Speech given by Olafson, Eric
at the 2005 Icelandic National League Conference in Wynyard, SK Canada
Welcome, conduseil [hello] to all delegates and visitors to Vatnabyggd. My name is Eric Olafson & I'm a second generation Icelandic-Canadian. It is fitting that the INL is having their conference here in the Vatnabyggd settlement in the year of Saskatchewan's 100th birthday. This is also the 100th anniversary of the Vatnabyggd settlement, more or less. Thank you for gathering here to help us celebrate. I would like to preface my remarks by stating that this info has been gathered by researching other's writings, my memory & other resources that may or may not be factual & can be referred to as Eric's Canadian Saga. I'm going to give you the Reader's Digest version of the history of the Icelanders in the western part of the Vatnabyggd settlement by using some of my family's history.
In September 1905 my paternal Afi, Bjarni Olafson homesteaded on the south western part of the settlement on the NE-28-31-18. He had emigrated from Nupsdalstunga as a one <!-SCT-->year old with his family in 1887 & settled at Gimli. He & his brother arrived at Sheho, the end of the train line and continued overland (a distance of 60 miles) to their homestead. Think about this for a moment, he was 19 years old with a 17 year old brother & they set out across uninhabited land to south of Dafoe. They were part of a huge influx of Icelandic pioneers to settle in this area. They chose to settle in the western part of the settlement since the land was more open & ready for the plow than the eastern part that had more bush & sloughs on It. That choice at the time had merit as far as getting land broke quickly but turned into a bit of a disaster when the drought of the 30's arrived.
In 1914 he married Olgereina Kjarval . Olga came to Canada in 1912 and met my Afi when she was working as a hired girl at one of the neighbours. They had 5 children, Joe & Carl became farmers & farmed in the area until death or retirement. Helgi & Norman became entreprenuers & eventually were in business in British Columbia & Alberta. The youngest boy, Gestur died at the age of 2. Marino was born to Barney and his second wife, Kristine, and became a carpenter in B.C.
My maternal Afi, Thorstein Gauti arrived in Wynyard in 1914. He had originally homesteaded in North Dakota, moved to Lundar & Stuartburn Manitoba & back to Pembina North Dakota before coming to Wynyard & operating a dairy north of Wynyard. He married Aslaug Jonsdottir from Myri & they raised 10 children. They became teachers, hairdressers, homemakers, farmers, fishermen & stenographers. 3 <!-SCT-->daughters stayed in the district & raised families on farms. The rest dispersed to B.C., Alberta,& Ontario.
My dad Joe was a farmer all his life except for a stint in the army in World War 2. My mom, Nanna was a school teacher & met my dad when she was teaching at Mimer School & boarding at the Joe Josephson home, the big white house north of # 16 highway west of Kandahar [now Amma's House]. Little did they know that in 1950 they would move to that home & raise their 5 children there. Joanne lives in Edmonton & is a delegate here today [at the INL conference], and drives the funny car, Elaine in Canora, Edie in Saskatoon , myself on a farm 2 miles from where we were raised & Len, deceased, lived in Winnipeg.
Our family, I think, is typical of the Icelandic Canadians in the Vatnabyggd area who originally came to homestead & raised families that moved on to other pursuits. My cousin Arlan & I are the only descendents of the original pioneers to farm & this year I've finally got over my farmeritis, I call it, & have rented out my grainland. I still have a small herd of elk on the farm & work for the provincial government as a crop adjuster. Presently only one other cousin of our generation, Shirley Ann Laxdal, lives in the Vatnabyggd area. I did marry a young woman, Karen, whose grandmother was an Einarson from Lariviere Manitoba, we have two children Marea & Stefan who are both schoolteachers, so the Icelandic traditions of scholarly pursuits continues. Our son Stefan married another Karen & their daughter Avery is being raised having an Amma & an Afi
Now back to that big white house on the north side of the highway. My wife Karen & I now operate this as a bed & <!-SCT-->breakfast guest house called Amma's House. This home was built in 1919 by Icelandic carpenters that were unable to work in Winnipeg during the Winnipeg general strike. We have to remember that in that era, farming was a very profitable venture so Joe Josephson was able to build a very elaborate dwelling at a time when many people lived in log cabins & small shacks. Unfortunately the depression of the 1930's came & Joe was unable to keep this farm. This house has been designated a municipal heritage site because of its importance as an example of early architecture on the prairies & also its Icelandic heritage---it's been lived in continuously by Icelandic/Canadians since it was built. If the walls of that house could talk, I think it could tell us about the cycle of optimism & despair that has changed agriculture from small farms on each ¼ section to our present day large holdings.
Enough about my family, they were just part of the bigger picture. The western part of the Vatnabyggd settlement is often referred to as the second settlement since it was not a direct migration from Iceland but from existing settlements in North Dakota & Manitoba. After they got here & proved their homesteads their thoughts turned to other things, communities, schools, & churches had to be built.
My Afi told me that originally they got their mail and supplies in the town of Quill lake. He said it was easier getting the mail in the winter since they could ski across the frozen lake as opposed to walking around the lake in the summertime.
The first post office in the new district was "Sleipnir", a store & post office located on H.J. Halldorson's homestead, NE-30-22-15. It was the hub of the community until it was moved to the Wynyard townsite in 1908. The Grandy school district has the distinction of being the first school district formed in 1906. <!-SCT-->Icelanders were instrumental in starting this school but interesting enough a Mr. Carl Schellinger of Hutchinson, Minnesota donated an acre of land for the school. S.S. Bergman, G.G. Goodman, & E.E. Grandy were elected trustees & the first teacher was J.P.Palson who in 1908 received wages of $50.00/ month.
Nordra school was formed in 1907. The original petition to form the school district stated the population as 79 with 12 children between 5 & 16 & 13 below the age of 5. The first teacher was Baldur Jonsson, a student at Wesley College in Winnipeg. Since the teacher taught during their own summer holidays the first school terms were short. In the early years the teachers were Icelandic, as were most of the students. Carrying on the Icelandic tradition Audrey Axdal, now Audrey Shepherd, was the last teacher to teach there in 1962.
Many of the Icelandic Canadians could only speak Icelandic when they started school & I recall my dad telling me about being teased since he didn't know any English. Living on the western fringe of the Vatnabyggd settlement, most of his classmates were not Icelandic. I often think his experience in being unable to speak English when he started school led my parents to not teach us Icelandic. My cousins from Grandy could speak Icelandic a bit & I think it was because there wasn't as much of a stigma attached to it in the areas where Icelanders dominated the population. Another reason they maybe didn't teach us Icelandic was so they could say things in Icelandic that we weren't supposed to hear.
In fact, in Nordra school a course in Icelandic was taught, since permission was granted by the North West Territory to teach any foreign language from 3-4 p.m. on any schooldays selected by the trustees.
The Vatnabyggd settlement originally had numerous schools when the rural poulation was large. As the rural population declined and better roads were constructed, the small schools were closed & originally centralized in small towns until presently all schools are located in Wynyard & Foam Lake. Education was very important to the early settlers & continues to be to this day. Many of the original settlers were well educated. Often I've heard that some of the Icelanders were much better poets or musicians than they were farmers. Imagine reading a book instead of plowing a field or milking a cow! This notion of education & literacy can be traced back to our roots in Iceland where a thousand years ago , illiteracy was abolished. Apparently, when Icelanders were packing to leave for Canada, if the choice was between tools or books, since space was limited, they chose books.
Like other pioneer communities, churches were also organized. Icelandic immigrants were brought up in the Lutheran State Church of Iceland, which was considered relatively liberal. All Iceland congregrations in America were at first patterned on this model. In 1885 the Icelandic Lutheran synod was formed in Mountain North Dakota which subscribed to the views of the Church of Iceland & in a vote of 18 to 8 with one absent & 2 abstaining granted women equal rights with men. They were progressive. The Quill Lakes congregation in 1907 applied for membership & were accepted into the Lutheran synod. In 1909 they withdrew their affiliation & kept in close touch with the State Church of Iceland, whose views were more liberal & more in line with theirs. Over the years ministers from Iceland serviced the Quill Lakes Free Church congregation. Much turmoil was in the church until about 1920 when the Unitarian movement in Winnipeg organized into the first Federated Church of the Icelanders of <!-SCT-->Winnipeg. Consequently, the Quill Lake congregation joined the Federated Church movement. On Main Street in Wynyard still stands the Federated Church -a provincial heritage site. In the early years since it was the biggest building in town it was used extensively as a meeting place for large groups. As a child I remember going to services there that were strictly in Icelandic. When my sister's first child was baptised in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, my dad remarked that he didn't really enjoy the service since he couldn't understand a word of Ukrainian. Mom smiled and said, now maybe you understand how non-Icelandic speaking folks felt like at the Icelandic services in the Unitarian church. I understand there is a tour of the church later.
The Kandahar-Dafoe district was largely settled by Argyle [MB] people. Most of these people lived in Argyle a considerable length of time & left only because they were attracted to the open spaces of the new district. The town of Dafoe on the western edge of the settlement was incorporated in 1920 as a village & there seems to have been little Icelandic/Canadian presence in the village except a storekeeper named Bjorn Bjornson who was in the hardware business for some years. In 1910, two men from argyle, Torfi Steinson & Kristjan J. Hjalmarson started a general store in the hamlet of Kandahar. From that time on Icelanders have been in different kinds of businesses in what was for some years a thriving village.
By the turn of the century, the North Dakota colonies of Icelanders had become over-populated. They heard about land in Saskatchewan and a delegation investigated in 1904. They selected the area south of Little Quill [Lake] & east of Big Quill Lake which was slightly higher <!-SCT-->& not as open as the land farther west & therefore better suited for mixed farming. They stopped at Yorkton & filed homesteads for themselves & by proxy for a number of friends & relatives in North Dakota. This exodus from North Dakota was in 1905 & 1906. Special trains were engaged for this purpose. In May 1905 the first train, consisting of 2 coaches filled with people & 36 boxcars loaded with livestock & effects arrived in Wadena, the nearest railway station at the time. The second train arrived in 1906 at Quill Lake & travel south was between the two lakes. Settlers kept flocking in & by 1907 most of the better land open for homesteading had been taken up. The CPR reached Wynyard in 1908. Because of its strategic location, Wynyard attracted a number of non-Icelandic business & professional men. As a result, the Icelandic element has always been in a minority, but yet the Icelanders exercised their full share of influence in the town & district.
One of the first men to arrive in the Mozart district was John S. Laxdal. He had homesteaded in the Morden Manitoba area & bought a half section just west of Birch Creek in 1903. This area became the Gardar district & soon after the railroad was built in 1908 merged with the larger Mozart district. Mozart quickly became very community minded & is known for that to this day. It's the only community that I know of that has held a 1st day of summer celebration every year since 1912.
In 1903 five settlers arrived in the Elfros district. In 1905 about 15 more families arrived & most of the rest of the settlers came within the next 2 years. In Elfros the two main groups were either Scottish Presbyterians or Icelandic Lutherans. Neither group could afford a church so they joined forces & built the Union Church. It was consecrated at a joint ceremony under the auspices of the two synods, the Lutheran & the Presbyterians. As might be expected, with such a <!-SCT-->combination the church was paid for before it was opened & the two groups got along very well. Eric Stefanson, a founder of the Vatnabyggd club was a resident & mayor of Elfros. In Elfros today there stands a statue depicting our early Icelandic pioneers. The Vatnabyggd club commissioned this statue & it was sculpted by Hans Holtkamp. Each delegate has received a fridge magnet of the statue & there are more available for sale.
From "The Saskatchewan Icelander, A Strand Of The Canadian Fabric" by Valdimar Lindal "thus there was great variety in the Lakes Settlement. In the east, around Foam Lake, there was quiet assurance, based on the wealth of experience in the district itself. In the centre people had gathered from different areas, not in large numbers from any one. Here progress has been slower because of the brushwood & sloughs; mixed farming with its toil had to be chosen. Then there was the dash of the west part of the settlement. In the Wynyard district were men who felt that in North Dakota they had greatly benefited from contacts with people in a state that was part of a large rapidly advancing country. Slightly farther west were young farmers from Argyle, which for years had been regarded as 'the finest Icelandic agricultural district'. They sought quick returns from the expanse of the prairie soil & did not hesitate to limit themselves to the production of grain. These diverse elements of the <!-SCT-->east & the west of one Icelandic settlement when blended, created an amalgam with qualities far beyond what the individual or the group had anticipated, qualities which provided needed strength & unity in the years that lay ahead."
This area has a rich history in the arts , entertainment & sports. Literature, poetry, music & live theatre all were very important to the original settlers. The Vatnabyggd area developed many excellent sports teams & friendly & not so friendly rivalries quickly developed.
Our Icelandic ties are still strong . You may have noticed the shirt I'm wearing. This is a game worn sweater from the Icelandic national Hockey team. My nephew, Ryan Leier who has spent the last two years playing basketball in Iceland for a club team, brought this back to me last year. You may have also noticed a tiny maple leaf at the bottom of the crest. This is in honour of the Winnipeg Falcons, the Canadian team that won the first ever hockey gold medal at the Summer Games in France in 1920. The Falcons were an all Icelandic team, except for the goalie, that was formed since no one else would play with the goulies. Canada has had excellent success over the years in international hockey, but the Winnipeg Falcons were the first. Typical of Icelanders, it didn't matter that the Falcons were in Winnipeg, we considered them our team & still do. We had a hired man named Jonas when E was a child. His brother Frank played with the Winnipeg Falcons. I imagined his brother was an <!-SCT-->exceptional hockey player since Jonas wasn't good enough to play with the Falcons, and Jonas could actually skate & put his mitts on at the same time. Now, on a sad note, I read the other day that Iceland lost to Israel, in an international ice hockey federation tournament-4-2 . Is Israel not a desert, how did they learn to play hockey? We need to do something about that. I have an idea , but don't have the time to go into it right now. And to our American friends visiting in Canada, we don't recognize shoot-outs as a legitimate way of deciding a hockey game so the official score of the Canada/US women's world hockey championships is still 0-0.
Ties to Iceland are many and varied, for example, in 1913 Paul Bjarnson, a car dealer & realtor in Wynyard, bought a Ford car & shipped it to Iceland & so began the era of the automobile in Iceland.
The Vatnabyggd area could be seen as a microcosm of our Saskatchewan province. Originally it was homesteaded & heavily populated in the rural areas. As time has gone on, rural villages & hamlets have declined & larger trading centers with some industry have developed. Today in the west of the area, Dafoe & Kandahar have all but disappeared but Wynyard continues to thrive & prosper. Saskatchewan's most important export & contribution to the rest of Canada has been our people & the Vatnabyggd area is no different. Some of the ideas & beliefs that were developed in this area contributed to a society that values cooperation & community values throughout Canada. I quote Fredrick Gudmundson, an early resident of Mozart "when I observe the cooperative achievement of my fellow countrymen & compare them with those of other people, I cannot but reach the conclusion that Icelanders are a step ahead of others in community activities."
Icelanders in <!-SCT-->the area were movers & shakers in the early community as farmers, merchants, entrepreneurs, professionals, artists, & poets & continue to do so to this day. H.J. Halldorson wrote in 1948 about the Vatnabyggd residents "from my own experience & careful observation I can bear witness to it that from the time of settlement in this community, especially from the spring of 1905, it may be said that there has been general well-being among people all through and probably is so yet, according to reliable reports."
I believe that in all of us we have an , inherited, innate, subconscious knowledge, passed on by our forefathers. I can imagine that the open prairie & wide open skies of the Vatnabyggd area against the shores of the lakes appealed to our pioneers deep in their souls & made them feel at home.
What did I learn as an Icelandic/Canadian growing up & living in the Vatnabyggd area?
-Christopher Columbus was a "johhny come lately' by a few hundred years..
-other kids had grandparents. I had Ammas & Afis
-skyr is good but hardfish is better. - where is Winnipeg? It's just south of Gimli!
It's hard to explain, but I always knew that being Icelandic was special. Being proud of who you are & where you came from is something I was taught from the day I was born.