The Icelanders in Winnipegosis
by Finnbogi Hjalmarson
first published by Olafur S. Thorgeirsson (Winnipeg, 1930)
Translated from Icelandic by Vera Stevenson
Subsequently published in
Reflections from Little Muddy Waters: A History Of Winnipegosis (1990)
by the History Book Committee
Edna Medd, Lois Fredrickson, Vickie Lytwyn, Jeanne Johanneson, Allen Dowam
Where a fish story travels, a whale story flies, is an old saying. It was, no doubt, the fish stories from Winnipegosis around the turn of the century, that most strongly influenced the settlement of the white man here, in the aforementioned period. The Hudson’s Bay Company, with several Indian and Metis, had a store here, which sold various necessities to these men and took, as eurrency, furs from the Redskin whose lifetime occup ati on was trapping these animals. Otherwise the land and lake lay here in wilderness and silence, full of all kinds of blessings, waiting only for the many who would enjoy them. Most roads were just Indian trails, inadequate and seldom travelled. Therefore, journey by land was rare in sumrner and waterways were most often used when the aforesaid company had to ship their goods to and from the market. In winter dogs were hanessed to sleds and the chief necessities transported by this means of conveyance. In 1897 the CNR railway came to the little village of Sifton, twenty miles south. As far as transportation was cooncerned, it was as if a cleft had been pierced through a wall of rock thirty fathorns high and now the door to this lake so rich in fish was opened. When we get to this point in the story the secret of the wealth of this lake is revealed, and the fish stories travel, as the old saying goes. Countrymen ever where pricked up their ears, especially the elders who had grown up on the seashore, at home in the old country. The rumours were as familiar to them as their fingers.
They never mentioned the fertility of the soil. All their stories were spun around the lake and the fish. The first Icelander who wanted to check the truth of this fish story may have been Thordur Jonsson from Foss in Kjos in the Kjosar district. His first winter fishing season was the winter of 1897-8. From this time the number who moved here to fish increased. By the winter of 1899, fourteen Icelanders owned their own fishing equipment on this lake. That first winter the fish was shipped to Sifton, because the railway had come that far, as was mentioned before, but the next sumrner, 1898, it reached here. Those Icelanders who had arrived by then, had their homes in the village, which was just beginning to be built up.
The Icelandic settlement out in the country did not begin, until the spring of 1900. Several Icelanders from North Dakota began to farm there first. They chose to settle in the area called Red Deer Point, a point of land which projects into the lake north of the town. It is 30 miles long and four miles wide at its widest point, and indented with bays and good harbours and landing places. However, one drawback of this choice was that the land was not surveyed, so no one knew where he was located. Men built their huts where they thought the view was beautiful, and the area most accessible for hauling from the lake and fields. “It is beautiful on my mountain now”, said Halli, the poor Icelandic outlaw. The Icelanders thought Red Deer Point was beautiful when they first looked upon it in its sumrner splendor. Elms, pine, poplar, and birch had grown there from time immemorial and arranged themselves in a long parade around large meadows of sedge grass and various other grasses. Water and land seemed to look with smiling eyes at these, her recently arrived foster children, and bid them welcome to her realm. Thus, each settled in his place and lived to the best of his abilities; most being satisfied with their lot. In 1901 several more joined the colony, all Icelanders. Few were the cattle or other livestock owned by these dwellers on the Point in those first years there, and, of course, the scythe was the only tool for making hay. With this equipment, however, men put up more hay than they needed for their animals. The grass on the low lands was so tall that it reached a man’s shoulder. It was blue sedge grass that grew up from the clay beside the lake. Our method of stacking hay was this: Two men, each with a thin forked branch 12 feet long ran them under small heaps of hay and carried the hay between them to the place where it was to be stacked. It was child’s play for two men to carry ten tons of hay per day and stack it.
The year 1902 will surely be long remembered by the Icelanders who then lived on Red Deer Point and those who moved there that year, because of the flooding from the lake. Spring was extremely rainy. In May, after the ice went out it rained, more or less, almost every day. Nor did the month of June make amends, as far as the weather was concerned. The first two weeks it rained daily. The lake rose rapidly, and every flutter of the wind rolled it over all the lowlands next to the lake. That sumrner there were two days, especially, when Red Deer Point was subjected to a real struggle, June 17th and August 2nd, those two days which several years ago had fought a duel in Winnipeg for the honour of being chosen Icelandic Festival Day. I had built my house six feet above the water level of 1900 when I moved there. This is mentioned to show how high the water rose at this time. In June 1902, there was a storm with high north winds and a driving rain. The lake rose rapidly and the weather worsened as the day wore on. Huge breakers rolled over the marsh below the house. At six o’clock in the evening the water began to run into the house. From then until eleven o’clock in the evening the water rose. The chairs and other things floated in large circles back and forth around the house. I had guests staying with me that day, Jon J. Samson, his wife and children. We put the beds up on the chairs and there the women and children cowered. Jon and I were wading up to our knees in water. The weather improved at midnight and the water ebbed away, so that by morning it was even with the threshold of the house.
The events of June 17 taught us we had built too near the lake. Many moved or built their houses on higher ground.
August 2nd, this same sumrner, was no more merciful to our Icelandic settlement on Red Deer Point than its rival, June 17th.
One may guess that this sumrner sailboats sailed over the meadows that were very dry the previous sumrner, and many tied up their boats at the doors of their houses. Intruth, it was this high water from the lake which struck terror into the hearts of the people and dimmed the hopes of their future on Red Deer Point. The weather improved as the summer wore on and everyone put up enough hay for their animals.
In spite of the above-mentioned flood and the loss it caused them, all who lived there had enough provisions for their households, and abundant hay stored for their animals. No one lacked hay, food or firewood on Red Deer Point, and would surely not have answered to inquiries about his health as did the man in bygone days who said he had never lacked anything in his household except for these three: hay, food and firewood.
There were 37 Icelandic families living on the Point in 1903, the most there ever were. After that they began to decrease. The so-called water districts in Saskatchewan were being settled and some of the Point dwellers turned their thoughts to that settlement
A reading club was formed in the settlement when the greatest number of people lived there. But when people began to move out of the settlement, it was disbanded. From 1903-1907 many moved from the Point, mostly to Saskatchewan. Some moved into the town of Winnipegosis and have lived there since. It is not my intention, nor would I be able to mention all the events in the history of Icelanders who lived and still live on Red Deer Point. But I will not hesitate to remark upon this: that in most cases everyone who lived on this point of land has done well, when one considers how little most of them owned when they first moved there. Now they have brought up many handsome sons and daughters, who will get along well everywhere among the people of this land.
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