Gimli Life: Them Others


Them others. You know, those people who aren’t Us. In Gimli, there have always been two major groups of them others: the air force personnel, particularly the ones who lived in town and the summer campers. The campers weren’t camping as in living in tents. They had summer cottages and, sometimes, were called cottagers. Them there cottagers.

The airbase when it was built because of WWII brought something that Gimli had little of, permanent jobs with wages paid regularly plus benefits. Gimli had been a village with commercial fresh water fishing as the main industry. Fishermen sold their fish to the local fish packing company and the fish was prepared and packed by local people. The fishing seasons were seasonal with long layoffs between seasons. Some families sewed on nets. This was hard, tedious work for as little as a penny and a half a fathom. There were some stores, a few cafes, a post office, a telephone exchange, a lumber yard, the train station, the local school, a movie theatre, a bowling alley, a municipal office, an RCMP office with one Mountie. In that mix there were some steady jobs with year round wages but businesses were family business. If non-family were hired, they were few and pay was minimal.

The other source of income was the cottagers. They bought building lots, hired local carpenters to build cottages, hired kids like me to cut their grass, hired babysitters, got their hair cut at my father’s barber shop, bought fresh pickerel fillets (I sometimes rode around on my bike offering fillets at fifty cents a pound), but mostly kept to themselves. Town kids and city kids didn’t mix much unless the city kids were cousins. Part of the division was caused by the fact that many cottagers were Jewish and the town was mostly Icelandic Lutheran. The Jewish families didn’t want any summer romances blossoming and the townies were prejudiced enough that, for a time, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” not to sell to Jews. That was in spite of the fact that one of Gimli’s stores was Greenberg’s. Greenberg’s was a wonderful store, exotic summer fruit in the window, long and narrow, it was divided down the middle, dry goods on one side, soda fountain, candy, beyond the soda fountain, a few booths and tables and chairs where you could sit and slurp away your soda or milk shake. Greenbergs also owned the movie theatre where we went to watch Roy Roger and Gene Autry sequels.

The tourist season in Gimli is short. Cottagers come out around the end of May to open up their cottages and shut the cottages down before school begins in September. When I was young, not many people owned cars. However, the railway came to Gimli in 1906 and that’s why my grandparents were able to have a small cottage where my grandmother could come with her daughter to escape the stifling muggy heat of Winnipeg and my grandfather could come down on a Friday night and return on a Sunday evening. Cottages were not the mansions of today. They were usually just a framed in box, no insulation, the studs still showing. There were no waterworks in Gimli so everyone had a backhouse. People got water from the artesian wells that were at nearly every corner.

The cottagers were often resented. During coffee over many kitchen tables, chippy lips bitched about the cottagers. They contributed nothing to the town. They brought their groceries from Winnipeg. They didn’t patronize the local stores. They thought they were superior. They stuck together. They didn’t pay enough taxes. They sunned themselves on our beach. Some of the commentary was vitriolic. I watched my mother bite her tongue during these conversations. Making a living in Gimli was difficult. My father got up before dawn during fishing season, went out to his nets, took his catch to the shed, iced it, came home, washed, got dressed in a suit, went to the barber shop, cut hair all day long, came home for supper, changed into his fishing clothes, dressed his fish, in hot weather might go out for a second lift. To feed, clothe and house us, he worked all the time. He particularly worked long hours in the summer because come winter time, he might be lucky to get one or two haircuts a day. Some of those would be on credit. The campers filled the chairs in his shop and they paid cash. My mother carefully managed the nickles, dimes, quarters, dollar bills that he brought home.

His business wasn’t much different from that of other local businesses. The winter months were hard months. Business was always slow. That didn’t keep some people from constantly complaining about the cottagers.

Gradually, people bought cars. Train service stopped. Today, there is no train or bus service. With so many people owning vehicles, a third group now comes to Gimli, particularly on weekends when there is good weather. They’re the day trippers. Many of them, from my observation, are Asian, particularly Filipino. That’s not surprising since the Filipino population of Winnipeg has grown exponentially over the last decade. They are inclined to do things as a family group, sometimes three or four vans full of people. They park at the beach, set up BBQs, spread blankets, relax and enjoy themselves. I see them with a touch of envy and wish I knew some of them well enough to be invited to join them. We used to get together like that at the beach before our family got spread across the world. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, parents, all of us cooking wieners and hamburgers over an open fire at Willow Island or at Midas. Lounging around on blankets. Drinking cold beer and home made lemonade. We don’t do it anymore.

The people who bitched and complained about the air force personnel, who resented their presence, got what they wished. The airport was shut down, turned into an industrial park that, once the government transition grants ran out, turned into an industrial park wasteland. The good jobs with steady wages and benefits disappeared.

There is still some griping about the cottagers, although many of the cottages are being bought up, torn down so that permanent winter homes can be built. Some of the people doing this are retiree cottagers who have decided to move to Gimli permanently. The complaints are the same, they use the beach, they don’t spend enough money in town, they don’t contribute to the life of the community. Most of it is still just an expression of resentment about other people having more money or taking up parking spaces. Jealousy coats a tongue with bitterness.

How important are those day trippers? Who benefits? Put up a gate at Highway 9 so only people paying taxes in the municipality can enter and what businesses go under?

There are two gas stations. I expect one of them would quickly disappear. There are two coffee shops. One might survive, maybe. The Kaffee Haus does a roaring business in summer. It employees a lot of locals. In winter, not so much. Chicken Chef? How much of their business is transient? When I’ve been here in winter, there are a lot of empty booths. The Oldie, that is the old hotel, has survived for many decades. As a kid I used to go with my friends to watch the drunks fighting outside. It’s café was busy the other day. Looked to me to be all summer people. The Dollar store would probably survive. It sells inexpensive stuff that isn’t worth driving to Selkirk for. Tergesen’s, Gimli’s most venerable store, built in the 1800s, containing a fine book store on one side and a top quality clothing, souvenir store on the other. Gone. The pizza place and the Chinese café close to the dock. Gone. The Lakeview Hotel. Gone. Some of the ground floor stores might survive in other locations. Robin’s Donuts, gone, for sure. The art gallery at the harbor. Gone. Kris’s Fish. Gone. Tip Top meats and groceries. It would probably survive. It has survived everything for around a hundred years. Day trippers don’t buy there much but cottagers do. Whitecap restaurant? Maybe. The Beach Boy, famous for its pickerel dinners with summer lineup that go out the door, down the stairs, along the sidewalk. Business is so slow in winter, it shuts down. Gone. The museum? A slow death. Government grants would keep it on life support for a while. The Gimli Theatre. Probably would survive. Day trippers don’t go to movies. It’s patrons are locals and cottagers. A-spire Theatre. It seems to be kept alive by those damn cottagers, you know, the ones who use up parking spaces, not day trippers, so it would be okay. Amma’s Kitchen, gone.

Am I one of those detested interlopers, taking up good beach space, polluting the dock, cramming into popular spots like Brennivin’s Pizza Hus which seems to be the most successful restaurant in town. It stays open all year. It would survive. Does the fact that I was born here, grew up here, but left in 1957 to go to university and only come back for the summers make me one of THEM or one of US. Is it okay if I use the benches at the beach? Would it be okay for me to have a BBQ with some friends on the grass under the trees? Does the fact that I buy my groceries at Tip Top, Super A, Sobey’s, the Fresh Carrot make a difference? That I buy my gas at the Husky station? That I buy books and Viking helmets at Tergesen’s. That I eat a lot of pickerel dinners at The Beach Boy? That every year, I spend around $12,000.00 for my three months in Gimli. Is there a threshold that makes someone non-bitchable about? People who spend X amount are welcome and those who spend less than that are not? Would I get a pass card that would unlock the gate at Hwy 9 and Centre Street?

It’s an old conflict. Us and Them. Tribal, I guess.




2 thoughts on “Gimli Life: Them Others

  1. Well done Bill. Remember that there was a real gate so to speak during the smallpox epidemic in New Iceland before the turn of the century, as in before 1900. The government blocked travel to and from the settlement for fear of spreading the contagion to Winnipeg. And while there may have been prejudice among some locals regarding the Jewish cottagers and weekenders in Winnipeg Beach, across the lake in Victoria Beach, the discrimination against jews was both de facto and de jure, with a prohibition (if memory serves) against Jewish people buying property there. Interesting are your vivid memories of Gimli. I was born and raised 5 miles north of Libau, some 30 miles or so as the crow never flies SE of Gimli, and rarely saw the town of Libau until I went to high school there beginning in grade ten; one year only there and then off to Selkirk Collegiate. So when I try to find out about ‘old times’ in Libau, I must do it not so much from memory as quizzing old timers, reading fragmentary accounts, etc. Siblings and cousins slightly older than me are a great source, they extend my memory back in time second hand so to speak. Writing about place: precursors for that kind of thing were the likes of Sherwood Anderson (his book entitled Winesburg, Ohio), Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (based upon old newspaper accounts) and Spoon River Anthology, a series of poems inspired by gravestones, by Edgar Lee masters. Also in poetry, precursors of the tell the whole truth variety include the epic poem called Patterson, New Jersey by American poet William Carlos Williams and for the Canadian prairies the book Wood Mountain Poems by Andrew Suknaski. The town of Gimli has entered the world of myth thru the writings of David Arnason (e.g. Marsh Burning), W. D. Valgardson (a number of books, plays, etc.) and the film Gimli Hospital, by Guy Maddin. In the field of non-fiction and memoir and local history there are many fine sources dealing with New Iceland and its successor towns – a couple of examples – Nelson Gerrard’s Icelandic River Saga and Gus Romaniuk’s Taking Root in Canada. Both offer a highly readable and engrossing account of Icelandic and Ukrainian families respectively in the Interlake region. A new contribution in the non-fiction genre, which I have not yet read is Glenn Sigurdson’s book that deals in part with the Lake Winnipeg fishery, called Vikings on a Prairie Ocean. Judging by Bill Valgardson’s recent blog and Facebook posts, should we expect another publication from him – called, perhaps, Gimli Life? If so, will it be fiction or nonfiction? The knock on local histories and memoirs or novels that read like memoirs is all the dark stuff they leave out. Not so for the world-class works like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Karl Ove Knausegaards’s 6 volume series collectively called, My Struggle (3 books from this series have been published in English so far) and in a Manitoba context, Miriam Toews GG-winning A Complicated Kindness, and her more recent book dealing in a fictionalized way with suicide in her family, Not so Puny Sorrows. Surrounded we are with fine literature, by authors who fictionalize the whole truth, not just part of it. Works rooted in a distinctive locale or culture need not be local, but can be universal – witness the book Independent People, by Halldor Laxness, set in Rural Iceland, a world -class novel, no candy coating of the truth there – not surprisingly, it earned him the Nobel Prize. But a cautionary note: Knausgaard alienated part of his family with his unvarnished truth-telling, including real names, and Laxness nearly got driven from North America as a result of his fictional short story, Nyja Island (New Iceland), that was highly critical of pioneer Icelandic settlers in the Interlake.

  2. Excellent statement William, and excellent comment Jim Anderson. This is the kind of stuff that makes Facebook worth checking every now and then. You never know what will turn up. William is exploring the turmoil of “race”, bigotry, ignorance and economic reality. But as many really good writers, he does so by describing the on the ground behaviour of average folks….and in this case….modern day North American’s of Icelandic heritage. As William say, “an old conflict”. Indeed, even primitive. And, the source of much of the pain and destruction that continues around the globe.
    And Jim Anderson bringing out the value of our memories as kids being raised in the Icelandic communities south and north of Gimli. It is a bit late for the collection of many of those so important recollections and their reporting by good writers….

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