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Growing Up In Gimli


 A talk at Icelandic Roots’ Samtal Hour on March 11, 2024

 By W.D. Valgardson

 Victoria, BC


I was told that many people in this group did not grow up in an Icelandic American or Canadian community, that many people grew up among people of other national or ethnic backgrounds. I find that interesting but understandable.


In North America, we have a population that constantly moves – to get a job, to go to school, to marry. I left Gimli for Winnipeg because my Irish grandparents lived there.

I stayed with them while I worked at a summer job, then when I went to university. After I graduated, I took high school teaching positions, moving from one small town to another, then left for Iowa City to take a graduate degree, then to Nevada, Missouri, for a teaching position at a private women’s college. I applied for and got a teaching position at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, but instead went to Victoria, BC, to teach at the university there.


In Gimli, Manitoba, I was in the heart of the heart of New Iceland. A site that was further north was meant to be the main settlement area; however, bad weather intervened. The captain, fearing that the barges he was towing with the Icelanders aboard, would founder, cut the barges loose and they were hauled to shore on a sandy beach they called Willow Point, land that fronted a large lagoon and swamp.


My people were not in that first group. Thank goodness! This group had been searching for a New Iceland. They wanted conditions similar to those in Iceland: land along a body of water that would allow them to fish with pasture on shore for sheep. In Iceland, there was no significant amount of land that was arable. The Icelandic immigrants had put down on their applications that they were farmers, but, of course, they weren’t farmers. They were herdsmen. They had one crop: grass. Not hay – grass. That supported dairy cows and sheep.


The first group were completely unprepared for what was to become one of the coldest, longest winters ever experienced. They came late in the season. They did not have adequate supplies. They were sold poor quality food in Winnipeg. They had a limited number of stoves, and they could only heat as many buildings as there were stoves.


In Iceland they heated their sod huts with body heat and animal heat. That doesn’t work at forty below.


That winter was a disaster. I think 37 people died. The lucky ones were those who got jobs in Winnipeg and stayed there. Out of this winter came the stories of John and Betsey Ramsay, the native Saulteaux couple who provided the settlers with food and advice. Those were part of the mythology of growing up in Gimli. We all knew the stories of John Ramsay and the tragic tale of his wife’s death.





Conditions were so bad that most people left the Icelandic Reserve. Some, as many of you know, walked, walked, to North Dakota.


Growing up in Gimli meant growing up with the stories of this terrible year, of the bodies of the dead lain out on the roofs of the shelters they had built. There was no digging graves in frozen ground under feet of snow. That image haunted my childhood.

How close in time were we to those images? I was born in 1939. From 1875 to 1939: 64 years. That’s not a lot of time.


My great-great-grandparents and their three-year-old daughter came the next year, in what we call the big group. My great great-grandmother had a son. He died in the smallpox epidemic. That three-year-old daughter became my great-grandmother, Friðrika Gottskálksdóttir. She didn’t die until I was eighteen years old. That’s what it was like to grow up in Gimli. My mother and I used to walk across the big field from Third Avenue to First Avenue to have tea with Rikka, except when I lay on her kitchen floor eating pönnukökur, I knew her as Grandma Bristow.


When she was a teenager, she had gone to Fort Garry and worked in the kitchen. She married a soldier. They lived at the fort for a time but Rikka was lonely, so they moved to Gimli. William Bristow became the first non-Icelander to fish at Gimli. The local fishermen were not happy about that. Gimli was very much a closed shop. It was an Icelandic closed shop. William’s brother-in-law taught him how to fish. That brother-in-law changed his name from Gottskálksson to Olson. That was another fact of growing up in Gimli. Icelanders were ambitious and they were adaptable. They went where there was opportunity. Gottskálksson wasn’t going to get you a job in Winnipeg.


Gimli had provided some of the Icelandic settlers with what they wanted: isolation. Immigration for them was: ‘we will move but we’ll have our own community, no one else allowed in, it will just be like Iceland except we won’t be indentured servants, we’ll own land, we’ll be free, we can marry.’ (In Iceland, a man needed the equivalent of four hundreds to marry, that is he had to show that he could support a wife and the children that were going to appear.) However, the Icelandic Reserve – New Iceland – was already populated with Natives, with loggers and traders. And Lake Winnipeg wasn’t the North Sea. For one thing, it froze over with ice four or more feet deep every winter.

 

That’s why when the railway company stopped building their track at Winnipeg Beach because of all the creeks and swamps between Winnipeg Beach and Gimli, local business people lobbied long and hard to get the railway to be built to Gimli. Isolation meant poverty.


That meant that people who were part of the cordwood economy didn’t have to haul their cordwood all the way to Winnipeg Beach. It meant that day trippers and then cottagers could come by train. It meant goods could be shipped to the city and goods shipped back.


My Irish grandparents and their daughter were part of that group that first came as day trippers, then bought property and built a cottage. They were Irish, but a lot of the cottages that were built were built by Icelanders who had moved away for jobs but returned for summer holidays.


Fjallkona Gudrun Blondal Gimli, 1928 -Icelandic Roots Database Photo Collection

The Icelandic Celebration was first held in Winnipeg. Then, the decision was made to transfer the celebration to Gimli in 1932. Our house overflowed with celebration visitors. They slept on the couch, on the floor, in a tent in the yard. Remember what I said earlier – many of the early settlers were still alive. There were still people living in log cabins.


My relatives filleted the pickerel and saugers, sold the big whitefish and sunfish for stuffing and baking, plus they smoked goldeye. They would be on the lake at dawn, back home in a couple of hours, then sit in a caboose with a cooler selling their processed fish. I rode around town on my bike selling pickerel fillets for fifty cents a pound for an uncle. But with the season over, the tourists gone, the fishermen had to wait for the fall season, and after the fall season, they had to wait until the lake froze over to winter fish.


Many fishermen did not have enough money to outfit themselves. They had to get their supplies on credit from a fish company. My father, instead of spending the time between seasons at the beer parlour, barbered. At first, he charged fifteen cents a haircut, then twenty-five cents. That, too, was the reality of growing up in Gimli.

Gimli was serviced by mom-and-pop stores. There was Bjarnason’s general store, Tergesen’s (which still exists today, but was divided into being a general dry goods store and a drug store), Tip Top Meat Market (Arnason’s), Kardy’s Hardware (Geirholm’s), Greenberg’s (a long, narrow store divided by a wall lengthwise, the north side with candy counters, a soda fountain, booths, and the other side dry goods, mostly clothes), Sam Toy’s restaurant (excellent Chinese food, the Chinese workers who built the railways were not allowed to take most jobs and settled all across the prairies as café owners), Arnason’s dairy (milk delivery and dairy bar). My great grandfather Ketill (he had come with his father in 1878, but his father died three years later) had a store on First Avenue. But before that he had worked on the railway, fished, worked digging trenches for waterworks in Winnipeg, became a foreman, saved enough money to buy some land in what now would be the middle of Winnipeg, bought some cows and started a dairy. He eventually sold the dairy and moved to Gimli, where he farmed grain and opened a store with a partner. The store eventually burned down. He died in 1945 when I was six. I still have clear recollections of him. When we visited him, he always gave me a hard sugar cube dipped in whisky or a mint candy.


Tergesen’s store in the present day

My great-grandmother, Rikka, started the family descent from being full-blooded Icelanders by marrying an Englishman. They had thirteen children. Growing up, I felt like I was related to at least half the town. One of their daughters, Blanche, married my grandfather, Sveinn Valgardson. She was half English. So my father was three-quarters Icelandic and one-quarter English. To make matters worse, he married my Irish mother. When I was small, I did not know all this; there were just all these Bristow relatives that lived all around us who spoke Icelandic, but later when I was at school and joined an after-school Icelandic class, I realized that most of the other kids already spoke basic Icelandic. Their mothers spoke Icelandic, for many of them both parents spoke Icelandic, but the key was mothers. My mother did not know Icelandic, so my father did not speak it at home.


Unfortunately, for my ethnic identity, the idea of a New Iceland with just Icelanders allowed never took hold with my family. My grandmother, Blanche, died from diphtheria when she was 34. My grandfather, Sveinn, married a pretty Ukrainian girl called Katherine Cook (Koch). They were very generous hosts. Their kitchen was always full of people speaking Icelandic, Ukrainian, Polish, German, Russian. One day, my grandfather said, “Enough! I can’t speak any of these languages except Icelandic. Katherine can’t speak Icelandic. From now on, we all speak English.”


Then my father married my Irish mother. This all started, of course, when the first immigrants went to Hecla. There already was a sawmill and the owner has been described as less than friendly. However, one of the widows married him and he changed his attitude. The genetically pure dream died very quickly. Although, there still are, particularly around Arborg, a lot of “FBIs,” that is full-blooded Icelanders.


I’ve been asked to talk about growing up in Gimli. There were no waterworks until the 1950s. Rain from our roof went into a cistern in the basement. When it ran out in the spring, my mother ordered ice. We didn’t have a fridge. We had an icebox and had to get regular deliveries of ice for that. In winter we stored anything that needed to be frozen in a snowdrift in a clean fish box with a lid. We heated the house with wood. My mother cooked on a wood stove. Washing clothes was arduous. The basement needed to be heated. We had a wood-burning stove in the basement that was made from a tin barrel on its side. My mother had to take water from the cistern and heat it in pails on the top of the barrel, then pour the water into the washing machine. She washed the clothes then drained the water into the sump so that the sump pump would pump it out into the yard. Then she put in clean water for rinsing. We had a wringer washer. All the clothes had to be put through by hand. Then the clothes had to be hauled up from the basement and, winter or summer, hung on the clothesline, then taken in frozen solid.


We got our water from artesian wells that were on every couple of street corners. We hauled it home on a wagon in summer and on a sled in winter. It was excellent drinking water, but was so full of lime and iron that it would curdle soap.


We were still a hunter-gatherer society. Everyone hunted. I got my first rifle at 12. We ate a lot of rabbit, duck, goose, grouse, fish, venison. My mother kept a garden in the backyard. We gathered wild berries. My mother preserved berries and vegetables.  Ethnic groups usually define their ethnicity through food. There are Chinese, Arab, Jewish, French, German, and Norwegian restaurants. At Winnipeg’s annual Folklorama, the advertisements put ethnic food first. At Íslendingadagurinn, you can buy vínarterta and kleinur and pönnukökur and skyr with coffee. How pervasive was Icelandic food when I was growing up? My mother married my father when she was sixteen. She was Irish. Yet, shortly, she was making vínarterta, kleinur, rosettes, and pönnukökur. My father brought home blood sausage he bought from the local farmers. We ate rúllupylsa on brown bread. You could buy skyr at the Tip Top butcher shop or make it yourself.


However, growing up in Gimli wasn’t just Gimli. Highway 9 to Winnipeg was still just a gravel road to Goolie Town in West End Winnipeg. Highway 9 going north was a gravel road that led to Camp Morton, Hnausa, Arnes, Finns, Riverton, and Hecla. Camp Morton was Ukrainian. There was a Ukrainian church, a rectory, a house for the nuns, and a large summer camp on the lake. Hnausa, Arnes, Finns, Riverton, and Hecla were Icelandic.


Nelson Gerrard showed me the ridges among the swamps that people walked from these villages to Gimli so they could visit relatives. Gunnar Johnson had a stable in town. People were still coming to town with a horse and sleigh or wagon.


Gimli Unitarian Church

The church service was in Icelandic until the 1950s. Lögberg and Heimskringla were still separate papers in Icelandic. Books were published in Gimli and, I believe, in Riverton – so many books that, if my research is right, there were more books published in Icelandic in Manitoba than in Iceland one year. There was always poetry recited at the Icelandic Celebration.


What we didn’t have that the Winnipeg Icelanders had was chess. I’ve never understood why not. We also didn’t have a school library – this in a town where books were published, where people bragged about their literacy.


During the winter, we skated on the lake and on the open skating rink with a board fence around it. Hockey was important. People curled. We had weddings and funerals. After the funeral service for my grandfather, Sveinn, was complete, the cortege went from the church and circled his house so he would have one last look at it.

In the summer, we went to the beach. We swam and played in the sand. When we were older and had learned to swim, we went to the dock. We fished with lines from the dock. I set bowling pins. I delivered newspapers. I cut lawns. I collected money for the upkeep of the graveyard and got a ten percent commission.


The most important day of the year was Icelandic Celebration. Actually, there were two Icelandic celebrations. The second one was at Hnausa. The one at Hnausa stopped after a while, not because Gimli was better, but the trip from Winnipeg was shorter. There was the formal ceremony with the speech from Iceland, the speech from Canada, the Fjallkona, the singing. At one time, it was all in Icelandic. There were races for the kids with cash prizes. I won 25 cents. That paid for a hot dog and a drink and an ice cream, I think. It was mostly about visiting. It was reunion time. People came to the park to meet and talk to the old timers. There was the dance with waltzes, polkas, schottisches, and butterflies.


There were a lot of displays put on by various Icelandic organizations. Objects from Iceland. Objects from the various groups. I was the first person to sell books at the park.

How great is it to be part of the Icelandic community? I set up my table and my homemade signs and put out some copies of Bloodflowers. The first person to come and look started stacking up books. I thought she was just a neatness freak. Then she said, “I’ll take six.” It never stopped. I ran out of books. I called my publisher in Ottawa. He said you won’t sell them, and you will want to return them. I’m sold out, I said. He pulled a coat over his pajamas, drove to the airport, and shipped the books overnight.

Being Icelandic, even when you are half Irish and an eighth English, is great – and your books get published in Iceland and you fly there to help with translating the slang. Being Icelandic is great when you are a new author and you get invited to Icelandic clubs across the country to give readings and sell books and Icelandic Canadians who have TV shows invite you onto their show.


Being Icelandic is great when you go to university and get made the head of the student Icelandic club and representative for The Icelandic Canadian magazine and spend your time at board meetings with published authors like Judge Walter J. Lindal, Caroline Gunnarson, and Will Kristjanson.


This is just one of a hundred ways to approach growing up in Gimli. I was born during the phony war. For six years, all I knew was war. All I knew was listening to the radio to the news of the war, to songs about the war, to listen to my relatives and friends talking about the war. I knew about the airbase, about the planes flying overhead night and day as pilots were trained for the protection of England and later for the invasion of Europe.


Those other towns on Highway 9 didn’t get an air base, weren’t flooded with opportunities for real jobs with decent pay and benefits. The Gimli businesses had to expand to meet demand. had to hire more people. Housing demand was so large that people turned garages into apartments. Like in Iceland, all those single young men scooped up single young women and took them to places all around the world. The war and its aftermath changed everything. But that is another talk.


We held onto the Icelandic Celebration, but we've lost the Lutheran church with its Icelandic ministers. In Winnipeg we’ve lost First Lutheran, few students study Icelandic at the University of Manitoba, Lögberg and Heimskringla had to amalgamate in order to survive and the paper now survives on donations and some support from Iceland, and The Icelandic Canadian was renamed Icelandic Connection. It didn’t help; it is gone as we once knew it. The West End of Winnipeg is no longer Goolie Town. The Icelandic chess club that produced champions is gone.


Gimli Hockey Team

All this is normal, even desirable for Canada. The hope has always been that ethnic groups would integrate and become Canadian.


Still, growing up in Gimli was a way of life that was rich in many ways, and I regret the loss.

 

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