by Susan Bearnson Huff
Many Icelanders lived near each other in Spanish Fork and gathered often both formally and informally. For the purpose of preserving their Icelandic heritage and continuing to nurture their relationships with each other, Icelanders formally organized the Icelandic Association of Utah in 1897, just one year after Utah received statehood, where they gathered together annually for Iceland Days. Utah historian Kate B. Carter wrote, "The Iceland people in Utah are said to have preserved the folklore and customs of their mother country more than any other nationality that pioneered in Utah." The mission statement of IAU is as follows:
The purpose of the Icelandic Association of Utah, Inc. is to celebrate and perpetuate the common interest in culture and heritage of Iceland through activities and continuing education, promote closer and better relations with the people of Iceland, and preserve the memory of the early Icelandic pioneers who established the first permanent Icelandic settlement in North America at Spanish Fork, Utah. (Icelandic Association of Utah)
The Iceland Days celebration has been held in various locations in and near Spanish Fork. My aunt, Fay Bearnson, remembered Iceland Day being held at her family's home. My father told me that his earliest recollections of Iceland Days were when the Icelanders gathered at Castilla Springs, some warm springs in Spanish Fork Canyon. People camped for several days visiting with other people of Icelandic descent. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of Iceland Day, when Icelanders gathered for lunch, activities, and friendship renewal. I really loved this day because it was often the only day in summer when my father would take part of a day off work; he typically worked 7 days a week and was especially busy in summer, irrigating crops or harvesting grain or corn. I loved gathering together with my Icelandic “family.” Grandpa Gisle Bearnson made sure we knew we were Icelandic, and that we were proud of our heritage. Attending Iceland Day was a big part of preserving our Icelandic heritage.
In 1938 the Icelandic Association partnered with the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers organization to erect a monument in Spanish Fork to honor and remember those early Icelandic immigrants to Spanish Fork. The Iceland Monument was dedicated on 2 August 1938 as part of the Iceland Days celebration. The Icelanders chose a lighthouse for the monument--a symbol of the seafaring background of the Icelanders and a beacon of light.
This lighthouse, which is 800 miles from the nearest ocean, is a reminder that Spanish Fork is an Icelandic settlement, even though there were groups from other countries who also settled there.
My grandfather, Gisle Bearnson, donated the corner of the property where his family lived for the monument. My father, Sherman, recalled that when he was 16 years old, he went to Salt Lake City with his dad to pick up the lighthouse monument; Sherman rode in the back of the truck with the monument all the way back to Spanish Fork. My childhood home was on the opposite corner of the block from the monument, and then my husband and I later built a house between en very special to me because I saw it every day for most of my life. I saw visitors come and go. Sometimes strangers would knock on our door to ask questions about the monument. For descendants of those early immigrants, the monument became the symbol of our common Icelandic heritage and a reminder that we are indeed Western Icelanders.
In 1955 the Icelandic Association held a three-day centennial celebration, marking 100 years since the first Icelanders immigrated to Spanish Fork. Distinguished guests from Iceland, Manitoba, and Washington, D.C. attended. Professional musicians who were Icelandic descendants with Spanish Fork roots came back home to perform. The celebration concluded on June 17 with a parade in downtown Spanish Fork with 27 family floats depicting various historically significant events in the immigrant story. An Icelandic Centennial Queen and her attendants were selected to be on the first float to lead the parade.
When my husband and I moved back home to Spanish Fork in 1979, I started volunteering with the Icelandic Association of Utah, serving on the Board. Then in 1985 I became the first woman president of the Icelandic Association of Utah. That's right--in 88 years, there had never been a woman president of this association. Of course there have been several women presidents since I served, but it was indeed an honor to serve and break the gender barrier.
Another milestone for the Icelandic Association was the centennial celebration in 1997, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Icelandic Association of Utah. On June 14 the Icelandic Monument was rededicated after some landscaping improvements and the addition of two flag poles. Interestingly, 26 people present at the rededication were also at the first dedication in 1938. This Iceland Days celebration welcomed Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his wife, Guðrún Katrín Þorbergsdóttir. Spanish Fork City honored President Grímsson and his wife by selecting them as grand marshals of the Fiesta Days parade on July 24, the annual celebration commemorating pioneers first entering Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847.
The first Þorrablót was held in Spanish Fork in 1998, and is typically held the last Saturday in February. Icelanders gather to eat Iceland food and strengthen relationships.
Over 100 friends, Icelandic descendants, and government officials gathered to dedicate the monument at Vestmannaeyjar on 30 June 2000. The Icelandic Association of Utah and friends raised enough funds and in-kind donations to erect a monument that faces the Mormon Pool in Westman Islands where many Icelanders were baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The monument base includes a five-foot center pedestal with the inscription "In Honor of those Icelanders who heard the call to build Zion and moved to Utah."
The two side panels have the names of each of the 410 Icelanders who moved to Utah. The sculpture on top is an eight-foot tall angel with her hands in cupping shape reaching out in a giving manner and helping everyone on their journey. The angel is also reaching out to the tide pools and the ocean. "The Messenger" was sculpted by Gary Price of Springville, Utah.
Another significant event in 2000 was the opening of the exhibit "The Road to Zion" in Iceland at the Hofsós Emigration Center. On 3 July 2000, Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson opened the exhibit that showed how Icelanders joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immigrated to Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. The exhibit detailed the arduous journey over sea and land and chronicled the immigrant's lives and those of their descendants. The exhibit was later moved to the Culture House in Reykjavík, opening on 5 May 2005.
The exhibit was moved again to its current home at Sagnheimar, the Folk Museum in Vestmannaeyjar; the exhibit was dedicated on 16 July 2011. This permanent exhibit consists of photographs, documents, artifacts, maps, and music. The centerpiece is a wall depicting the names and photographic images of all known Icelanders who converted to Mormonism and gathered to Utah before 1914, half of whom came from Vestmannaeyjar. Because of its growth in documents, the exhibit was rededicated on 29 June 2013.
Iceland Days sesquicentennial celebration was held June 23-26, 2005--marking 150 years since the first Icelanders arrived in Spanish Fork. In addition to new landscaping, a new wall, and new sidewalks, the Iceland Monument was renovated with new major additions:
1. A large volcanic rock was added from the shores of Vestmannaeyjar.
2. Eight bronze plaques were added describing the history of the Icelanders of Utah.
3. A granite monument was added with the names of 410 immigrants who came to Utah before 1914 (a replica of the granite monument placed at Vestmannaeyjar in 2000, minus the angel statue).
The monument was renamed the Icelandic Memorial. It was dedicated by Gordon B. Hinckley, then President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on June 25, 2005. Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was back in Utah again and spoke at the dedication.
"Icelanders and Their Connection to Utah and the West" conference was held at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah September 9-13, 2015. Scholars, students, families, dignitaries and political leaders from Utah and Iceland, including Vestmannaeyjar Mayor Ellidi Vignisson, were in attendance.
Activities included the presentation of subject papers, visits to sites in Salt Lake City, as well as visits to selected historical sites in Spanish Fork, where Spanish Fork Mayor Steve Leifson (a Western Icelander) gave an address. Icelandic Roots President, Sunna Furstenau, was a presenter at the conference.
Iceland Honorary Consul
A significant part of the history of the Icelanders in Spanish Fork is the appointment of three Western Icelanders with Spanish Fork roots as Iceland's Honorary Consuls. In April 1987 Thor Leifson was appointed Honorary Consul for Utah by the Embassy of Iceland in Washington, D.C. He served until June of 1995 when Clark Thorstenson was appointed to replace him as Honorary Consul for Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. In January 1997 Clark was appointed as associate director at Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, so J. Brent Haymond took the position of Honorary Vice Consul in Clark's absence. In March 2001 Clark gracefully resigned as Honorary Consul and Brent was appointed in his place by Ambassador Jon Baldvin Hanabalsson. (David A. Ashby, 2011)
Icelandic Association of Utah Looking Forward
The picture below of 100% Icelanders was taken in 1990 at Iceland Day. Sadly, all of these amazing Western Icelanders that I knew and loved growing up in Spanish Fork have now all passed on. The challenge for the Icelandic Association of Utah in recent years has been attracting new members and getting the younger generation involved in the association in meaningful ways. This is an ongoing issue as the generation of 100% Icelandic people have all died. Keeping Icelandic culture alive in the 5th and 6th generations is a challenge. The association is always looking for new ideas to get young people involved. The beautiful Icelandic Memorial will continue to stand as a reminder to Western Icelanders of their Icelandic heritage.