The Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society Finds a Home on the Shores of the Strait of Georgia

-By Rob Olason

 In February 2007, Diane Palmason, Coordinator of the Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society (BIHS), described the formation of the group.

“It began in a very Icelandic way,” she said, “as a modest desire to give hospitality to visiting travelers.”

Diane Palmason said the organization was born in 2004 when local Icelandic descendants, Jerry Gay and Jana Peterson, called together all interested Icelandic descendants to form a welcoming group for a contingent of Icelandic visitors touring the North American Icelandic settlement areas. An informal group was gathered and the visitors were warmly greeted.

Sixty years earlier, in 1944, Blaine had another visitor from Iceland, the Bishop of Iceland, Sigurgeir Sigurðsson. The Bishop found a vibrant Icelandic settlement, with its eight Icelandic organizations ranging from the reading club, Jón Trausti, to Youth and Women’s groups from the Lutheran Church and Unitarian Church. A month after the Bishop’s visit, Blaine Icelander’s decided they needed to add a ninth group. They called it Aldan, “the Wave.” This new organization would focus on the Icelandic cultural heritage of its members. 

Aldan was led by Reverend Albert E. Kristjansson, who was one of the founding members of the INL of NA and served as INL president from 1923 to 1925. The rest of Aldan’s leadership included the Rev. Guðmundur Johnson as secretary, Andrew Danielson as treasurer, Sigurður Helgason as corresponding secretary and Gestur Stefansson as archivist.  The first activity of the group was to plan the June 17th Icelandic picnic, a celebration Blaine Icelanders had engaged in every summer since 1928.

By the following October, Aldan was a thriving organization with 70 members, and was discussing the possibilities of creating an Icelandic language school, of building an “old folks home.” The group also voted to become a member club of the INL.

In the next half-decade, members of Aldan rallied the Blaine community behind the idea of creating the old folks home. Fundraising was helped enormously by a generous donation by the Stoneson brothers, Harry and Ellis, who were successful builders in the San Francisco area, with roots in Blaine. The home was built and named “Stafholt” after the Stoneson’s family home in Iceland.

The annual summer picnic at Peace Arch Park became a principal focus of Aldan and the Icelandic communities from Bellingham, Point Roberts and Vancouver, B.C. A 1942 cooperative agreement between the four geographical groups called “Icelanders’ Day Committee Regulations,” described how representatives would be drawn from each group, with a provision that the President and Vice President “shall live on different sides of the border.”  The goals of the group were to promote Icelandic language and arts throughout the year, culminating in the Icelanders’ Day Picnic, on the last Sunday in July.

Those picnics remained an annual summer event at Peace Arch Park through 1999. Even though Aldan disbanded as a functioning group on January 30, 1965, the Icelandic Day Picnic Committee continued to plan and hold the annual picnic on the fourth Sunday in July.  Eddie Johnson and Einar Simonarson represented the Blaine area Icelanders on the committee for more than 30 years. Einar’s son Garry later joined the committee after his father was unable to participate.   In 2000, Garry was the last Blaine representative on the Icelandic Day Picnic committee. The committee voted to try a new location since fewer Blaine residents were attending. The picnic found a new home at Diefenbaker Park in Tsawwaassen, near the Canadian-U.S. border, closer to Pt. Roberts. The site also drew members of the Victoria Icelandic club. The picnic remained a cooperative event until Garry Simonarson’s death in 2002. The Icelandic Canadian Club of B.C. continued the picnic tradition, booking the Diefenbaker Park each year through 2005.

Meanwhile, another generation of Blaine residents of Icelandic descent remembered the picnics at Peace Arch Park with fondness. After the 2004 visit of Icelandic tourists, this new Blaine group began gathering monthly to discuss their shared heritage, give their group a name–the Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society—and to plan a new Icelandic Picnic for July of 2005. As word spread of the upcoming Icelandic Picnic at Peace Arch Park, the ICCBC board decided to cancel their planned picnic at Diefenbaker Park and join in the Peace Arch Park picnic. BIHS also received invaluable guidance and support from ICCBC member Gerri McDonald, who became an early member of the group.

The BIHS, like Aldan, which tackled the major challenge of building a home for senior citizens, soon found itself involved in a large project honoring their local and cultural heritage.  Sculptor Bob McDermott attended a BIHS meeting in 2005 to describe a sculpture he wanted to make and place overlooking the Blaine harbor called “The Vigil.” 

The sculpture would feature a grandmother, mother and young boy looking out to sea. It was intended to honor the pioneer mothers, wives and children who waited anxiously for husbands, fathers and brothers to return from their toils at sea.  This would be an expensive project and would require extensive fundraising. BIHS members eagerly participated in the promotion and fundraising for the project, leading up to the public dedication on October 14, 2006.  One BIHS member, Jan Hrutfiord, also served as the model for the grandmother and mother figures.

BIHS continues exploring its Icelandic roots. In 2008, Norma Thomasson undertook a major project of identifying all unmarked graves of Icelandic settlers in the Blaine Cemetery. She developed an economical grave marker, and then proceeded to make 63 individual markers, one for each of the unmarked graves. Numerous BIHS members joined Norma over the several days it took to hand lay each marker.

Like other small clubs in the INL of NA, the Blaine group gathers to share their common heritage, indulge in a cup of coffee and a goodie or two, and enjoy the conversation around the table.

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