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.
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.
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.
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.
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.