Cornucopia

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When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

Our Ancestral Loggers

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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?

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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.

On To Victory: Alene Moris

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You could be forgiven if, seeing Alene Moris for the first time, especially at something like the Icelandic National League annual conference, if you dismissed her as another little old lady who spent her life making ponokokur. We’re all entitled to mistakes. Even doozies like this one.

Alene Moris was the hit of the conference. The title to her talk, “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy” seemed motherly. Wrong again.

Alene Moris had the crowd so revved up by the end of her talk that I thought the audience was going to jump out of their seats and march through Seattle in support of women’s rights. What a speaker!

The theme of the conference was “There’s No Place Like Heima (home)”. Could have been a maudlin look back at earlier times. It looked back all right but it was anything but maudlin.

When she said that she babysat Tommy Douglas’s children when she was young, Canadian listeners knew this wasn’t going to be a mom in the kitchen making apple pie speech. The reference, I expect, went over the heads of the American part of the audience.

“Home”, she started off saying, is loaded with mixed emotions. And, going back to the settlement of Iceland, she didn’t rah rah those Viking men but rather looked at the fact that the majority of women were Irish/Scots slaves. She pointed out they were taken by force from their families and communities, must have been incredibly lonely, had no choice about having sex, and were pregnant and had to raise children without the normal family and community support. Their masters, maybe husbands, went away for long periods of time and the women had to survive and see that their children survived.

Throughout her speech, she compared women’s situation in Iceland, historically, and I the present, with the situation of women in the United States.

In Iceland there is a much better safety net and when you say safety net, you’re talking about women. It’s women and children who dis-proportionality need a safety net. Women often earn minimum wage. There has been an orchestrated attack on women’s freedom and rights. A major problem is that women in the USA don’t stick together. In Iceland a one day strike brought widespread support. IN the 1975 million women march, only one woman out of 150 came out.

Two years ago, Iceland was chosen as the best place for women. In the USA there is a large pay difference. There is widespread domestic violence. IN 12 years, 12,000 women were killed by male partners.
In Iceland women seldom respond with anger but with a pragmatic insistence that there be justice for everyone.

A striking image she presented was that women don’t want half of a bad pie. They want a pie that is worth sharing.

She praised Iceland’s response to the kreppa and said that the USA needs to find the courage to do the same.

According to her, women need to be in positions of power because they value independent thinking instead of group thinking. They want to treat all people well. Most women think in terms of a circle and community.

She inspired many with her speech and there was much more to it than I can include. Her mother was born and raised in Mountain, ND. Her father was a Norwegian from Minnesota. Alene majored in music and married a Lutheran minister. Now of these things, outside of long conversations with Tommy Douglas about universal health care, would seem to be the makings of someone dedicated to social justice.

She and her husband went to Borneo in 1965-69. She sent for three books and reading them created an epiphany for her. She learned that all the war decisions about Vietnam had been made by men. There was no woman there to ask why do we need to win? Why are we in Asia?

It’s not, she says, that women are more virtuous than men. It is just that they see things differently. Think back to those first comments about Vikings and the women they kidnapped to take to Iceland. Their view of what was happening had to be radically different.

She said something that for me was profound. She heard it at the Women As A Resource For A Changing World. The speaker said “Power comes to those who know and know they know.” She then gave a historical list of all those who those who know and know they know. Except, of course, that doesn’t mean they are right. But they do get to impose their will on the rest of society.

Toward the end, she said “Icelandic women show up.” American women, don’t.

Her speech was so packed with information that even though I took notes as quickly as possible, I could only get down a small part of what she shared with the audience. Anyone who wants to hear her whole speech, and I would hope that every woman who hears about it, will log in and listen, can go to the Icelandic National League website. If her speech is not already up, it will be, soon.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 3

I’ve never been to an INL convention like it. It’s been all over the place re types of speakers and topics. I think people are discombobulated in a good way. They’ve had their conceptions un-concepted, they’ve heard and seen things that have left them puzzled, curious, excited. It is hard to capture the excitement that has been generated. I am so grateful, happy, that I decided to come to this convention. I’m not a great enthusiast but I’ve found myself being amazed, amused, bewildered.

David Johnson is the Co-Chair of this Convention. He has been everywhere, checking on everything, making sure that we all stay on time.

David is Mormon and he introduced the first speaker, Prof. Fred E. Woods. Fred is highly personable, an experienced teacher and public speaker. He presented a slide show with commentary. Some of his slides were pictures of Icelanders who went to Utah in the early years. Other slides were of documents from that time, often letters, that have been translated into English.
I have read quite a bit about the Icelandic Mormons but Fred’s lecture made me aware of how much more material there is that I did not know about. I, and I expect, many others, will be going online to read the work that has been translated.

He is working with the Icelandic scholar Kári Bjarnason, head of the Vestmannæyjar Folk Museum. Together, they are collecting and publishing Icelandic materials which are in Utah. You can read much of this material on the “Mormon Migration“ website hosted by BYU.

We went from this rather conservative individual who describes happy things as “sweet“ to Donald Gislason. Now, I have to confess that I‘m a great fan of Donald. That‘s because when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskingla, Donald provided marvelous interviews about the music and cultural scene in Iceland. I remember telling him at the time that he was the best interviewer I‘d ever worked with.

He has a Ph.D in Music History from UBC. He‘s made six trips to Iceland but given his knowledge of the music and cultural scene, you‘d think he‘d spent a lifetime there. I certainly did. He says he is a hopeless “miðbærritta“, that is a guy who thinks the whole world revolves around 101 Reykjavik.

It would be impossible to do justice to Donald‘s lecture, slide show without writing like Hunter S. Thompson.

We saw bands of every kind. And, in Iceland, there are bands of every kind. I‘ve always wondered where Bjork, Monsters and Men, Siguros, etc. Etc. Etc. came from. How come, with a population of less than 320,000 that there are musicians of very kind, playing multiple instruments, old instruments, space age electronic instruments, playing multiple styles?

Donald provided the answer. The system in Iceland provides funding for every child to have music lessons. The child in Reykjavik and the child on the most isolated farm. The cost is split between parents and state. I wish I could have hauled all those people into the auditorium with us, those people who want to fund nothing in the education system unless it leads directly to a job, to a trade, who think things like music lessons are a waste of the taxpayer‘s money.

Donald told us about Icelandic music culture. About the Airwaves festival which he describes as the hippest event on the planet. Five days of musical mayhem. He credits some things that Iceland doesn‘t have for the creativity and productivity of musicians and, remember, everyone is a musician.

What don‘t Icelanders have? They don‘t have the powerful influence of marketing companies. They don‘t have corporations telling them how they ought to be. They don‘t have fear of failure. They are playing among friends for themselves and their friends instead of for paid audiences of strangers.

Everyone, no matter what age, listens to the same music. Parents, teenagers, kids listen to the same music. Part of that has to do with demographics. Iceland‘s population is young. There is a lot of support for young parents and young children. Parents take kids to rock concerts. Musical events, a lot of the time, are family events.

I saw this when I watched a video about Of Monsters and Men. Crowds were streaming into an open area to listen to them. There were young parents with babes in arms, kids in strollers, kids holding their parents’ hands. There were even some people who might have been grandparents in the crowd.

What a contrast this morning, from Fred who is dedicated to preserving Mormon history to Donald with Reykjavik 101, party, party, dance all night, drink all night, listen to music all night, and then eat Subway type sandwiches for breakfast.

It’s all Iceland. It’s all part of our history. I know that I’ll be looking up those Mormon sources. Some of the letters we got to read were surprising, even shocking. I know that I now understand more about the Iceland of our ancestors. I also know more about the Iceland of the present.

Before I forget, did I tell you about breakfast? Before we listened to these lectures, about the scrambled eggs, the bacon, the scones, the jams, the fruit, the yogurt, the coffee black as the devil’s soul but, I’m sure, much better tasting?

Did I tell you that next year this party is going to be in Winnipeg?

Did I tell you…? Never mind. Later. I’ve got to get dolled up for the banquet tonight. Comb my hair, try to look respectable. More food, more talks. More surprises. I’m glad the Clipper doesn’t charge passengers by weight. It would cost more to go home than to come to Seattle.

Carving the future

Jón Adólf Steinólfsson was born in Reykjavik. He has studied wood carving in Icelandic, Germany and England.

Jón follows an old tradition for he often works with driftwood. Driftwood from Siberia is caught in ice and gradually brought by the ocean currents to Iceland. Wood also comes from other parts of the world, ending up on Iceland´s beaches. Some historians have claimed that without driftwood, Iceland would not have been habitable.

Driftwood was so precious that a host of laws regarding its ownership were passed and enforced. Traditionally, driftwood was used for building nbut also for fuel, to make boats, furniture and to create charcoal. Imported wood was so expensive that it was only available to the foreign traders and to the wealthiest Icelanders.

Given this history, it´s not surprising that Jón carves driftwood.

In his show at the INL 94th convention, there are a number of pieces which reveal both his techniques and his interests.

Many of his works , if you look at his website, www.jonadolf.com, are well done carvings and include things like picture frames or masks. However, he steps away from that role with pieces like Lif (Life), done in lime wood and birch. Here, he becomes the sculptor and, interestingly, for me, at least, I see in this piece influences of Iceland’s religious past.

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Not only is a child being born from wood but given the texture of the wood on which it sits, it appears to be being born from a chaotic environment and even hell.

The other piece that caught my eye was Leit að Takka (Looking for any key). The face in the wood made me think immediately of the carvings of the West Coast aboriginal art. Often this West Coast art is obvious, representative of totems and myth but sometimes It goes beyond that and keeps within itself some mystery below the surface of the wood. Leit að Takka is like that. Or like, perhaps, like an iceberg where the tip only reveals a small part of what lies beneath the surface. Here, where the obvious is not invoked, mystery brings the viewers eye and mind back to look time and again.

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INL Convention Seattle: Day 1

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After weeks of beautiful, sunny weather, it rained today just as the INL convention in Seattle was getting started with a bus tour. It turned out that it didn’t matter.

Jonas Thor was our tour guide and since he does tour guiding for a living, how could the job he did be anything but good. He lived in Winnipeg for ten years and since his return to Iceland he has bought thousands of people on Heritage tours. If you don’t think that is a big accomplishment, Iceland only has approximately 320,000 people. When you’ve brought thousands of people, you’ve brought a good percentage of the population.

His lecture, as we drove from Seattle to Blaine was chock a block with facts, as one would expect from a historian. However, he peppered his talk with humorous anecdotes from his years as a tour guide. People really do say the funniest things, especially when they’re trying to speak Icelandic. One woman knew some Icelandic but not all the latest words. When she was at a hotel, she called to the desk to say that she needed a wakeup call at seven. The Icelandic came out, though that she needed a man in her bed at seven.

Immigration to Washington State, Bellingham, Blaine, Seattle, was not like immigration to New Iceland. People didn’t come in groups. They came as families and as individuals. As usually happens, letters to friends and relatives encouraged others to follow.

Victoria drew a lot of settlers, but because of a depression and a smallpox outbreak, a number of people moved to Point Roberts. Because there was no group settlement, there was no attempt to create separate Icelandic communities on the West Coast – except for Osland on Smith Island in BC.

Jonas packed a tremendous summary of the history of the Icelandic settlers who came to the West Coast, everything from the early canneries that provided well paid employment to a history of how Point Roberts managed to capture the interest of a United States President.  President Roosevelt signed the document for the land at Point Roberts to be made available to the Icelandic settlers after they had been there for eighteen years.  In appreciation, they sent him a rug made from a sheepskin.

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We stopped at the Unitarian Free Church where displays were set up for us. There was some excitement when people from Gimli saw a picture of Albert Kristjansson. Past and present connected since he was a brother of Hannes Kristjansson of Gimli. One of those special moments I’ve come to expect on these tours happened when Heather Ireland noticed that one of her grandfather’s  (G. Guttormson) poems was set to music in the hymnal and she sat down a played a few  bars.

We went to the Blaine cemetery where ten percent of the graves are of people of Icelandic background.

Lunch was served by The Icelandic Club of Blaine. Rob Olason gave a slide show about the Blaine Icelanders. The Bellingham Damekor serenaded us and Joan Thorstonson gave a talk on Point Roberts.

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Food and music soothes the savage beasts.

Fed, kaffied, our heads aswirl with all we had heard, we raced away to the Nordic Heritage Museum. If I did nothing else on this trip except go to the NHM, the money and time spent would have been worthwhile.    The Exhibition The Dream of America, The Immigrant Experience, 1840-1920 is an exhibition in cooperation with the National Museum of Denmark and the Moesgard Museum, Arhus, Denmark. Comprehensive, detailed, beautifully constructed, it could easily occupy an entire day. It is the most complete description and illustration of the immigrant experience that I have seen.

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Many Icelanders became involved in logging. This was completely foreign to them. In a very short time, they had to learn how to do dangerous jobs with dangerous equipment such as this saw and these axes on display at the museum.

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Proving that rain, a long day, a lot of facts, an avalanche of conversation can’t keep a bunch of Icelanders down, there was a meet and greet in the evening. No one needed to know the address of the room. They just needed to follow their ears to the roar of the conversation.

 

 

 

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.

Waiting For The Ferry

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When I lived in Gimli, Manitoba, I splashed through spring, swam through summer, danced through fall with the swirling leaves and skated through winter. The seasons were everything. They were anticipated, enjoyed, never mind the wet days of April, the sunburn of July, the first cold winds and frozen puddles of October, the blizzards and frigid temperatures of January and February.

When I agreed to come to the West Coast, little did I know those rhythms, those spring days when the temperature rose to zero and it felt so warm after the winter that we strode down the muddy streets with our jackets wide open, would disappear from my life. In place of spruce trees, poplar and paper birch, there’d be massive firs and Garry Oaks and arbutus.

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In place of wild raspberries and high bush cranberries and saskatoons, we’d pick blackberries on the roadsides. In place of pickerel fillets fried to a golden brown, pickerel cheeks served in sweet and sour sauce, baked whitefish, smoked goldeye, we seek out salmon, pink and red, halibut and cod. In foraging in the forest, we’d not risk frostbite or freezing to death but dying of hypothermia because of wet and wind. In place of Lake Winnipeg, there’d be the Pacific Ocean and, instead of the shimmering eastern shore of the lake, we’d have the lights of Port Angeles.

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Manitoba was all about highways, threading themselves to Winnipeg, to Brandon, to Ontario, north to Dauphin and The Pas, south to North Dakota. Here, life is all about ferries. We make our plans by ferry schedules. The ferry leaves Swartz Bay on the odd hour. The ferry leaves Fulford Harbour at ten minutes the even hour. Our trips to Vancouver are laid out like military strategies. Catch the seven o’clock at Swartz Bay, arrive at Tswassen at 8:45, arrive in downtown Vancouver at 10:00, constantly keep in mind the last two sailing times back to Victoria. A night sleeping in the car at the terminal is not a happy night. It’s that or a motel room somewhere reasonably close.

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The rhythm of our lives are the rhythm of the ferries. It is not wise to arrive at the ferry terminal, any ferry terminal, at the last moment. It often means a two hour wait for the next ferry. Of course, you’ll be first in line.

My favorite ferry terminals are at Fulford Harbour and Vesuvius. Both have small communities where you can do a little tourist shopping and get a good cup of coffee.

Recently, I had over an hour’s wait at Fulford. Welcome to the life of the West Coast Icelanders.

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