Hofsos Hunts West

this one

Pictures on display at today’s coffee reception. These pictures provide evidence that families like those of Wayne Johnson still exist locally and have the materials that will  help create a permanent history of Icelanders on the West Coast.

Just like the pioneers who started off in Iceland, traveled to North America, settled for a time, at least in New Iceland, then began the long, slow process of moving West looking for good land, Valgeir of Hofsos has come west. His friend Bob Fridriksson is with him. They aren’t looking for land but for stories, family histories, letters, artifacts, evidence of those who, like Árni Mýrdal, as a child, survived the small pox in New Iceland. The land in New Iceland was swampy and provided only marginal farming. Not until a drainage system was developed was some of the best land available for farming. As well, most of the land was covered in dense bush. His parents, like many other Icelandic settlers, moved again, this time south to Pembina. From there they went to Victoria. This might have been a final stop but like many people, he moved to Point Roberts. Victoria drew immigrants and a good sized community developed but then a small pox epidemic and a recession caused people to leave. The railway and government brochures promised the best land imaginable. For many immigrants, finding that land took years and endless moves.
‘Arni did not travel alone. His wife, Sigríður, traveled with him.

Or they might try to find the descendants Pétur Ó. Hansen. Pétur emigrated in 1876 to Nova Scotia. Sive years later he moved to Winnipeg. From Wnnipeg to Hallson, North Dakota. He lived north of Hallson for 20 to 30 years. He then live din Mountain, North Dakota. In 1913 he moved to Blaine. His wife was Guðlaug Guðmundsdóttir. She came from Rangárvallarsýsla. They might find some descendants but it will be difficult because Guðlaug had three daughters so tracing their names may be impossible.

Valgeir and Bob say that they are not going to tackle the job from the past to the present but from the present to the past. They´re going to track down the living and work backward toward the dead. It sounds like a good plan. That´s what Valgeir´s presentation was about today.

The Icelanders of Victoria had a coffee reception for Valgeir Thorvaldsson and Thorhildur Bjarnadóttir today at the Tally Ho. Our president, Fred Bjarnason, is a chef at the Tally Ho and we get to use their banquet room. Having a chef for president has many advantages. Fred even made gluten free asta bollur for me. I ate four. What a great president! Twenty-two people turned up. Many of them I had not seen before. People like Susanna Helgason and Sian Hoff. They´ll be a great addition to our club.

Valgeir showed slides about Hofsos and told us its history. It was his dream to have an immigration museum. This harbor that was very busy at one time had fallen into disuse. He showed us pictures of the houses. Many were wrecks. He began by salvaging a house that was historically important. It was built in 1772. That alone should get him a mention in the history books and a public service award for rescuing an important part of Iceland’s history. It has obviously been a struggle to get people to accept the importance of the project and to provide the necessary funding but Valgeir has prevailed. There were pictures of more restored buildings and new buildings. There were pictures of Valgeir with Vigdis. Someone in the audience pointed out that he was thinner then but so were we all.

One difficulty that Valgeir will face is that many of us in the clubs have no family history on the West Coast. I, for example, grew up in Gimli. My family history there goes back to 1876. It is in the Gimli Saga. The other problem, as I mentioned, is the North American system of naming. Women who marry disappear. My son is Valgardson. My daughter is Hayman. How would anyone know about her Icelandic background? The other problem that I’ve noticed in my own research is that there are many references to Icelandic settlers or their immediate family leaving the Pacific North West and moving to California. It is obvious from the biography of Halldor Laxness, The Islander, by Halldór Guðmundsson, that a lot of Icelanders were drawn to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother, Blanche was a playwright and harbored dreams of writing movies. Although she lived in Gimli, she corresponded with an Icelander who had made a bit of a name for himself in the movies. Also, I know of an Icelandic actor in Winnipeg who moved on to Hollywood. It wasn´t just Laxness who hoped to make it big in Hollywood. There was an Icelander in Hollywood who was making a fortune in construction and provided Laxness with an apartment.

The good side is that there are people whose families have been in Victoria for generations. They not only can provide their family histories but information about other families. Also, there are at least three important books. Icelanders of the Pacific West Coast from which I’ve taken my information about the early settlers. Ben Sizertz’s three volume tome on his father, mother and himself. The third book is Memories of Osland about the amazing but now forgotten Icelandic settlement on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

There are, of course, families with a long history on the West Coast. It is these people who may provide photographs, diaries, letters, anecdotes of life back through the generations.
I wish Valgeir the best in this new search to find the forgotten Icelanders, those who moved West and West and West until they could move no further and settled to fish for salmon, or work in canning factories, or in the lumber industry, or raise sheep. It is the life of those of whom I sometimes write, those who left New Iceland for better land, greater opportunities, the same things that had caused them to leave Iceland, those who make up what I call the Icelandic Diaspora.

Our Ancestral Loggers

treelimbinggood5chainsaw

For this prairie boy who grew up in the mixed poplar, spruce, birch forests of the Interlake of Manitoba, the trees of British Columbia will never lose their overwhelming majesty.

There are, of course, the forests of the past, the old growth stumps, stumps so wide, that imagining the trees that grew from them seems impossible. There are still a couple of trees in Goldstream Park that existed around the time that Columbus came to America. There are the old photographs of loggers in front of and on top of tree trunks so large that they dwarf everything else.

You seldom see trees that huge anymore but even in my yard, in my neighbours’ yards are massive trees, the kind of trees that tower over everything, great Douglas Firs in which Douglas Fir Squirrels gambol. They cast down vast numbers of pine cones onto my deck, both the trees and the squirrels, layers of pollen and needles.

The trees are so large, so overwhelming, so majestic, that they dominate the neighbourhood. They seem indestructible. Therefore, it was a surprise when a neighbour came by and said that one of the firs on his property had rot in it that made it dangerous. It if toppled in a storm, it would take out my house. The tree was going to have to come down. Getting permission to fell  a tree in Victoria is not easy. You have to have it inspected and diagnosed. Someone has to pronounce it seriously ill, dangerous, and unsaveable. You need to get a permit. Only then do you contract an urban forester.

With houses in every direction, you can’t cut down a tree like you would in the forest. No yelling timber and letting it fall. The urban foresters arrive, in this case, five of them. They bring a very large chipper to turn the branches into chips. They bring chain saws. They wear yellow helmets. One of them, the main man, as it were, puts a lot of gear onto a belt, a handsaw, a chainsaw, a bag with rope coiled inside. He wears spiked boots. He has ropes tied to him that he wraps around the tree.

He leans back against his ropes, digs in his spiked boots and starts climbing the tree. He comes to the first branches, and these branches are not twigs, but thick, long, heavy and dangerous. He draws up his chain saw, pulls the start cord, cuts away the first branch, then the second, moves around the tree so he can cut branches that are out of reach.

He works his way up, denuding the trunk. Below, his assistants drag away the branches, push them into the chipper. The chipper is noisy, scary, powerful and as I watch, I keep hoping no one puts his (or her, there is a woman on the crew), arm in too far. A human body would be reduced to a smear of blood in seconds. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhh. It’s a harsh, threatening sound as the branches are reduced to small wooden bits.

The climber keeps moving up, branches keep falling. He finds branches that are too dangerous to cut away directly so he leans out sawing them further out the branch, sometimes with his handsaw, sometimes with his chain saw. Having done that, he pulls back, digs in his spikes to get a good purchase, starts up his chain saw, cuts away the stub. He works his way up until there is just a crown of branches at the top. He cuts it off, shoves it to the side and it spirals down. The tree is not majestic anymore but a bent line against the sky.

Years ago, at my previous house, I had to have two very large Lombardy Poplar trees cut down because they were interfering with the drainage tiles and starting to break up the paving in the lane. The logger I hired was Australian. He explained what he was going to do and he mentioned that topping the trees could be dangerous. Sometimes, he said, the tree whips back and forth and the logger can be thrown over the top. His rope and spiked boots do him no good then. They work to keep him from falling, not flying through the air. With the first poplar there was no problem but when he topped the second, the tree began to swing wildly and he had to hang with all his strength until it stopped moving. This fir tree remains stable after its crown is cut off and cast down.

This logger, leaning back on his ropes at the top of the tree, is aware he has an audience. He ties a rope from his bag around the trunk, he knows his knots, he needs to know his knots for his life depends on them, and he pulls a trick I haven’t seen since I last attended All Sooke Day where local loggers competed with each other at logging skills. He kicks away from the tree trunk and rides the rope down to the ground. The first time I saw this, my heart stopped. This time, knowing what he was going to do, I just admired his skill and showmanship.

The crew took a much needed break, then the logger went back up the tree trunk until he got close to the top where he started cutting the trunk off a section at a time. He worked smoothly, sawing the trunk in one direction, then the other, pushing the trunk over, away from himself so the sections of wood tumbled down to be dragged away by the crew and cut into stove wood lengths. He worked his way down until about twelve feet of trunk were left. This stub was cut down from the bottom.

Chain saws were roaring, the chipper was roaring, the crew was raking and hauling and then it was done and where there had been a majestic tree, there was now a stump and a pile of wood. All done in a tight space among houses, in the urban forest.

As I watched the loggers work, I wondered what the Icelanders who came to the West Coast in the 1880s thought. How different a world to which they had to adapt. Someone like Kristjan Benediktsson (Benson) from Hrafnabjorg. He first lived in Winnipeg, Selkirk and New Iceland. Then he went to Seattle for a winter. His family joined him in Bellingham. According to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast “in a few years he had cleared the land of trees”.  I’d like to have a detailed diary describing how he did that.

Helgi Thorsteinsson emigrated in 1887. He went to Victoria and then Point Roberts in 1894, according to Icelanders of the Pacific Coast. He first took 40 acres, then added 20 acres more. “All the land was covered in thick forest. Now most of the land is cleared and cultivated”.

Coming from Iceland, a land with hardly any trees and those few that did exist were of no great size, there was much to learn. This is a double bitted axe. This is a cross cut saw. This is how you cut down a tree that may be a hundred feet tall and that will crush everything in its path when it does fall. In Iceland wood was so precious a commodity that there was elaborate rules over the ownership of driftwood. Here, in this West Coast world, there was wood everywhere. No houses of turf and rock. These massive trees could be turned into lumber and shingles.

Time and again, descriptions of the West Coast Icelanders say the land was cleared of thick forest, that fine wooden homes were built.

So much to learn in such a strange world. Yet, learn they did. Time and again, their short biographies say they built a fine house. What an accomplishment! As I watched the five people taking down the neighbour’s fir tree, cutting it up, I thought I could see the ghosts of our Icelandic countrymen working at what, in Iceland, must have seemed unimaginable. I remember reading a translated letter that was sent back to Iceland. The writer said, I can’t explain to you what things are like here. Beyond explaining, this forest world, filled with trees and wild beasts none of the Icelandic pioneers had ever known.

Learning to cut down trees, mill them, build with their wood. Well done Páll from Mýrdalur, Eiríkur Anderson from Vesturhóp, Hinrik Eiríksson and all those others, and the wives and children who worked with them. Hard were the times and hard the work but triumph and success, like the triumph and success of the logger I watched the other day, can be counted in work well done, adaptions made, lessons learned. For an afternoon, you were with me, there on my deck as I watched a logger work his magic.

 

Will You Remember Them?

benedictsson_m2
Many came to Amerika because they were desperate. Desperate to leave behind hunger, insecurity, ill treatment, poor living conditions. They risked going to Amerika because they thought there’d be food, security, better treatment, and better living conditions. A man (and a woman) could claim land, his land, her land, their land. The land wasn’t taken, wasn’t in the hands of the few wealthy farmers who hired indentured servants, daily and seasonal workers, who rented to crofters, farmers who were as one of them said, like Napoleon on their own land. The settlers risked everything for opportunity, for the future.

They went to Nova Scotia, they went to Kinmount, they went to the United States, they began a journey that, for many, seemed to have no end. The settlement in Nova Scotia failed. Kinmount failed disasterously. New Iceland, begun with high hopes, was virtually abandoned within three years. These were not frivolous people. They were desperate for good land, land that could be broken with a plough, that could, within a year or two, provide crops that would feed the settlers, clothe them, house them.

Many kept moving Westward. Winnipeg, Brandon, Vatnbygg, Swift Current, Markerville, Calgary, Edmonton, the Peace River, over the mountains to Vancouver, to Victoria, to Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Boundary Bay (Seattle).

With each move the Icelandic immigrant community fragmented.
Communities were formed and then dissipated. Some, like the one on Smith Island, persevered for decades. In some cases, individuals disappeared, became rumours, memories. One book says that there is a rumour of an Icelandic family in the Interior.

Many were your lang afi and amma’s neighbours. Sigurdur Sigurdsson Myrdal was one of those. He was born in Gil in Myrdalur in West Skaftafellssysla in 1844. He married Valgerdur Jonsdottir and left for America in 1876. They went to New Iceland.

“They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it. They lost two of their young daughters to that disease. In 1880 they went to Pembina where they lived for seven years. Sigurdur worked there in a store, and participated considerably in the Icelandic community, particularly in church matters.”

“From there the couple went to Victoria B.C., and then to Point Roberts in 1894. Sigurdur is a good carpenter and built for himself and family a quite nice single-storey wood house. Because of his wife’s poor health, he moved again to Victoria, where it was possible to get better medical help, but let his son Arni take care of his home. Sigurdur lost his wife in 1912 and was after that variously in Victoria or Point Roberts, until 1914 when he married…Jonina Solveig Brynjolfsdottir, widow of Amundur Gislason.”

I wish that someone had written down Sigurdur and Valgerdur’s story. They arrived in New Iceland in 1876. They buried two daughters in New Iceland. The writer, Margret J. Benedictson, says “They were there during the small pox epidemic and other miseries that accompanied it.” They lived a tragedy. How many of us have buried two daughters? They are, I assume, in the old graveyard in Gimli. If not, then they might be in the graveyard at Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Hecla. There are lots of graveyards.

Margret doesn’t expand upon “the other miseries”. I wish she had because then we would know what Sigurdur and Valgerdur overcame. They moved Westward to Pembina in 1880. Four years had passed in Gimli with its death and other miseries. What did they find in Pembina? What did they not find in Pembina?

According to Margret’s description, they moved to Victoria, then Point Roberts in 1894. This would mean they’d spent 14 years in Pembina before moving Westward to the very edge of the continent where there was deep sea fishing, mountains, good land for raising sheep and a community of other Icelanders.

Valgerdur died in 1912. She had been ill a long time. Eighteen years had passed since they’d settled on the West Coast. Moving, moving, always westward until they came to the edge of the continent, finally completing a journey that had begun in Iceland in 1876.

The Icelandic community in New Iceland lost them as neighbours, relatives, friends but it also lost their story, their stories that would have fleshed out what it meant to make that critical journey with the big group, what it meant to try to prepare for winter, to survive the small pox but to bury two daughters.

One could say, of course, but there were other people who stayed, whose stories remained, but Sigurdur and Valgerdur were just two of many who left and history is like a jigsaw puzzle, the more missing pieces, the less complete the picture. Everyone may be in the same place but no two people’s experiences are the same.

And distance and time dim memories. People forget, never learn and the lines of the journey, the lives of the journey, are lost and we are less because of it. I’ve been a part of one of those communities ever since 1974. My path was a crooked one, Iowa, Winnipeg, Missouri, Victoria. There are many others here, in Blaine, Seattle, Bellingham, Vancouver, Naniamo. I’m a newcomer compared to many whose families like those of Sigurdur and Valgerdur trace their roots back to 1894.

When I was editor of LH, I tried to include as much news of our far flung communities as possible. Without them, we are lessened. Without Chicago and Minneapolis and Markerville and Calgary and Edmonton and Vatnbygg and Minneota and and and, we are less, not just in numbers but in the story of our community. Without the stories of Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, Kinmount, we are incomplete. Our history, who were are, isn’t just New Iceland or Manitoba, although they are, without doubt the vortex to which we are all connected.

The INL has been doing everything it can to bring those pieces together, to reconnect forgotten connections, to make us aware of all of our story.

I met David Johnson at the INL conference in Seattle. He very kindly sent me a copy of Icelanders of the Pacific Coast: Point Roberts, Blaine, Bellingham, Marietta. I’m going to write about some of the people in this book, about our great grandparents friends, relatives, neighbours who kept traveling west until they couldn’t go any further. Unfortunately, I got one of the last three copies. There may or may not be two lef. I’ll do my best to tell you about some of the people who were written about in the Almanac by Margret J. Benedictson. Some of the people who appear in these pages. They are all a part of your history and mine.