Today’s offering is a report of a visit to Iceland made Saturday. The time indicates that the Iceland in question is not the island in the North Atlantic, but rather its extension, a kind of Iceland in America. Mountain, N.D., is the undisputed capital of this “New Iceland,” and that is where our travels took us.
The plural pronoun indicates this was a group undertaking. In fact, it was a field trip, part of a project at UND to create a digital atlas of North Dakota. I’ve been involved with this effort since I retired from the Herald nearly six years ago. This is the 12th iteration of a recurring class in which students choose topics and prepare projects to be included in the atlas.
Phil Jackson, philosopher and basketball coach, provides funds for these excursions, which allows us to create learning opportunities outside UND’s classrooms. Jackson, a contemporary of mine in our UND student days, is modest about his involvement. A couple of years ago, when he was awarded the Sioux Award, UND’s highest honor, Jackson visited the class.
His visit was a highlight, of course, but on a scale rather different than the highlights that we encountered in New Iceland. These included trudging through snow to visit pioneer buildings at Icelandic State park, stopping by the Svold Town Hall and hearing tales of an all but vanished but still very lively community, a hearty lunch at Walhalla’s Highway 32 Diner, a talk about things Icelandic at Vikur Church on Mountain’s Main Street, the oldest Icelandic Lutheran Church in the United States (and arguably in North America, though Canadians of Icelandic descent have their own candidates), and a reception involving strong coffee and Icelandic treats. My favorite of these was a prune cake, called vinaaterta, composed of wafer-thin layers and made more scrumptious because the filling leaked out and I got to lick it off my fingers.
Our host was Curtis Olafson, president of the Icelandic Communities Association, which amounts to organizer and ambassador for all things Icelandic in our part of the world.
To tell the truth, there aren’t all that many Icelanders in North Dakota, but Icelanders have had an outsized influence on the state. Perhaps the best known is Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Arctic explorer and early proponent of the “paleo diet,” which relies almost exclusively on meat – the kind of diet that sustained Stefansson on his many northern expeditions. Stefansson attended UND; he was expelled for missing too many classes, though both legend and documentary sources suggest the real cause was his spirited antics on campus.
Stefansson’s chum, Gudmundur Grimson – Mundi, Stefansson called him – is my current person of interest among Icelanders. Grimson also attended UND, earning a law degree. He practiced law and published a newspaper in Munich, N.D. In 1921, he acted on behalf of a local boy named Martin Tabert who was arrested for vagrancy in Florida. The fine was $25, which the young man’s parents back home willingly paid. They also sent $25 for their son’s fare back to North Dakota. Alas for young Tabert, he was caught up in Florida’s convict labor system. The sheriff leased him to a lumber company for $20; the supervisor whipped him, and Tabert died. An investigation sparked by Grimson earned the “New York World” the Pulitzer Prize for public service. Florida ended its convict labor system – though it persisted in some other states.
The Icelanders have an affinity for the law, P.V. Thorson wrote in “Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History.” Three native Icelanders have been elected to the state’s Supreme Court, a remarkable number given that there have been only 52 justices in the state’s 130-year history. Olafson’s daughter, a fourth-generation Icelandic American, is an assistant state’s attorney in Cass County.
The Icelandic immigrant community also produced poets, a reflection of the Icelanders’ love of literature. They are the people who produced the Sagas, of course, and authorship is a prerequisite for recognition in modern Iceland, Olafson told us.
All of this came together at Eyford, better known today as Thingvalla, which Olafson advertised as “the windiest spot in Pembina County.” Poet H.C. Julius is buried there, and Icelanders have erected a monument honoring the bachelor farmer’s contribution to their literature. The church itself burned in 2003. Today’s generation of Icelanders memorialized their forefathers and the church with a statue of Christ overlooking a patch of native plants, acknowledging the only assets their ancestors had, faith and the prairie.
The Icelanders celebrate this in a number of ways. “August the Deuce” has grown into the largest Icelandic heritage event in the United States, and one of the largest ethnic heritage events in the state – Native American pow wows and Minot’s Norwegian “Hostfest” perhaps excepted. “The Deuce” is held on the weekend nearest Aug. 2 every year. Every year it draws visitors from Iceland, often including presidents and prime ministers.
For me, the joy of this field trip was the enthusiastic hospitality with which we were greeted, and the enthusiastic curiosity that the students returned. Some learning happened, I’m sure. For example, we learned that Thingvalla is a windy spot. At this point, however, we lack the data to declare that it is indeed “the windiest spot in Pembina County.”
We’re taking that on faith.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.