West Coast Icelandic Children

salmon fishing

In talking about the Icelandic settlers, we most often relate stories of their adult trials and troubles and not much is said about the children who were living the same life with them. That’s a shame because a child’s early life determines much about the adult he or she becomes. It also demonstrates qualities about the adults. How adults treat children reveals much about them.

We are fortunate that in Memories of Osland many of the people writing share anecdotes and details of their childhood.

Steina (Philippson) Degg “remembers going to the lake with other children and adults to skate in the winter and to swim and picnic in the summer. Steina remembers walking out to “Baby Island” in the mud (“Baby Island” is a very small treeless island near the Philippson and Luther Johnson homes). She took something to read, the tide came in and she had to sit there all alone till the tide went out again a few hours later.”

Gerald (Jerry) Philippson says “The kitchen was a place of wonders – cookies, cakes, etc”. “My Father and Grandfather talked very rapidly in Icelandic while I explored other areas, such as the kitchen, where Grandma Freda had the frying pan on while she whipped up the batter for Icelandic pancakes, the greatest treat known to a seven year old.”

And then there are experiences like Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher’s. “The Christmas that I was six years old really stand out in my memory. It was the time that Santa came to our schoolhouse. We were so excited when we heard him jingling his bells as he came up the sidewalk. Then he came into the school room – big as life in his red suit. As he bent over beside the tree to pick up our gifts his beard caught fire from one of the little candles on the trees. As Santa ripped off his beard we gasped in astonishment when we found out that Santa was really George Philippson.” She says we had “wonderful teachers. The would take us on nature walks to Bremner Lake. In the summer it was a popular spot for picnics and swimming.”

Loretta Vaccher Heuscher says Nina Amma Jonsson  “always had sugar cubes dipped in coffee and dried in the warming oven as special treat for us, and Gisli had special dried fish as a treat for us if we were really good.”

“Every Christmas we had a concert with plays and songs and all of us pupils got a chance to ham it up.” “Great for fishing – caught my first good sized trout about a quarter mile up what we called Frank’s Creek…In winter when the lake was frozen over it was excellent for skating and palying hockey. …One year Pop said if he caught over 2,000 sockeye he’d buy me a .22. Well he did and I got it, 12 years old and got my first deer with it that fall. One morning later on, Frances woke me up early in the morning to tell me a nice deer was standing behind our house. So I took Pop’s 30-30 and nailed it, a nice two-pointer. Had to get Uncle Walter to help me skin it and cut it up.”

Frances (Oafson) Hanson describes the community Christmas concert in a way many of us will recognize from our own experience. “Everyone at Osland looked forward to the Christmas concerts that were held every December. Our teacher worked with us – assigning our parts for the plays, teaching us the carols to be sung, and letting those of us who were willing to choose a poem to memorize for our big event. Parents assisted—men constructed a wooden stage at the cloak-room end of the school, so we had a place in which to put on costumes, ladies  made curtains (from bed sheets) to conceal the stage area between acts, someone cut a Christmas tree, and tinsel and decorations were borrowed for it. Families and bachelors contributed to the refreshments, music and games for everyone to enjoy after the concert”

“Following the concert and the handing out of treats to the pupils, there were games for everyone, then dancing to the music to the accordion played by Barney.

“Bull-head fishing, at high tide, was a favourite summer  ‘sport’ for children. I enjoyed fishing off the end of the small dock in front of our yard. Our gear was just a length of net twine tied to a stick, little fish hook (if one was available) or a safety pin at the end of the line and a piece of lead for a ‘sinker’. Worms from the garden were kept in a tin can for bait….Every Spring there were large clusters of frog’s eggs hanging from sticks in the creeks.”

Carl Olafson gives us a slightly different view of a child’s life. He says “little did I know that after you’re three you could participate in some of the action – later on it was called ‘chores’ – like collect the eggs, feed the cat, feed the goat, then when you got to be four or five, you were allowed to chop kindling and wood so long as you were careful not to cut off any fingers.”

Carl summarized life for kids pretty well when he says “We kept occupied, going to school, doing chores, skating, and playing indoor games like Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, chess, crib and rummy. On weekends the people would get together to have a social. The bachelors would supply the coffee, tea and milk, and the married couples would bring home made cakes cookies, and ponnukokur (Icelandic pancakes). The kids just had to bring their appetites.”

A touching piece in Mary Jonina (Jonsson) Heinrich’s description of her childhood at Osland is unique for it captures the sense of isolation from the larger world for children and the shyness that results. She says that her foxgloves weren’t as tall the last year as when she was young and “we used to hide behind them. A strange boat would tie up at the wharf and we children would run to  hide in masses of foxgloves. Many times it was the Rawleigh man, Mr. Evans. Afterwards we’d get the treats – syrups for making drinks, lemon soap that smelled so wonderful .Another boat that came was the “Northern Cross”. Then we’d have church services at the school house and sometimes on board the boat.”

“ I recall when we got oranges for Christmas each one was wrapped in tissue paper. Those tissues were smoothed out – of course for what else – the outhouse.”

There are a thousand thousand memories in Memories of Osland and it is difficult to leave any out so if you can, buy this book, it is a treasure. Many thanks to Frances Hanson and to all those who contributed to sharing with us the lives of the West Coast Icelanders.

As a last memory, I will use Alice (Kristmanson) McLean. “Once a year we would get lucky as the Dolly Varden used to head for the lake to spawn and we actually were able to catch something that looked like a fish. I remember having my first barbecue. A big bonfire on the beach, a grill and we’d cook our catch. To kids brought up on fresh fish and eating it two or three times a week thinking we were hard done by, I can’t believe we would get excited about barbecuing fish, but then again we’d never had fish burned by the fire – caught by us and cooked by us!

To the people coming to the INL Seattle AGM, welcome to our West Coast World. We have come here from the late 1800s on from Iceland, Winnipeg, Selkirk, Gimli, Lundar, and many other places on our journey westward. The West Coast is a world of wonders, from Skunk Cabbage meadows to apple orchards, from fresh caught salmon to halibut, from ocean shore to Rocky Mountains.  In spite of distance and time we still like our coffee strong, our ponnukokur rolled with brown sugar and our skyr sweet.

Who Were The West Coast Icelanders?

log_crew

Some of the Icelanders who came to the West Coast went logging. They came from a country where trees were scrub birch a few feet high. What do you think they thought and felt when they saw scenes like this?

princerupertarea2

From a country with no trees to a country covered in vast forests. This forest is outside Prince Rupert.

Who are these BC Icelanders and where did they come from?

“Gisli and Jonina Jonsson and their baby daughter, Kristjana, came to Canada from Iceland in 1902 to settle in Selkirk, Manitoba. While there Gisli worked as a carpenter and in the fish cold storage plant. In 1914 he came to British Columbia on an exploratory trip. He was looking for a place to settle where weather conditions were more temperate and working conditions more to his liking.”

Gudmundur “George” Snidal,  his wife Ingunn “Inga” and their three children came to Olsand in the early spring of 1919. They came from Graham Island, B.C. George Snidal was born in Iceland in 1879 and came to Canada at an early age. Inga Sigurddottir was also born in Ielandin 18886. She came to Canaa in the spring of 1910. Bhey were married in Winnipeg in late 1911.

Olafur ‘Oly’ Olafson was born in Iceland in February 1904 to Halvardur and Sigridur. In 1910 the Olafson family – three children, Oly (six), Hilda (three), and Swana (two), and Halvardur, who was 38 and Sigridur, 35, emigrated fro mt heir home country to Canada. They speont one winter in Winnpeg, then headed west to the Queen Charlotte Islands wehre othe rIcleandic famileis had gone to live.

In 1918 Benecikt Steffan Hohnson, with his wife Sigurlina Valgerthur Johanesdottir, moved from Manitoba to the northwest coast of British Columbia. Ben and Sigurlina were both born in Iceland – he in 1864, and she in 1862 – and were married in that country before immigrating to Canada in 1888 on the ship  “Cirdasia”. The had four children. Lutehr, their son, was born in Winnipeg April 26, 1894. He was married, before the family moved to B.C, to Thurihur (Thura) Oddson, the daughter of Gudni and Gudrithur Jonsdottir. Thura was born in Reykjavik, Iceland December 121, 1900 and came to Canada in 1901 with her parents and Grandparents.

And how did these Icelanders, braving the trip to England or Scotland, from there to Canada, across the country to Winnipeg, picking up and moving still further west, creating for themselves a small Icelandic colony on Smith Island, live?

According to Elin (Einarsson) Vaccher in Memories of Osland “At times during the winter months we would be locked in by the ice that came down the river. Before winter set in my father would go to Prince Rupert for supplies – sacks of flour and sugar, butter in 14 pound boxes and a quarter of beef. Then men would hunt deer for extra meat during the winter. My dad made a good root cellar with a cement floor below our house. We stored vegetables from my mother’s garden there. Potatoes in large bins and carrots and beets in barrels of sand. Durnig the summer my mother was kept busy tending the gardens and the animals while the men were fishing. She would salt fish and preserve salmon and fruit in jars for the winter. As child I remember my mother baking sugar cookies with half an almond or a raisin on top. She also baked jelly rolls to have on hand for company. Every weekend she baked a layer cake spread with jam filling for the family. Vinatarta was special and only baked at Christmas and Easter.”

How Icelandic is that?  There they are, probably about seventy people, living on an island on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forest, trees beyond imagining, in a community connected by a wooden sidewalk that wound its way through the forest and at Christmas and Easter the mothers and grandmothers make vinatarta. And I remember my mother in Gimli making those sugar cookies with half an almond on top and jelly rolls. To me, sugar cookies and jelly rolls are childhood, Gimli, Icelandic, Lutheran, but they’re obviously also Osland, BC, Icelandic, childhood, there over the vast prairies, across the Rocky Mountains, beyond the mainland, there’s vinatarta on a plate with a mug of strong coffee, and jelly roll and sugar cookies. There in the fog and rain, in the vast forests, on the edge of the world. Icelandic.