Gimli: 125th Anniversary

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

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

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

The Vikings are Coming

Photos by W. D. Valgardson

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

Saving our heritage: a child’s Íslendingadagurinn

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

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

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

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

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

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