climate for our people is deadly.” A priest reports that also in 1895 more settlers are killed by the local natives.”
It is reports like these that turn some Ukrainians away from Brazil and toward Canada.
The Ukrainian settlers who decided to come to Canada were fortunate for they had emigration agents to advise them about what they would need. They were told to take tools for building wooden houses. They only brought the metal parts of the tools. There was lots of wood and the wooden parts could be made. The women were advised to bring vegetable seeds. When they arrived on their isolated sections of land, they could clear a plot, till it and plant right away.
In Hardships & Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers, by Peter Humeniuk, there is a list of what went into a settler’s trunk.
“In the very bottom of the trunk they placed their winter clothes, bed sheets and blankets. On top of the trunk went carpentry tools: an axe, hatchet, draw knife, spade, hammers, planes, framed handsaws, bits, chisels, 2 sickles, grass-scythe, hoes, sieve, garden rake and other tools without handles, including the shorter stick and leathers of a flail….on top about twenty-five little cloth bundles of various garden seeds, onions, garlic, horse-radish and dried corn cobs…. four books were placed near the top. They were: a prayer book, History of Ukraine, a school primer, and Short Bible Stories….Mother tied some utensils and food in a cloth bundle.”
Once in Canada, the Ukrainians go through the same emotional and mental struggles as the Icelanders have gone through before them. A priest comes to see the settlers in the Dauphin area and he “wanted the people to assimilate” but “he exhorted them to maintain their culture, language and traditions. But, he encouraged them to learn English.” Already, assimilation has begun. The Icelanders had gone through this twenty years before with some wanting to assimilate and become part of the larger society while others wanted to create an exclusive Icelandic community. That argument, in spite of five generations in Canada, in spite of all the assimilation, still goes on.
The Ukrainians, too, wanted to live in a home of the gods. They wanted good land, good crops, good opportunities for themselves and their children. Their disillusionment, like that of the Icelanders, comes quickly.
Harvey, the immigration agent came to the Immigration Hall in East Selkirk. To the people who want to go to Gimli, he said “There is no future there: neither you nor your children will eat bread from that soil. That is poor land, wet and mosquito infested.” When people insist, he adds, “All right, go! You will break your necks there.”
They go to Gimli on Kristjanson’s boat and with that they have their first experience with Icelanders. The interaction has begun. Two different languages, two different cultures, two different religions, two different histories but the Kristianson brothers end up marrying two sisters from among the new immigrants. The dreams of a New Iceland, a new Ukraine, and separate cultures, have already begun to crumble around the edges.
The seeds that are carried in the immigrants’ trunks serve the people well. One settler says, ‘There were beets, carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, dill, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and corn…She (mother) had planted enough to last the family until the following spring.”
However, it is not just the knowledge and skill of growing vegetables that the Ukrainian settlers bring with them. First, like the Icelandic settlers before them, they have to feed themselves. The Icelanders fished to feed themselves but once they became expert enough to create a surplus, they then sold what they didn’t need. The same was to become true for the Ukrainians but it was their garden produce they sold.
Even though many of the Ukrainian settlers had been peasants, they owned a few morgans of land in Urkaine and, like the share croppers in Iceland, were able to sell both land and animals. The Icelanders had come from the poorest country in Europe. One report says they had an average of seven dollars a person and had so few resources that they had to get financial assistance from the federal government to relocate within Canada to New Iceland. Many of the Ukrainians, on the other  hand, brought money with them into the Gimli district. Nicholas Marcina took up a farm eight miles south of Gimli in 1897. He bought a cow for $20.00, a plough for $15.00, $3.75 for a harrow, a wagon for $36.00. Nicholas Krysansky says his father paid $55.00 for a yoke of young oxen and $35.00 for a cow, $12.00 for a plow and $30.00 for a sleigh. That was cash going into a local area that was constantly short of money.
The Icelanders got their land for ten dollars. Many of the Ukrainians had to purchase land and some paid as high as $`1200.00.
Once the Ukrainians had shelter, the problem was to start to make money to pay off debts (many borrowed money to pay the high fare from Ukraine to Gimli. One family paid $700.00 for their fare. There was no subsidy.)  They needed, as quickly as possible, to buy one or two oxen and a sleigh. This was important because New Iceland became a cordwood economy. The first major way of making money was to cut and sell cordwood. Houses were heated with wood so the demand for wood was high.
Stefan Yendyk says, “we started to haul cordwood to Winnipeg Beach. One had to get up during the night and feed the oxen, then start out early in the morning so that by sunrise one would be by the Ewanchuk farm….My early Canadian winters saw me in the bush, cutting cordwood or hauling the wood 22 miles to Winnipeg Beach.”
Later, when the railway tracks were extended, the farmers delivered wood to Gimli. In 1907, 95,000 cords of wood were sold in Winnipeg. The demand seemed insatiable. Even in summer, wood was needed for wood stoves.
However, cordwood alone wouldn’t pay for a farm. The men went away to work, often on the railway, or, to farms that were already established. Everyone had to work. Single women, young girls, usually, often walked to Winnipeg to find jobs.
On the farms, the wives dug Seneca root because it could be traded for goods at the local stores in Gimli. They also took eggs and vegetables to town in season.
Prices were low for farm goods but then, with the beginning of WWI,  there was a demand for everything the farmers could produce. Eggs sold for 60c a dozen, butter for 60c a pound. Once the railway came as far as Gimli, campers (summer cottagers drawn to the village of Gimli because of its beaches) created a demand for fresh produce and wild berries. The Ukrainian farm families also sold cream, milk and poultry. The Icelandic fishermen, in the meantime, were selling the same people, fresh fish, particularly pickerel fillets.
In 1902 Gimli was still exclusively Icelandic, or close to it. I know that there were other nationalities represented because my Icelandic grandmother Fredrikka Gostskalksdottir and her English husband from Fort Garry had moved to Gimli and he had become a fisherman. However, it is not until 1904 that Wasyl Ewanchuk built the first Ukrainian house in the village.
The Ukrainians build houses, clear land, plant crops, use all the knowledge and skills they have, but drainage is a serious problem, getting goods to market , whether to Gimli, Winnipeg Beach or Winnipeg, is an arduous task.
Harvey, the immigration agent, turned out to be right. There was better soil elsewhere. Gradually, families began to leave, abandoning the farms they’d worked so hard to establish, or, if they were lucky, selling them to newcomers.
Some of the Ukrainian farmers who left for other areas were able to sell their farms that they had created out of the bush. After 12 years of clearing land, pulling stumps, collecting rock, building houses and barns, making fences, the farmers got from $561.00 to $900.00. Others took over with dreams of making the land profitable.
The dreams of the two immigrant groups, to live in the home of the gods, a place where they would propser, where the land would provide plenty, instead, were defeated by marginal and sub-marginal and, by problems with drainage, with a lack of roads. Those who hung on had a hard struggle ahead of them. When George Johnson (later Minister of Health in the provincial government, then Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba) came to Gimli to practice medicine, he discovered, in the Interlake, the second  poorest area of Canada. Only Newfoundland was poorer. Conditions were such that he went into politics to try to find a remedy for the poverty.
However, both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians managed to create a life for themselves better than that which they left. The Icelanders, often little more than indentured servants, the Ukrainians, serfs, became their own masters. Their children and their grandchildren went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, businessmen. Most of these children left both the fishing and farming to seek success in urban areas. The opportunities that the original settlers from both groups had sought for their children did exist. No one said it would be easy.
The land in the Gimli area, Michael Ewanchuk describes as spruce, swamp and stone. For those who have lived in and around Gimli, the rock piles at the sides of farm fields have been a familiar sight. The stone boat was a vehicle of pain as every year, farmers and their families followed it over the fields, collecting the rocks that had surfaced during the spring. Although there were good strips of land, much of it was marginal, some of it good for nothing but pasture.
Lake Winnipeg provided bounty to the fishermen, most of whom were Icelandic but there were good seasons and bad seasons. The lake also took many lives. There is a cost to everything.
Today, a Gimli banquet is not complete without perogis and hollopchi, ham, kubysa. It often ends with vinarterta, skyr with strawberries, and ponnokokur. They say we are what we eat and from the smorgasbord table, it would appear we’re a little bit of both, if not in blood, then in dreams, history and experience.
(Facts, figures and quotes from the books of Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone; Pioneer Profiles; Reflections and Reminiscences; Peter Humeniuk’s, Hardships&Progress of Ukrainian Pioneers. For anyone interested in the Ukrainian emigration to Western Canada, these are good places to start. For the Icelandic experience, W. Kristjanson’s, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; W. Lindal’s, The Saskatchewan Icelanders. There is a lot of material on-line. Most of it is personal reminiscence and carries with it the expected biases but is still valuable.)

In the home of the gods (part 1)

They came with a dream. They would leave Iceland and their lives of poverty and privation. They would have land. They would be able to marry. They would have wooden houses like the Danes. There would be opportunities to be something other than a farm laborer or a share cropper eking out a living on marginal land. But most of all, they would be able to eat. There would be food. The hunger would end.
They would have come earlier but ships came seldom and only in the summer months when weather would allow. Then the English started to come. They wanted sheep and horses. The Danes didn’t pay in cash. They only traded goods. The English paid in silver. The silver could pay for passage on the cattle ships.
The ships took the emigrants from Iceland to England and Scotland. From there they went to Quebec City. Canada wanted settlers. It wanted to fill up all the empty spaces. It wanted enough people to produce and buy goods that a railway running from coast to coast would be profitable. It wanted the empty lands filled up so the Americans didn’t invade them.  The government wanted immigrants badly enough that they allocated funds to help them emigrate and get settled.
The Icelanders were late comers to the massive European emigration. They’d been held back by the lack ships, the lack of money, the resistance of the land owners who didn’t want to lose all that cheap labour.
The Icelanders made some false starts. Kinmount. Nova Scotia. But then they decided to go west, to Gimli, the home of the gods, the home where they’d live like gods with good houses, good food, where their children would have an opportunity to become something other than an indentured servant, working on an isolated farm for board and room and a few Danish dollars a year that was usually paid in butter or wadmal, not silver.
They came late in the season. Even after Nova Scotia and Kinmount, Toronto, they didn’t understand how bad a Manitoba winter could be. 
The first Icelandic settlers arrived at Gimli in 1875. They had no cows. Poor provisions. Even poorer accommodation. They had few stoves, poor quality tents, no cows for milk which was a substantial part of their normal diet. They were not woodsmen, yet all building had to be done with wood. Sheer grit and determination helped them survive. They were plagued by smallpox and then by flooding. The large group arrived in 1876.
They’d come to Gimli in New Iceland. New Iceland. It was going to be just like Old Iceland except better because there’d be land, and freedom and opportunity and food.
The home of the gods was swamp and bush and rock. It was so swampy that 65 years later when I was a child, much of Gimli was still swamp. Every spring Gimli flooded.  Our basement often had two feet of water. The sump pump ran all day and all night.
W. Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People In Manitoba, says
“On account of the low-lying land and poor drainage, the ground was covered with two or three inches of water for some time in the spring, but in May the weather turned warm, the thermometer frequently rising to eighty and ninety degrees in the shade, and the settlers were able to turn to their fields and gardens.
“The settlers, on the average, cleared 2-3 acres of ground, and planted wheat, peas, and root corps. This entailed much manual labor, for they had no horses or oxen and pick-axe and hoe were their only implements of cultivation, and in some cases at least, the ground was a mass of tangled roots.
“The meaning of the word cultivation was by no means clear to some of the settlers. One man planted several acres of wheat without proper preparation of the ground, with the result that he had no crop.”

The meaning of the word cultivation wasn’t clear to the settlers. How could it be? They’d never worked the land. They’d never ploughed, harrowed, seeded. No grain would ripen in Iceland. They put sheep manure on the home field to help the grass grow. Vegetable gardens were seldom planted and those were usually planted by Danes. Visitors often reported on how poor vegetables grew because of the wind and the summer temperatures. Seeds were expensive and produced poor crops.
There were no forests so there was no opportunity to learn how to cut down trees, to build houses from logs or lumber. There were few opportunities to learn to make wooden utensils, tools, furniture. There was driftwood but it was owned by whoever owned the foreshore rights.
In New Iceland, the land was heavily wooded. Everything about cutting down trees, clearing land, cultivating it, sowing, harvesting,  had to be learned.
And, in spite of being the home of the gods, much of the land, when cleared by hand with axe and mattock, turned out to be marginal farm land. Much of it was good for nothing but pasture.
Is it any wonder that within three years of arriving, the mortals who now lived there started to leave? They’d heard of land that wasn’t heavily wooded, was dryer, more fertile, not covered in stones.
Some settlers had begun to leave in 1878. By 1880 and 1881, there was a general exodus. There remained only 250 in all of New Iceland. However, in 1883, new settlers from Iceland started to arrive. By 1891 there were about forty homes in Gimli. However, the settlers, having been fishermen in Iceland, and seeing the potential  of fishing in Lake Winnipeg, turned their attention there rather than to the land.
In 1896 the government decided that not enough settlers were coming from Iceland and opened up New Iceland to whoever wanted to live there. With this act, the end of a dream of a New Iceland, a place exclusively for Icelanders where they could remain Icelandic, was ended. The colony had been established in 1875. It had lasted for twenty-two years. New Iceland and a home good enough for gods was not realized but Gimli and New Iceland had served their purpose. They had provided a focus, a place with an Icelandic identity where new immigrants could come and, even if they did not stay long, had an opportunity to adjust to life in Western Canada. The existence of New Iceland must have been a great encouragement for people half a world away. They knew that at the end of their journey there would be relatives, friends, countrymen who would welcome them and help them.
As fate would have it, the land that had not been settled plus the land that had been abandoned, would become available to a group of people very different from the Icelanders. These were the Ukrainians, the men in sheepskin coats.
 http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=3089
The Ukrainians came from Europe’s breadbasket. They were Greek and Roman Catholic, financially better off, many had little formal education, they were used to living in villages and working collectively, they were both herdsmen and farmers, used to clearing land, cultivating it, seeding it, harvesting it. They were used to a much wider variety of domesticated animals including chickens, geese, ducks, swine, goats. They were woodsmen. They were gardeners and came to Canada with seeds in their trunks.
Sydor Zelenitsky, in Spruce, Swamp and Stone, by Michael Ewanchuk, says, “On the higher land we planted potatoes and the cabbages on the lower slope”.  His cabbages grow so well that he takes a wagonload of cabbages to Gimli where the Icelanders “paid me a five or ten cent piece each and I sold all my vegetables. I guess this was the first business transaction between the Ukrainians and the Icelanders in this part of the country.”
The Ukrainians experience better suited them for the land. In the Gimli area, they were quickly able to build houses like those they had left. Logs chinked with clay, then clayed over outside and in, the walls whitewashed, the roofs thatched. They were used to stoves and even though they did not have indoor ovens, they were quickly able to build the outdoor clay ovens in which they could bake a week’s bread.
The had the tremendous advantage of being woodsmen, used to building houses with the same materials that existed in the Gimli area. Ewanchuk says, “They brought with them utensils required for working with wood.” They brought different types of axes that allowed them to splitting  logs or rails, to smooth out log walls, they had “spirit levels, a plumb line, a carpenter’s saw and a rip saw, various sizes of hand augers and drills, gimlets, chisels and hand-planes.”
They were used to thatched roofs and quickly cut dry hay or reeds. The tied these with bands of hay. They dampened them and placed the thatch close together on the roof so that when the thatch dried, it swole and tightened to form a weather proof roof. None of this was new. Where the Icelanders had been used to building with turf and rock and faced with the need to learn everything that needed to be done in a new climate, the Ukrainians were working with familiar materials. Wood, straw, clay, limestone were at hand.
(Quotes and information from W. Kristjanson, The Icelandic People In Manitoba; Michael Ewanchuik, Spruce, Swamp and Stone)

Saving Our Heritage

As an identifiable community in the Canadian mosaic, we face what every other community faces, assimilation, integration and a growing loss of our immigrant culture. We’ve held onto our identity for a long time. It’s changed, of course, because to adapt is to survive and prosper. The process is inevitable. As each generation grows old and dies, a new generation more distant from Iceland appears.

However, we are not helpless, hopeless items subject to the forces of time or society. We do have resources. We’ve just got to organize and use them. How well we will maintain our identity depends on us and what we do.

Our ancestors were devout. Religion mattered to them. In an environment where they were subjected to the vagaries of the weather, where their lives could end at any moment from disease because there were no effective medications, where there was virtually no control over their daily lives (they had to be attached to a farm; they could only change jobs once a year), they had to put their faith in the Lord.

I’ve seen how important religion was to them. Space and weight were critical to people emigrating, yet they brought Bibles. Years ago, when I was collecting Icelandic books to keep them from going to the garbage dump at Gimli, I had a box of Bibles. No one wanted them. People couldn’t read them anymore. As well, church attendance had fallen off so there wasn’t any great demand for any Bible, never mind those printed in Icelandic.

The box of black Bibles in my basement was ironic because when Ebenezer Henderson went to Iceland and spent the years 1814-15 there, he was there because Icelanders didn’t have Bibles. He has seen to the printing of Icelandic copies of the Bible and with the help of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he traveled to Iceland. The Icelandic merchants at Copenhagen allowed him to send the Bibles to Iceland without charge. A Westy Petræus, Esq. takes 1183 Bibles and 1668 New Testaments to Iceland as a favour to Henderson.

When Henderson arrives, he is met by a crowd. A man carried Henderson to shore on his shoulders and the crowd called out ‚Peace! Come in peace! The Lord bless you!‘

He, like all other travellers, immediately pays his respects to the Right Rev. the Bishop of Iceland. He then rides to the residence of the very Rev. Marcus Magnusson, the archdeacon of Iceland, and dean of Guldbringé and Kiosar Sysséls.He is told that “the peasants would have paid double the price, if it had only been in their power to obtain them.“

At Tiörnabæ, the farmer buys both a Bible and a New Testament. Henderson has just turned to re-enter his tent when two servant girls came running with money in their  hands to pay for a New Testament each. A number of people collect at the door of his tent and a young man to whom he has given a Bible reads from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The people sat or knelt on the grass to listen, tears running down their cheeks.

At Kiarné, about two miles south of Aukeryri, there was no service planned for Sunday. However, Henderson heard some singing that came from a cottage. “The inhabitants, consisting of two families, had collected together for the exercise of social worship, and were sending up the melody of praise to the God of salvation. This practice is universal on the island. When there is no public service, the members of each family (or where there are more families they combine, join in singing serveral  hymns, read the gospel and epistle for the day, a prayer or two, and one of Vidalin´s sermons. Where the Bible exists, it is brought forward and several chapters of it are read by the young people in the family.

Today, I see no families so devout that they will ride on horseback or even in a car for miles to purchase a Bible. Nor, do I see families gather together to worship in the absence of a minister. The church, in its social role, held the community together, provided an opportunity to gather, to participate in group behaviour. It provided leardership.

The ministers, in spite of often being poverty stricken, were still important figures. Today, they are in short supply, still paid badly, preach to half-empty churches, are collateral damage to scandal, are no longer the best educated individual in the community, and no longer have the social status they once enjoyed. Society grows more secular by the day and while sects appear whose beliefs and behaviours, while claiming to be Christian, are bizarre.

We can support the religious aspect of our  heritage by going to church. If parishoners want, if there are enough of them of Icelandic background, it can become a centre for the learning of the Icelandic language and history and genealogy. If parishoners want.

We can make an effort, through the church, or through the Icelandic clubs, to actually learn about Iceland‘s church history. The same is true for the church history of religion in the Icelandic population in North America. However, even after all this time, there are still sensitivities over religious conflict from earlier times. The unspoken choice has been to avoid our religious history rather than risk inciting old conflicst. It seems a strange choice given that our problem is that most people don‘t care. When was the last time you had a serious discussion about the importance of the church in daily life in Icleand or New Icleand?

Unfortunately, we‘ve lost the physical evidence of our religous heritage. I grieve the loss of the wooden churches at Gimli, Riverton and Hnausa. Many years ago, I saw the Hnausa church. It was small, beautiful, surely an act of art to God. I saw it after it was vandalized. One would have thought it had been overrun by the bitter enemies of Christianity.No church stands there now. What was lost was not just a place of worship but a symbol of our heritage.

We are fortunate in having the Unitarian church in Gimli preserved. It was built in 1905 and, at least, gives an indication that religion did play an important part in the Icelanders daily life. Here, we need to take a lesson I was taught in the catacombs under Kiev by my Communist guide. We had travelled for a long time along the tunnels, with bodies on every side, then came to caves filled with gold and silver religous items. I was amazed. I said to my guide, “How is it that they are here?“ He replied, “It is not because they are religous. It is because they are our history.“ I think that the members of our Icelandic North American community need to take that lesson to heart. Lutheran, Unitarian, United, Catholic, Agnostic, Heathen, whatever, we need to preserve our history. Support the preservation of our history.

The same is true for the Vikur Lutheran church in Mountain. Our ancestors, only nine years after the settlement in New Iceland, thought having a church was so important that they built this church. Now, it needs a new roof. The cost shouldn‘t fall only on the local people. Or only the Americans. It is our history. It is our heritage.

Thank goodness the people of Markerville have preserved the Markerville Lutheran Church.

Today, we get DPT shots. Mothers and fathers don‘t have to pray to God that their children don‘t die in their arms from diptheria. Read Wasteland with Words to find out what that was like when they had nothing but prayer. But just because we now have science to ask for help, doesn‘t mean that understanding and preserving our religious past can‘t help preserve our heritage. If we don‘t, we‘ll never understand who we are or why we are the way we are.