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Following is an excerpt from a biography being written about Miss Sigurbjorg Stefansson, the remarkable teacher who taught school in Gimli from 1923 to 1962.

The writer, Audrhea Lande, has gained access to Miss Stefansson’s personal letters, essays, and documents and has interviewed former students, neighbours, three family members who reside in Canada, and the executor of her estate, Valdi Arnason.

She paints a portrait of an articulate intelligent woman who is fondly remembered for her inspired teaching, as well as for her community philanthropy, political views, and activism. Carefully detailed research has shown Miss Stefansson to be the embodiment the Icelanders’ love of books, philosophy, debate, and community values. This is one of a series of excerpts from the biography that Lögberg-Heimskringla will carry over the next few months.
 
The writer Audrhea Lande has worked for many years as a teacher and school principal in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has retired to pursue her love of research and writing on historical topics and social issues. While she is not an Icelander, she has much admiration for the spirit of endurance, community, and literacy that the Icelandic culture holds dear.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 – A Pioneer Girl’s Journey
Audrhea Lande

It had become clear to Helgi and Thura Stefansson that there was no future for them in Mountain, North Dakota. They had been living there for the past ten years, and still had no house or land of their own.

Owning land could secure a man’s fortunes, but in order to own land there, a person had to have money, and they had none. Even if they did, all the best land in that part of North Dakota had already been bought up, so, as Sigurbjorg wrote in one of her essays, her parents, Helgi and Thura, decided to look elsewhere, to emigrate again: “Canada was then offering homesteads of 160 acres of which men could obtain full possession with a ten dollar payment and living and working on them for three years.

About or before 1904 my father set out by horse and buggy with his uncle Johannes Stefansson, brother of explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, to examine conditions for settlement in Manitoba. They did not find them desirable because of feuding and hostility among settlers in the districts visited, who it was rumored, would even set fire to one another’s land. Instead they selected the wilderness of Assiniboia, soon to become the province of Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government was issuing brochures to attract settlers, explaining among other things that there was no longer danger from Indians! It was decided to settle in the Quill Lakes region.
 
Many homesteads, including, I believe, ours, were selected and booked for the settlers in advance by Thomas Paulson, brother of Wilhelm A. Paulson, MLA.” Sigurbjorg, writing this essay later in her life, looks back to the journey she took as a seven year-old in May 1905, vividly recalling details of the journey: “An entry from a diary says, “On the 22nd of this month (May, 1905) many from this community (Mountain, North Dakota) left for Canada and took with them their livestock, machinery and household goods. They intend to settle near Quill Lake in Assiniboia” …my father left his team of horses to be fetched later and instead tamed a pair of wild oxen. I can still remember their mad dash down the entire slope from Mountain, with the wagon swaying wildly from side to side behind them.
 
But my father standing in the wagon box never lost his grip on the reins and he won control of them at last.” Can you hear in Sigurbjorg’s words the pride of a seven-year-old in her father’s strength and skill? Indeed, the slope down the hillside at Mountain is steep, being the western slope of the Pembina River Valley, which extends southwards from Manitoba.

Others tell of contests at this site to see who could coast the furthest down the slope. The rise in elevation from the village of Mountain to the top of the hillside is more than two hundred feet, so the slope Helgi navigated in their oxen-yoked wagon was indeed substantial.
 
“Many have described the covered wagon caravans. Ours was open, with no protection from rain whatsoever. But the weather kept sunny. Each wagon, in our case a democrat (a two seat ranch wagon) was piled high with household goods, often with people sitting on top of the pile. The jolting was so severe that one man brought us a tin of cooking fat to see. It had all been shaken into round eggsized balls. The road was variable.
 
At one spot we crossed so deep a ravine (likely the valley of the Tongue River, shown in the photo be above) that I still wonder that no wagons tumbled over. The drivers must have been skillful, for all succeeded. I do, however, remember the man in front of us swearing heartily on the brink of the crossing, and then driving slantwise as did we.
 
Some of the men drove the combined herd of cattle, but how other livestock was conveyed I did not see. I remember cows being milked at night. We must have been a sight to see as we passed through towns. In one I saw a public vehicle (probably a bus) for the first time.

In fact, Sigurbjorg was likely mistaken in this regard. In 1905, buses were not yet in operation. Streetcars were running in Winnipeg, but as she says in her essay, they seemed to have passed through Winnipeg at night. The towns in North Dakota would have been small, unlikely to have streetcars at that early time.

So it’s unclear what she would have been referring to. She acknowledges: “My memory of all this is somewhat fragmented, as I was only seven years old at the time.” “The nights were spent wherever one could find shelter.
 
The first one was in a schoolhouse by the road. A kindly Irishman had offered my family lodging, but we chose to remain with the schoolhouse group. The next one must have been a barn, for I recollect waking up in a pile of hay. At Pembina we spent at least part of a day with a kindly Icelandic couple. Our next stage was boarding a colonist train at the border.”

They had covered a distance of forty-eight miles in their wagons, and now boarded a train that had been ordered up for this purpose. The train consisted of two coaches full of people and thirty-six boxcars, loaded with livestock and household goods and tools. Sigurbjorg had only faint memories of this train: “The women and children and aged men sat in upholstered seats that were laid flat at night to form beds. The other men, however, stayed in another part of the train, presumably the baggage section, and looked after the livestock. They would drop in occasionally for a few moments visit. We must have passed through Winnipeg at night. On one occasion we were all herded out of the train for a group picture.

 

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