Author note: Five years ago, I visited Iceland and it sparked an excitement I thought could not be experienced anywhere else in the world. This was until a summer road trip to the hamlet of Markerville, an Icelandic settlement in Red Deer County. Historic Markerville is home to the Icelandic-Canadian Markerville Lutheran Church, Markerville Creamery, Fensala Hall and the Stephansson House Provincial Historic Site.
The Icelandic-Canadian, Stephan G. Stephansson, led a fascinating life. He was an immigrant, farmer, father and most notably a poet. In Icelandic and Icelandic-Canadian communities, Stephansson’s poems are well known for their evocative images of landscapes and homesteading as well as passionate portrayals of his personal beliefs and philosophies. In search of a better life, he came to Alberta and settled in the Markerville area, along with fifty other Icelanders.
In 1889 he built a home, which has been preserved as a provincial historic site to celebrate the memory of this renowned poet, and to offer insight into his family’s life as they started a new beginning. This post will look at the life and legacy of Stephan G. Stephansson, and will hopefully inspire you to take a closer look at the Icelandic community and its most popular settler who made Alberta his home.
Stephansson was born in 1853 and grew up on a small farm in Skagafjörður, Northern Iceland. As a boy, he witnessed his family’s economic hardship in their homeland, under the threat of volcanic eruptions, which encouraged their decision to leave for a new country. Immigrating to North America in 1873, along with many other relatives and fellow Icelanders, they first arrived in Wisconsin and later moved to North Dakota. In 1889, Stephansson settled in the Markerville district of Alberta, along with his wife, Helga Jonsdottir, their three sons and Stephan’s mother and sister.
When Stephansson and his family first arrived in southern Alberta in May of 1889, they were greeted with cattle herds, cowboys and snow. They did not yet know where in Alberta they would settle, until Stephansson travelled by wagon about 130 kilometres northeast of Calgary, and found a place that reminded him of Iceland. Near the banks of a river, the Stephansson homestead had a view of the Rocky Mountains, rolling hills and grassy meadows for raising sheep. This area, which also became home to other Icelandic settlers, was first named Tindastoll and later became Markerville.
Stephansson appreciated his new homeland, with his growing family and the prospects for farming, he became actively involved in the Markerville community. Recognizing the settlement’s need for their children to be educated, Stephansson donated land and built much of the schoolhouse at Hola. He was elected as the first Chairman of the Hola school board, became the secretary of the Markerville Creamery and was the Justice of the Peace for the district. He even gave speeches and recited poetry at community events, including the annual Icelandic Day.
Although Stephansson grew up impoverished in Iceland, his parents ensured that he had access to a range of literature. His first exposure to reading was a book of sermons, and from then, he developed a love of languages and writing that he carried with him through adulthood. Icelanders are known for their affinity of the written word and back in 1800, books and periodicals were already widely distributed in Iceland. It was no surprise that Stephansson pleaded to be taught how to write at a young age. Although there was no rural school for Icelandic children to attend, the local poet would often teach Stephansson his poetic skills. Some of Stephansson’s first verses, composed before the age of eleven, were inspired by sheep herding. Take this verse from Viðar Hreinsson’s, Wakeful nights: Stephan G. Stephansson, Icelandic-Canadian Poet:
I am still allowed to see,
My pretty Skagafjörður.
The flock basks all around in the high mountains
And the grassy mountain passes.
After moving to Canada, Stephansson continued to write, almost exclusively in Icelandic, of his experiences as an immigrant and homesteader, the nature around him and his community. His poems were printed in Icelandic language newspapers, including the Winnipeg Icelandic newspaper Heimskringla, where he submitted a poem titled “Klettafjöll” (meaning The Rocky Mountains) which earned him the fitting title of “The Poet of the Rocky Mountains.” His most prolific writing is considered to be the six volume collection of poems called Andvökur (Wakeful Nights). An appropriate title for Stephansson who, was known to experience insomnia, would spend his days tending to the farm, and his nights writing poetry.
His poems also reflected more critical views especially regarding religion and war. This was often to the disapproval of his fellow community members, other Icelandic Canadians and the Icelandic Lutheran Church. Stephansson, who was agnostic and a pacifist, denounced war every chance he could, which even led to threats of treason from other Icelandic-Canadians. However, Stephansson remained impassioned and staunch in his views. This is illustrated in his 1915 poem “Battle-Pause (Vopnahle).” Stephansson wrote.
The following two passages are from Selected Translations from Andvökur. Translated by Paul Bjarnason Et al.:
I take it that the church in your own country,
As holy and as powerful as ours,
Has put its influence behind the war.
But when I saw war’s dreadful aftermath
The slain men, the ruins, I was struck
Sometime with clammy fear. I asked myself:
Surely our leaders must be utter fools.
At the time, Stephansson could not convince a Canadian publisher to release, “Battle-Pause,” and turned to Iceland to publish his anti-war, anti-church views.
Stephansson passed away on August 10th, 1927, in the home he built, surrounded by his wife and children. Throughout his lifetime, he wrote over 2,000 pages of poetry and more than 1,700 pages of letters, essays and short stories. His work has provided wonderful insight into his life, perceptions and experiences. Stephansson left a lasting imprint on both Canadian and Icelandic history and poetry.
Stephansson’s legacy as a prolific poet is memorialized through numerous monuments and commemorations dedicated to him. He is known as one of the most preeminent poets, in both Canada and Iceland, and several authors have written tributes to him including, “Canada’s Leading Poet” by Watson Kirkconnell, “The Greatest Poet of the Western World” by F. Stanton Cawley and the biography, “Wakeful Nights” by Icelandic scholar Viðar Hreinsson. There is also the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry established in 1982 by the Writers Guild of Alberta.
The residents of Markerville named ‘Stephansson Park’ in the poet’s honour, and a cairn was erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. There is a monument in Skagafjörður, Iceland, Stephansson’s birthplace and a monument near Mountain, North Dakota, at one of Stephansson’s homesteads when he first came to North America.
One of the most fitting celebrations of Stephansson is the preservation of his family homestead near Markerville, Alberta. The Stephansson House Provincial Historic Site, designated in 1976, has been carefully restored to reflect the original farmhouse that Stephansson built when he settled in the area in 1889. The Victorian neo-Gothic cottage has a log and wood frame, with bold exterior colours of lime green and pink. Inside, there is a number of original artifacts including a spinning wheel, wooden bedstead, writing set, piano and cast-iron stove. The interior features a mix of wood panelling, linoleum and newspaper wall coverings displaying images of the Stephansson family. The home’s decor highlights the many aspects of the Stephansson household such as farming, sewing, cooking, writing and of course, Icelandic traditions.
It may not be Iceland, but a visit to Stephansson House provides a glimpse of the Icelandic way of life in an area that is full of Icelandic-Canadian history, and is a memorable tribute to Stephan G. Stephansson, “the poet of the Rocky Mountains.”
Written by: Erin Hoar
Sources and further reading:
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Stephan G. Stephansson House.” Accessed January 13, 2019.
Hreinsson, Viðar. Wakeful nights: Stephan G. Stephansson, Icelandic-Canadian Poet. Calgary, Canada: Benson Ranch, 2012.
Historic Markerville. Accessed January 20, 2019.
McCracken, Jane W. Stephan G. Stephansson: The Poet of the Rocky Mountains. Edmonton, Canada: Alberta Culture Historical Resources Division, 1982.
Ross, Jane. “Stephán G. Stephansson: “The Greatest Poet of the Western World”.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed January 13, 2019.
Stephansson, Stephan G. Selected Translations from Andvökur. Translated by Paul Bjarnason Et al. Edmonton, Canada: Stephan G. Stephansson Homestead Restoration Committee, 1987.
Stephansson House Provincial Historic Site. Government of Alberta. Accessed January 13, 2019.
“Stephan G. Stephansson: Icelandic-Canadian Poet 1853-1927.” Accessed January 13, 2019.
Viðar Hreinsson, Wakeful nights: Stephan G. Stephansson, Icelandic-Canadian Poet. Calgary, Canada: Benson Ranch, 2012, p. 49.