Book Review: Historical Images of New Iceland Settlements

Ben Holyk’s new book of historic photographs arrived today. It is called “Historical Images Lake Winnipeg New Iceland Settlements”. It covers more communities than usual: Arborg, Poplarfield, Fisher branch, Geysir, Gimli, Hecla Island, Hnausa, Ledwyn, Riverton, Winnipeg Beach. As well, it has a section on Lake Winnipeg Boats and Fishing. It is 376 pages and is crammed with pictures, many of which I have not previously seen.

I have read a fair amount about New Iceland, its people and places, the boats of Lake Winnipeg, the buildings, the farms but I’ve had to imagine what they looked like. Now, I have images for many of those people and places.

I’m happy to have a picture of the S.S.Colville, the ship that brought Icelanders to New Iceland but also a picture of an oxen team that was used in Arborg.

Pictures of Ragnheidur and Oscar Einarsson on their wedding day in 1914 and Sveinbjorg and Nikulas Halldorson provide a good idea of how people dressed. Dr. J. P. Palsson and his wife Sigudur in 1910, are fashion plates and one cannot help but wonder how their clothes were kept clean. No automatic washing machines. As far as I know, tubs and scrub boards and, if you could afford it, hired help were required to keep a person presentable.

Logging camps had bad reputations for the way they treated the men who worked for them. The work was hard, the pay low, the isolation complete and accommodation? Well, the picture of the logging camp north of Arborg provides a good idea of how loggers lived.

Wood, in the early days, was used for heating and cooking plus fueling the steam ships. It created a cordwood economy. It’s hard to imagine the amount of wood needed to fuel the local houses and the houses and businesses of Winnipeg. A sense of that can be seen in the picture of Chapil’s horse team hauling logs to the Arborg railway station, 1940.

One of the surprises in the book is provided by the pictures of Fisher Branch. There’s a general view taken in 1907 and a picture of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church that was built in 1913. The Fisher Branch Creamery’s fleet of delivery vehicles is impressive. I count six nice looking cars. The Ukrainian Farmer’s Co-op store with its employees outside (I count 34) gives a sense of a thriving community. Trains arrived in 1914 and continued until 1980.

Geysir has always had a reputation many times its actually size. My impression of it has been of a dance hall (picture included), a church and a graveyard but Ben’s pictures show pictures of quite elaborate churches, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic church (1913), Immaculate Conception RC church (1912) and Geysir Evangelical Lutheran Church (1928). There are pictures of the Geysir school, the students and staff, the men’s baseball team (baseball, when I was a boy in the 1940s was taken quite seriously), a threshing outfit and a rather amazing picture of J.K.B. Jonson hauling hay from Fisher Bay for Baldi Halldorson.

Gimli, as usual, takes up a good part of the book, mostly because people came there On holidays and took pictures. I see that at least one of them is credited to my great aunt Stina Johnson but others that I believe she took, are not. The picture of a Manitoba steam side paddler docking at Gimli in the 1910s gives me an image of what life was like in the 1910s that I never expected. My great grandfather’s store at the corner of Main & Centre in 1905 is displayed. It’s an often used photo and will be familiar to many. There’s a picture of the H.P. Tergesen house in 1906 when it sat on open land waiting for the town to be built around it. I was happy to see a picture of the Lutheran church with its spire. There’s a picture of “Beaver House, the Lake View hotel and Lyric Theatre taken sometime in the 1900s.

There are some fine pictures of campers’ cottages. I just wish that the locations were included. Many of the early cottages have been torn down and replaced with permanent houses. I was pleased to see a picture of Bjarnason’s grocery and dry goods store because no one except me seems to remember it. There’s a picture of the original Johnson Memorial Hospital that opened in January 28, 1939, just a few months too late for me to be born there. I’ve always regretted that and thought my mother could have waited or they could have finished the hospital sooner.

Hecla has been a storied place mostly because it is an island. Before the bridge was built from the mainland, access was by boat or ferry (picture included) and, during break up and freeze up, the people were isolated and left on their own to survive as best they could. As harsh as conditions were in the beginning, the local people built Hecla’s first school in 1890 and there is a picture of it.

What are amazing are the pictures of Reynistaour and the Tomasson Boarding house. There’s a picture of the Sigurgeirsson log house that served as a store and post office. There are pictures of a cat bringing logs from the north on five sleighs.

Hnausa often gets short shrift in articles about New Iceland. That is unfortunate because it played a major role in the prosperity of the early settlement. It was “a prosperous community, having a school postal office, store, saw mill, community hall, and a gas station.” It was here that “a trading and shipping centre was founded by Stefan and Johannes Sigurdson in 1890.”

Since I’ve read Glenn Sigurdson’s manuscript about his family’s role in the fishing industry, I know about the house and store that Stefan Sigurdsson built. However, I’d never seen a picture of them. Fortunately, there is such a picture and it fills me with amazement for who would think such elaborate and large buildings would be built in a small community on the shore of Lake Winnipeg?

Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, but Hnausa held its own Islendingadagurinn in competition with Gimli. There are pictures of the celebration at Hnausa Park in 1932 and of the Fjallkona. There’s an excellent picture of winter freighting with a list of the men in the picture. Some are sitting on top of a sleigh of fish boxes and others lined up in front. There’s even a picture of their mobile home being pulled by two horses.

If Hnausa has been ignored in articles about New Iceland, Ledwyn has been cast into outer darkness. It’s wonderful that Ben has included Ledwyn. While there are Andersons and Arnasons among the pictures of the first settlers of Ledwyn, most of them are of Andrushankos, Bachynskis, Bonkowskis, Dziadykewiczs, Furgalas. These people don’t fit into the normal myth of New Iceland. However, they were every bit as much a part of New Iceland as the Icelanders. There are pictures of the catholic churches, of the Zinkowski store, of the Polish Hall, the community hall (where I had wonderful, memorable times) of the Ledwyn Band. There is a picture of school students that were taught by Peter and Mary Onysko. In 1961, Peter was the principal at Riverton and I was in my first year of teaching.

Riverton was supposed to be the capital of New Iceland but bad weather meant the barges carrying the settlers were cut loose and drifted to shore at Willow Point. Settlers moved north to settle along the lake shore. I found Ben’s description of the settlement of what was called Lundi, then Icelandic River and, finally, Riverton, unclear. I know the story, or at least some of it, but if I didn’t, I’d be confused.

It’s good that he adds in the Ukrainian settlers, the Hungarians, and the Mennonites but the local aboriginal people get short shrift even though they were very much part of the community. There are many pictures including some early ones of the bridges that joined the two sides of Riverton.

The Sigurdsson and Thorvaldson store gives a good example of prairie buildings. There are pictures of farm houses that became well known such as Bakka, Straumnee, Akri, Loni and Unaland. There’s a fine picture of Gunnsteinn Eyjolfsson’s threshing outfit at Unaland and a number of pictures of the freight trains that travelled over the lake in winter.

Riverton has always been known for its music and it is great that there is a picture of the Whiskey Jacks with an amazingly young group of musicians including my friend, Dennis Olson. There is a little bit of everything from Riverton Game & Fish Target Practise (people did shoot their dinner) and the Reggie Leach Night at the Riverton Hall (Reggie is called the Riverton Rifle but his rifle was his hockey stick and his bullet the puck).

I’ve never thought of Winnipeg Beach as being part of New Iceland but it was a big part of our life during the summer. We lived in anticipation of our parents taking us there for the day. It was the Coney Island of New Iceland, even of Manitoba.

Speculators saw a chance to make a lot of money selling lots at Winnipeg Beach for cottages. Therefore, the railway got pushed through to Winnipeg Beach. There’s a picture from 1903 with sailboats and tourists. The railway brought people by the thousands to ride on the ferris wheel, the roller coaster, to dance at the dance palace, to stay at the Empress Hotel. To buy lots and build cottages. The CPR wasn’t missing any tricks when it came to making a buck.

The astounding thing about these pictures and those in the book on the history of Winnipeg Beach is the contrast between the well to do who came to the Beach and the ordinary local people who were struggling to make a dollar. The Dance palace was one of the largest in Western Canada at 14,000 sq. ft. The picture that shows the boardwalk that fronted the beach and the shops where visitors could play games of chance makes clear just how fashionably dressed the visitors were.

I’m very pleased that Ben included the last section on Lake Winnipeg for while it was not a community in the sense of the towns and villages, it was still a community. It was spread all over the lake but it had its own identity. There are welcome pictures of the various freight boats plus pictures of how skiffs were towed out to the fishing grounds by the freighters. There are some pictures of the fishermen. However, the Lake Winnipeg fishery was large and has gone on for generations. It really deserves a book of its own.

This book would have benefited from an editor going over it for small details. There’s the occasional world spelled incorrectly and, in places, I thought some minor points were incorrect or, at least, confusing. However, this is not a book of text. It’s a book of pictures. It is a book that once bought, should be kept and if any corrections or additions are needed, the owner can put them in by hand. I wish this book had been published when my father was still alive. I’d have looked it over with him and added numerous notes in the margins about the places and people he knew. He spent a life time on Lake Winnipeg and in New Iceland and this book would have stirred many memories and stories.

If you grew up in New Iceland, this is a must book for your book shelf. It’s a book to share with friends and family. It can be ordered from Ben W. Holyk, Box 1316, Stonewall, MB R0C A20 for 39.95 plus shipping. His web page is, email:

The Saanich Fair

I love the Saanich Fair. There’s not much that will draw me back to Victoria from Gimli, Manitoba before the long weekend in September but the Saanich Fair will. I would like to take all sorts of people I know to the Fair and say, see this, look at that, isn’t that amazing?

This year was the 145th Annual Saanich Fair. It’s the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. For $10 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $9 on Monday, you can lose yourself in the incredible world of agriculture on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

What surprises me is that the first agricultural fair here took place in 1867. The Icelandic emigrants wouldn’t arrive in Gimli until 1875, eight years later. The first ship load of settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859. People who pre-empted land ended up paying a dollar an acre. (Salt Spring, Charles Kahn) By the time Icelandic immigrants were trying to farm hopelessly rocky land in Nova Scotia and Kinmount, 1874, 1875, good land and a good climate meant that settlers on Salt Spring had already developed orchards and were raising sheep. One islander, “a graduate of the University of Heidelberg” already had an orchard with 1800 trees. His partner rowed strawberries and other fruit to Victoria. (Salt Spring, CK)

Although Scandinavians had settled in British Columbia, they’d had to travel far and, often, circuitously, either around the Horn or, more likely, to the East Coast of the USA, then across the continent to California, then by ship up the Pacific Coast. The Finns started arriving on Vancouver Island and area in 1882. However, once the CPR had completed its rail line to Port Moody, then Vancouver, the Icelanders started to arrive. In the Icelanders of Victoria display it says that Thorkell (Kelly) Johnson and his wife, Maria, arrived in Vancouver on the first train in 1886. Others soon followed and in an article in Heimskringla, 1953, Arni S. Myrdal says that “In the autumn of 1887 we moved into our new home.” and, later, that “We had been in Victoria but a short while when letters began to pour in; most of them were from friends and acquaintances seeking information about the city.”

If Kelly Johnson was the first Icelandic settler to arrive in 1886, then only eleven years had passed from the settlement of New Iceland. A thriving Icelandic community developed in Victoria with a distinct culture, at least one store, a church. However, a recession started and, once again, many Icelanders picked up stakes to move to Pt. Roberts.

The Icelanders who came were not farmers in any sense of the term as we use it today. In Iceland, they could not grow grain. The cultivated no market gardens or orchards. In Victoria, they entered a surreal world where there was little that could not be grown. However, they seem, in large part, to have chosen the trades for that’s where the jobs were, or government work, or education.

It’s all about the climate. Pretty hard to grow figs in Manitoba or walnuts or cultivate vineyards for creating prize winning wines. No slander on Manitoba. I love Manitoba strawberries, raspberries, hazel nuts, blueberries but on Vancouver Island we live in a world of micro climates. Find the right southern slope and walnuts and figs prosper, grapes thrive, peaches turn ripe and succulent, kiwi hang from vines.


Maybe it has something to do with the kind of people who migrate here but people dedicate their lives to emus and llamas, to miniature horses and Clydesdales, to more varieties of chickens than I ever had any idea existed. They’re product proud whether it is local honey or heritage beets. It’s not just profit that brings them to the local markets with their produce but pride.

The 4H section of the fair is large. There are entries of every kind from vegetable art to scarecrows. There are animals competitions, the best goat, sheep, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken. Ribbons abound.

For years it was impossible to buy any of the products. The public demanded the right to buy the produce on display and now the farmers and market gardeners have booths laden with freshly picked produce. You can buy heritage fruits and vegetables you never see in the store.

There are demonstrations of using draft horses, of blacksmithing, of milking goats. There are pie, muffin, watermelon, ice cream eating contests. There’s dressage and a continuous horse show.You can even gaze at the stars.

Vancouver Island is all about flowers and there are flower displays and competitions.

They’ve combined the food booths of a Folklorama with the agricultural fair. The Hungarian booth has people lined up for a block but all the booths are busy.

On the main stage, musicians entertain the crowd that wants to sit down for a while.

Somewhere in all this is a chance to learn how to get involved. You can learn about raising chickens in the backyard, how to quilt, how to spin wool, grow Dahlias, milk a goat, have a farm in your backyard, make halters, raise bees.

I’ve always gardened, never farmed, never raised animals, but once a year over the long weekend in September, I return to my Irish roots, to a heritage of owning farms in Northern Ireland, of raising both crops and animals, of an Icelandic great grandfather who was a dairyman and farmer, of an Irish grandmother who loved gardening with a passion, who could grow anything, even on a city lot in Winnipeg.

Everything in our stores come from here, from the earth. Every child should visit the Saanich Fair, should see and smell and hear and touch live animals, should see the machinery, should meet the people who work the earth, raise the animals to feed us.

It may not be the Saanich Fair you are close enough to visit but there are others like the Brandon Fair, like Fairs spread across Western Canada, teaching us about both the present and the past.