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Icelandic journey to Minneota

MINNEOTA – A major part of the Minneota area’s history is rooted in Iceland, and an entire overview of how Icelanders arrived in the local area was presented as part of the 2019 Boxelder Bug Days celebration.

Cathy Josephson shared details of Icelandic immigration with an audience of about 50 people last weekend at the Minneota Manor Healthcare Center. Josephson is the daughter of Frank Josephson, one of the Boxelder Bug Days founders, and a cousin of current Boxelder Bug Days committee member Scott Josephson.

She began her program with an explanation that Icelanders, more than any other European nationality, were still from a largely self-sustaining country when they began to emigrate in the 19th century.

Their limited multi-national trade activity involved exports of sheep and horses. In return Icelanders imported mainly durable goods such as metal tools and copper cooking utensils.

Those leaving for America became a third major component of sea travel. They usually went through Scotland to the British port city of Liverpool.

“Mostly they traveled in steerage rather than first class or second class,” Josephson said. “They were counted as souls rather than passengers. For steerage, the souls total also included horses and sheep.”

When Icelanders arrived at Liverpool, all they normally did was keep on eye on their luggage and take short walks in the dock area. Their belongings had to fit inside a travel trunk, with a weight of no more than 100 pounds and a capacity of 10 cubic feet.

Josephson said families packed mainly essentials, such as dried non-perishable food, a few clothing items, and possibly some small household goods such as silver. They were advised to leave all tools behind, but did often find room for one or two favorite books and special family heirlooms.

Travel conditions aboard the ocean-going ships improved during the late 19th century, as leaders in European countries began to insist on standards for humane treatment of passengers. Voyages remained arduous, however, to the point that everyone who undertook them had to be young enough and strong enough.

Rail journeys from the East Coast formed the last stage of immigration by Icelanders and others who wanted to take part in Midwestern agriculture.

Josephson described how families from Iceland preferred northerly routes, often at least partly going through Canada. The northernmost destination was an area known as New Iceland in present-day Manitoba, just to the south of subarctic tundra.

Rail travel became faster as service up to the Iowa border that was established in the 1850s branched out in spiderweb-like fashion. Transcontinental service began in 1869, and was followed in 1878 by access to Winnipeg via the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota.

Families who chose the Minneota area established St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, along with two country churches located in Westerheim Township to the east and on the east edge of Lincoln County to the south.

Two brothers with Icelandic roots founded the mercantile that became known as The Big Store. For many years it was a center for both commerce and culture in Minneota, with a main floor retail area and an upstairs opera hall.

Josephson told her audience that it’s not possible to know exactly what went through the minds of Icelandic family members as they spent their first few days in the Minneota area.

“Probably they were too tired to notice (details of the landscape),” she said. “They’d just completed the journey of a lifetime from the only home they’d ever known, and there was plenty of work to be done when they arrived.”

She said St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the Big Store building and rural church cemeteries tell important parts of the local Icelandic experience. Much more can be envisioned by looking back to everyday lives of average families.

“They did any kind of work they could find,” Josephson said. “The men could work as farm laborers even if they couldn’t speak English. The women cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, sold eggs, anything that would bring in a little more income.”

Like most immigrant families, both in the 19th century and in more recent time periods, Icelanders realized more of their economic dreams as years went by.

Younger generations benefitted from the churches, schools, and community organizations that took shape as towns became well established.

“None of them were rich,” Josephson said. “Most of them were very poor. Sometimes life was hard, but here we are in 2019, so they must have done all right.”

She said part of her motivation to research the history of Icelandic immigrants is that many other people from dozens of countries have made the same type of journey. They made substantial sacrifices at first, with the goal of eventually having a bright future for their families.

“It’s not just about us,” Josephson said. “Many other people made the same journey from Liverpool, and many more came to the United States by other routes. For Icelanders, it was a situation where everyone worked together for the same overall goals. The dreams of railroad builders and town founders included average immigrant families who wanted a better life.”

Josephson’s audience included former Minneota residents who returned in 2019 to take part in the yearly Boxelder Bug Days celebration.

The event is named after author Bill Holm, a Minneota born humorist and essayist whose subjects included the lowly red and black Boxelder bugs along with broader worldwide experiences in locations such as Iceland and China.

“I really enjoyed Cathy’s program,” said Nyla Gislason, who traveled from Boston to spend the celebration weekend in Minneota.

“My family and I come back to the local area on a regular basis. We all enjoy having the chance to reconnect.”

Cindy Benedict of Savage said the program had plenty of details that added to her knowledge of her Icelandic ancestors, and of how their experiences shaped her own way of life.

“It was really detailed and interesting,” Benedict said. “I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about why they came to the local area.”

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