“This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of North Dakota Horizons magazine.
This excerpted version is reprinted with permission.”
In the northeast corner of the state, a small group of North Dakotans is celebrating its heritage in a big way. Icelanders are not as large in numbers as those of Norwegian or German descent in the state. But what they lack in size, they make up for in pride in their history, heritage and homeland.
North Dakota Icelanders also boast an impressively thorough genealogical record, a strong connection to the homeland of their ancestors, and the largest Icelandic festival in the United States, The Deuce of August, also known as The 2nd of August.
“The Icelandic community is small, but the people are very proud of their Icelandic roots,” says Pam Olafson Furstenau, an active researcher and presenter of the history and heritage of North Dakota Icelandic settlers.
Pam is a fourth-generation North Dakota Icelander. She and her uncle, Curtis Olafson, who is president of the Icelandic Communities Association, and George Freeman, an active researcher of North Dakota Icelandic history, share the importance of preserving the history, heritage and celebration of their ancestors.
The first Icelanders came to North Dakota on the waves of hardship. “Everyone who left Iceland had their own story, but many left because their future in Iceland was grim,” says Pam.
At the time, Iceland had brutal climate conditions. Ice at times blocked fjords, and intermittent volcanoes destroyed farms, which brought many animals and people to their deaths. In addition, there were many financial and societal problems caused by trade monopolization from Denmark and over-population of the habitable areas.
A sharp divide formed between those who believed in staying in Iceland and those who set out in search of a new homeland. “I didn’t know before I started researching Icelandic history just how destitute most of the settlers were when they came to North America and how some friends and family who stayed behind disowned them,” says Pam.
Pam says that in the late 1800s an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people left Iceland, approximately one-fourth of the country’s population. “They felt like they had to go, but it wasn’t accepted by the people who stayed. Some of them never talked again.”
However, the struggles that began in their homeland followed the Icelanders to North America. A large number of immigrants settled in Canada, but eventually decided to set out in search of land for a new settlement.
In 1878 Pastor Páll Thorláksson, known as “The Father of the Icelandic Settlement in Dakota,” set out from the Gimli settlement in Manitoba, Canada, to find a new location for an Icelandic settlement. He travelled with 20 men on a steamboat to Winnipeg and then on to Dakota in search of land in Pembina County.
One of the first explorers of Pembina County was Jóhann Pétur Hallson. He, along with his son, Gunnar, built the first Icelandic home in the new settlement. Today, an Icelandic church housed in Icelandic State Park and a cemetery at the church’s original site nearby are named in his honor.
The new settlement in the northeast corner of the state grew quickly. “The immigration was fast and most of the settlers came to the area until between 1878 and 1883,” says historian Freeman. “At this time almost all of the homestead land was taken and the settlers began to move in 1886 to near Upham, north of Minot, and Roseau County in Minnesota. From 1900 to 1910 many Icelanders left Pembina County for unsettled areas in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.”
Despite the prospect of a new life, the settlers struggled in their new land. “When the Icelanders came to North America, they suffered greatly,” says Furstenau. “They worked and worked to make it. We have no clue how hard it was for them to change from herdsmen and fishermen to farmers.”
North Dakota was very different from Iceland, which made survival difficult in the first years of the settlement. “The immigrants didn’t know how to farm, and this was an extreme climate compared to Iceland,” says Curtis Olafson. “The winter cold and the summer heat were extremes they were not used to. There also are few insects in Iceland.”
Although the settlers struggled, they remained rooted in their faith and made it a priority to build places of worship. Nine Icelandic churches were built in northeast North Dakota. “Until a church was built religious services were held in private homes, and most homes had the custom of reading sermons, Bible verses, praying and singing hymns every day,” says Pam.
Pastor Thorláksson died before the Icelandic churches were built, but his vision remained with the settlers. “He envisioned the legacy of the Icelandic prosperity in America and the potential the Dakota Settlement could bring. This helped to ensure the success of the Dakota Icelandic pioneers.”
Monday, June 13, about 11 a.m., became a terrifying time for the community of Vogar, Manitoba.
My family has lived in this district for over 100 years, along the lake the entire time. As there was a south wind that day, I called my sister-in-law to see how things were going.
She answered the phone in a very alarmed state. "We're breaching all over the place here!"
My parents, aged 71 and 75, live on the same home quarter, normally 1/4 mile from the lake. I immediately phoned them. I was the one to tell them that the much feared breach had already occurred in the first storm that featured south winds, the ones most dangerous for them. My brother and sister-in-law told them to leave. My parents drove away from more than 50 years of their hard work, away from their beloved son and daughter-in-law, over a road that was also breaching. The wind got stronger, and I headed into this, thinking I could help my brother. The water was going over Steinthorson road, not deep, but with strong winds, it was spraying so heavily over my windshield I couldn't see where I was going. I had two 14 year old boys with me; I didn't think to prepare them for the possibility that we might drive off of this road. I had totally misjudged the situation. I don't have a picture of this road; I was much too terrified at that point to stop to take the picture.
My son and I arrived at my brother's driveway; it was totally inundated with water. We climbed up onto the dyke to walk to the house There must be something, we thought, that we could do to help them. I was madly texting our other sisters, en route from Winnipeg and Gimli. “Don't come here" I said. We had been thinking that we would be sandbagging. I had to catch them before they tried to get through. When we got close enough that Greg, my brother, could yell to us over the wind, he shouted to us to turn back. We made our way back to my Mom and Dad's house; I wasn't going anywhere until the wind died down. My husband was about 20 minutes behind me with the truck and quad. By then, the authorities weren't going to let him in. They made an exception. He came up to the house, and he yelled at us to get on the quad. We were under mandatory evacuation. By the time we got to the crossroads of the two homes, the crew that had been at my brother's had gotten out on tractor. EMO people were shouting at us to leave. We took Teresa and the pets and drove away. Leaving Greg behind to fend for his home; we headed for town to pick up the younger four of their five children to tell them that they had been evacuated.
The story has no end. We are expecting more water in this lake. What will happen then? What about a crest? What about during the heavy water of the fall? This episode was just the beginning.
Dr. Oskar T. Sigvaldason is a Corporate Director. He serves on the Boards of the Energy Council of Canada and the Electrical Safety Authority (Crown Corporation in Ontario).
He has also served on the Boards of Hatch Group (Consulting Engineers), Fortis Ontario (Distribution Utility in Ontario), Countryside Power (Income Trust that traded on Toronto Stock Exchange), Toronto Board of Trade, and Canadian Electricity Association. He continues as an Executive Advisor for the Hatch Group of Companies, a global consulting engineering corporation with 10,000 employees in energy, metals & mining, and urban infrastructure.
Dr. Sigvaldason worked with Acres International (Consulting Engineers) for 39 years and was President and CEO of the Acres Group from 1994 to 2003. He retired from Acres in 2004, but is privileged to have active association with its successor company (Hatch Group). During his career at Acres, he had opportunities of working on some of the largest hydro-electric developments in the world, including Three Gorges Project in China, Karnali Project in Nepal (not yet constructed) and the Churchill Falls Project in Canada. He also directed several national strategic and investment planning studies for the energy sector in developing countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Indonesia. Such studies were normally funded by international institutions, including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Dr. Sigvaldason continues to be active in the energy sector. He has served on the Board of the Energy Council of Canada for the past eighteen years and was its Chair in 2003 and 2004. He has also been active with the World Energy Council, headquartered in London England. He was appointed as a Member of its Studies Committee for the 2007 to 2010 period, and was reappointed for the 2010 to 2013 period (to next World Energy Congress in 2013 in Daegu, Korea). This Committee oversees global studies on energy supply, energy security, energy trade, climate change and global warming, and energy strategies and policies. For the 2004 to 2007 period, he represented North America on a World Energy Council (WEC) Steering Committee for a “Global Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050” Study, which was presented at the World Energy Congress in Rome in 2007. He was a Member of the Organizing Committee for the World Energy Congress, held in Montreal, in September, 2010. He was an active participant and organizer for a series of Energy Forums across Canada leading to the Report “Building on Strengths: Canada’s Energy Policy Framework”, which was formally presented to the Canadian Council of Energy Ministers, at the Congress in Montreal.
During his career, he has had opportunities to maintain business relations in Iceland. Through Acres International, he was involved with a special study of a planned hydro development at Budardals. He was an official member of the Canadian delegation for the World Energy Council Executive Assembly meeting, hosted by Iceland in 2009. Also, in 2009, at the invitation of Orkustofnun (National Energy Authority), he gave a presentation in Reykjavík titled “Energy Policy: Transforming Energy Systems”.
He has been active with other organizations. While serving as a Director with the Toronto Board of Trade, he also served as Vice Chair of the Board and as Chair of its Policy Committee. He is Past Trustee of Brock University. He is Past Chair of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ontario. He served as Director and Chair, Infrastructure Committee, for the Jobs and Investment Board, specially constituted by the Government of Ontario. He served on Council for Professional Engineers Ontario, for administering the Professional Engineers Act.
He is a Civil Engineer, having graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1959 and subsequently completing a Ph.D. from the University of London, England in 1965. He spent one year on staff as a Corporation Appointee at Harvard University pursuing a program of special studies in management science, economics and water resources.
He is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, Canadian Society of Civil Engineering, and the International Water Resources Association. He is an Honorary Life Member of the Energy Council of Canada.
With 19 member clubs spread across North America, the Icelandic National League of North America (INL of NA) has struggled to provide opportunities for clubs to get together, build new friendships, and share their history. In early 2010, Gail Einarson-McCleery started floating the idea of club-to-club travel and The Settlement Tours project was born.
The 200th Anniversary of Jón Sigurðsson’s birth was the perfect opportunity to draw Western Icelanders to Winnipeg for the June 17th celebration. The focus was to bring primarily the Minnesota and North Dakota clubs to Manitoba for the weekend: Winnipeg on June 17th and Gimli on June 18th. Invitations went out to all the clubs in ND and MN; two women from the Icelandic Hekla Club and five Icelanders travelled to Winnipeg on June 16th. The Icelanders had invitations to travel with the Icelandic choir for the weekend, so Elin Hansen and I were on our own.
Friday, June 17 was a beautiful day, perfect for the events. Ron Johnson, president of the Icelandic Frón club in Winnipeg, made sure we were included in all the celebration’s events. We were invited to the Lieutenant. Governor’s Reception honouring Jón Sigurðsson’s birth and joined 80 people for remarks, a wonderful luncheon, and a few selected songs by Iceland’s Bustaðakirkjukór. I brought greetings from the INL of NA as well as from the Minnesota and North Dakota Icelandic clubs. The Lieutenant Governor’s home is lovely and we were welcomed to walk through the first floor. In the early evening, Elin and I walked over to Legislative Grounds for the wreath-laying ceremony. The choir sang on the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building to start the event. Then the Fjallkona, Vi Bjarnason Hilton, other dignitaries, and the choir led us in a procession to the Jón Sigurðsson statue. Presentations, speeches, and the wreath-laying took place there.
There was a large crowd and many of us stood for the entire ceremony. The sky had clouded over, but the rain held off. The next event was the Gala Concert at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. P.J. Buchan sang a short selection of Icelandic songs. The two-person play recapping Jón Sigurðsson’s life was very interesting. The actor playing the older Jón Sigurðsson, Arnar Jónsson, received the Best Actor honour in Iceland for his portrayal of King Lear on Thursday, June 16.
The program ended with Bustaðakirkjukór giving an incredible performance. There were 15 members of the choir, with at least five of them being top-tier talent in Iceland. Travelling with the choir was a young accordion player I first saw in Hofsós in 2009. He was impressive then and has gotten even more so in the last two years.
Presentations were also made to Consul General Atli Ásmundsson and Þrúður Helgadóttir and to the Honorable Peter Bjornson. Mr. Bjornson sponsored the legislation naming June 17th as Jon Sigurdsson Day in Manitoba. The entire day was very memorable. Saturday’s activities were all centered in Gimli, a place Elin had not yet visited but was eager to see. Our tour began with lunch at Amma’s Kitchen where several members of the Gimli Icelandic Canadian Society met us. A couple of them had participated in the Kvennalaup earlier in the morning and were wearing their race T-shirts and medals.
There were also several Icelanders visiting Gimli, so they joined us as well. It was a wonderful meal. Elin topped it off with dessert: vínarterta, with icing (we don’t ice our vínarterta in Minnesota). The Icelandic Heritage Museum was closed for the day in preparation for the opening of a new photography exhibit, but we were allowed in anyway. We saw a very interesting short film on New Iceland and then toured the museum. We gained a real appreciation of what the Icelandic immigrants went through as they started new lives in a new land.
Our guides showed us the mural on the museum wall and pointed out the faces of the townspeople that had been incorporated. It is a must-see for anyone travelling through Gimli. Claude and Dick Thorsteinson and Bryan Bjerring gave us a walking tour of the town, which was appreciated after the big lunch. Of course, when we stopped at the Reykjavik Bakery, we did indulge in a kleinur or two – very tasty.
Then it was back to the Waterfront Centre for a reception for Bustaðakirkjukór and, later, the opening of the beautiful new photographic exhibit by Jóhann Páll Valdimarsson. We also got a little shopping in at Tergesen’s. When visiting with the Icelandic members of our tour they said they were very impressed with the celebrations and the warm welcome they received everywhere they went.
It was a trip they said they would not forget. As we were travelling back to Minneapolis on Sunday, Elin and I took a side trip to Mountain, ND. Elin’s great-grandfather was Rev. Hans B. Thorgrímsen who founded Vikur Church in Mountain. We stopped in at the Mountain Chalet and had a cup of coffee with Leslie Geir, Vice President of the Icelandic Communities Association, who then gave us a tour of the new Mountain Community Center. It is a great addition to the town and I am sure it will get a lot of use.
Over the weekend, we saw old friends, made new friends, and learned the history of the Icelanders as they travelled through and settled in the New Iceland area. It is very powerful to be able to see the places and talk with the descendants of the settlers. It was a great weekend and the first Settlement Tours project was a success. Elin is already planning her next trip to Gimli and the New Iceland area.
Icelandic Communities Association of North Dakota hosted a very special evening of entertainment on Wednesday, June 15 at the Mountain Community Center.
The evening began with the Jón Sigurðsson Play written and directed by Sveinn Einarsson.
Award winning actor, Arnar Jónsson of the Icelandic National Theater played the elder statesman, Jón Sigurðsson who was the first Icelandic patriot to petition for Iceland’s independence from Denmark in the mid 1800s. Hilmar Guðjónsson of the Reykjavík City Theater played the part of the 22-year-old Jón Sigurðsson as a student in Denmark where his interest in politics and work for Icelandic independence began. Their conversations back and forth told the story of the work of Jón Sigurðsson through the years. When Iceland finally gained independence in 1944, Jón Sigurðsson’s birthday, June 17 was chosen as the day to celebrate.
Following the play, a remarkable concert by the Bústaðakirkju Kor (choir) from Reykjavík with Conductor Jonas Þórir thrilled the crowd with their beautiful voices and special soloists.
Members of the group toured the area earlier Wednesday stopping at the Icelandic State Park, the Stephan G. Stephanson home site, Gardar Pioneer Church, Thingvalla Lutheran Church Memorial site, Borg Memorial Home and Vikur Lutheran Church. They left Mountain after the concert and were scheduled to perform the play and concert in Winnipeg on June 17, in honor of the 200th birthday of Jón Sigurðsson.
Manitoba celebrates first official Jon Sigurdsson Day
During Winnipeg’s annual celebration of Iceland’s Independence Day, Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, and Peter Bjornson, MLA for Gimli, presented a framed copy of the Proclamation of Jon Sigurdsson Day to Ingrid Slobodian, President of the Jon Sigurdsson Chapter IODE. The proclamation was enacted during the June 17, 2010 celebrations.
The First Jon Sigurdsson Day began with the Bústaðakirkju Kór under the direction of Jónas Þórir performing on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature.
To the strains of Oxar við Ana played by Jón Reynisson and sung by the Bústaðakirkju Kór, Fjallkona Vi Bjarnason Hilton, escorted by Tim Arnason and flagbearers, Kiera Hilton and Rachelle Bourget, led the procession from the Legislature steps to the Jón Sigurdsson statue on the north east corner of the Legislature grounds.
Following the national anthems of Canada and Iceland led by the Bstaðakirkju Kór, Ingrid Slobodian introduced the dignitaries: the Honourable Philip S. Lee C.M O.M the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, the Honourable Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, Atli Ásmundsson, Consul General of Iceland, Grant Nordman, Councillor of the City of Winnipeg and Peter Bjornson, MLA for Gimli.
Peter Bjornson read the Proclamation before presenting the framed copy to Ingrid Slobodian.
Ambassador Svavar Gestsson served as Consul General for Iceland in Manitoba from 1999 to 2001, opening up Iceland’s first diplomatic office in Canada. During his tenure here, he spearheaded the Millennium Events Program in Canada consisting of several hundred events all over the country.
In his address, he reflected on his time spent in Canada and, to the appreciation of the audience, he mentioned his friendship with Neil Bardal, who always played an integral part in June 17 festivities by simply saying, “Neil, I miss you.”
Fjallkona Vi Bjarnason Hilton, assisted by Tim Arnason, laid a wreath at the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, and then gave the final address of the evening. The audience of approximately 400 was invited to proceed to the Winnipeg Art Gallery Concert Hall to attend the Gala concert.
Gala Concert marks Jon Sigurdsson Day
Ron Johnson, president of the Icelandic Canadian Frón, welcomed a full house at the Winnipeg Art Gallery for the Gala Concert celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson. This was the first official celebration of Jon Sigurdsson Day, which will now be held annually in Manitoba on June 17.
Peter John [PJ] Buchan delighted the audience with his interpretation of a few of his favorite pieces. Accompanied by Michael McKay, PJ sang Þú eina hjartans yndið mitt, Söknuður and Sjá dagar koma, setting the ambiance for the evening.
Sveinn Einarsson, director of Jon Sigurdsson Play, reminisced about his previous tour of the New Iceland communites in 1975. He did not hesitate when he was asked to write a play honouring Jón Sigurðsson that would be presented for the newly proclaimed Jon Sigurdsson Day, he said. The play featured Arnar Jónsson portraying Jón in his maturity and Hilmar Guðjónsson as Jón in his early adulthood. The play develops an interaction between Jón the elder and Jón the younger as they explore this unexpected situation. At times Jón the younger appears to have the advantage, due to his knowledge of history, but Jón the elder has the clarity of wisdom due to experience.
Ron Johnson and Ingrid Slobodian, President of the Jon Sigurdsson Chapter IODE presented Peter Bjornson, MLA fo Gimli, with a glass plaque recognizing his efforts toward the proclamation of June 17 as the official Jon Sigurdsson Day in Manitoba. Peter demonstrated his preferred posture whenever he rose in the Legislative Assembly by standing erect with hands clasping his lapels in the manner of the statue of Jon Sigurdsson on the Legislative grounds.
Conductor and accompanist, Jónas Þorir introduced the Bústaðakirkju Kór from Hafnarfjörður, Ísland who presented a multilingual program in Icelandic, English, Italian and Spanish. They opened with Þó þú langförull legðir written by Stefán G. Stefánsson/Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, and featuring tenor Jóhann Valdimarsson and the choir. Baritone Sæberg Sigurðsson and the choir presented an unusual and stirring arrangement of Á sprengisandi to the accordian accompaniment of Jón Reynisson. Among some of the favorites were a soft, loving rendition of Sofðu unga ástin mín, the familiar Draumalandið by mezzosoprano Anna Helgadóttir, the haunting Nú andar suðrið, the beautiful Ave Maria by soprano Gréta Hergils. Jón Reynisson soloed with Harmonikkuleikur on his chromatic button accordion.
Minnesota celebrates Independence Day
The Icelandic Hekla Club and The Icelandic American Association of Minnesota come together to celebrate Icelandic Independence Day at Bryant Lake Park. Icelandic Barbecue Chefs provide the main dish, while atendees all bring their favourite foods, including some Icelandic treats, The gathering is for all ages. Lunch is followed with time to catch up with friends, learn about Iceland, boat, swim, play volleyball and other activities.
Toronto celebrates twice
Toronto’s ICCT celebrated June 17 at Dufferin Grove Park. The Icelandic band Miri was there, local musician Lindy sang, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, and Icelandic parliamentarian made a surprise appearance after speaking at the New Ideas Conference.
Two days later, Rick Lindal hosted a picnic at his home near Grafton, ON.
Svavar Guðjónsson, counter tenor and Krístin M. Jakobsdóttir, bassoonist, musicians from Iceland provided a one-hour program on the history of Icelandic music, accompanied by local musicians.