Icelanders in Lyon County
Among most of the early Icelandic settlers, religious observances and training were a must. I don’t know of any church or parish in Westerheim Township other than that of the Icelanders. Before a church was built, services and classes were held in the homes. Of the total of 55 homesteaders, only eleven were Icelanders. All the rest were Norwegians.
I don’t know who designed the church, but a local carpenter, Ole Vastrand, built it. The architecture was quite simple, but there were some things about it which were quite different from most churches I have known. The steeple was on the northeast corner, as was the main entrance to the church. Someone stated that it was modeled after the First Lutheran Church in Winnipeg. This may be so, only that the First Lutheran Church had two main entrances, one in each corner.
The interior of the Westerheim Church was quite plain with large stained glass windows on the east and west so that it was always bright and inviting. The basement was poured concrete and the inside of it was finished with plaster. There was a wooden floor. On the west side of the basement, the windows were sizable and of stained glass, the same as upstairs. We built bleachers along the west side of the basement which served as additional seating space and also a fire escape. The windows were hinged so that they hooked on the inside and could be swung out. We could walk up the steps of these bleachers and through the windows to the outside. Three windows were approached by these bleachers.
The second Westerheim Church had a furnace right from the beginning, and I don’t think it was ever changed. We burned cobs and then bought kindling and Great Heart soft coal from the lumberyard. When the wind blew in the wrong directions, we got a lot of smoke in the church.
We had a barn on the west side of the church where we kept our horses while we attended services. In the wintertime we often drove the one and a half miles with horses and bobsled. This was an awful lot of fun. One incident I chuckle over when I think of these sled trips happened on Sunday when we were going through deep drifted snow. We were all snug and warm in the blankets when we hit a drift, the sled tripped over and we rolled out into the snow. I can still see my dear Grandmother Hofteig as she picked herself up, placed her hat back on her head, brushed herself off and said she was going home. She was not going to church while feeling so angry about such carelessness.
Although Pastor Guttormsson was not a large man physically, he was a giant in goodness, gentleness and patience. I don’t remember much about Rev. Guttormsson’s travels by horse and buggy, but I remember his Model T Fords. I think the expression ‘he drives like a preacher’ may have developed about that time. We all loved him dearly, and I know he loved his parishioners. I believe he was a man who loved everyone. He would never think of turning anyone away from his churches, and everyone was equally welcome at his home. I think this was very wonderful, because it created such a good atmosphere in worship and community as well. I well remember how, when, in the 1930s, he got up in a board meeting and said he knew how hard times were and he would take a cut in his wages to ease the burden on the congregation. My father was treasurer, and I remember that he said if the Reverend hadn’t taken a cut he wouldn’t have much left.
My granddad told me that as long as I knew the Icelandic language I might well be confirmed in Icelandic and was confirmed with a class of nine boys at St. Paul’s. I was the only one from Westerheim up for confirmation at that time, about 1930. Jon Guttormsson and John Josephson were in my confirmation class. At that time services had been held customarily in English, continuing with only an occasional Icelandic service. The Norwegian churches had all gone to English, and at one time an English Lutheran Church in Minneota had split off from the old Hope Church because of differences in language preferences.
(Continued next week)
Sources: “Ninety Years at St. Paul’s,” Committee Members, J.A. Josefson, Cecil Hofteig and Haldur G. (Jimmie) Johnson of Icelander Lutheran Church, Minneota, MN., October 1977.