Thursday, May 11, 2017


Members of our group posed beneath the flag of Iceland in the Thordarson
artifacts room of the Boat House on Rock Island.  From left:  Craig Welt,
Laurie Latimer, Amy Welt, Jeannie Hutchins and special guest,
Almar Grimsson of Iceland.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Nearly 150 years ago, in 1870, four men from Iceland came to Washington Island, encouraged by William Wickman who purchased Island property here and offered the men the opportunity to work for him in his woods.

One of the men was Jon Gislason, who began working in the Danish outpost in Eyrarbakki at age 14, and who had come to know fellow store employee Wickman.  At the time, Eyrarbakki was a small seaport, but a major shipment point for exporting wool and cod from Iceland's southern coast.  It was Wickman who, removed to Milwaukee a year or so later, encouraged his Icelandic friends to join him in America.   These young men might have gone on to live productive and relatively comfortable lives in Iceland, but it was the adventure as much as anything that encouraged them to leave their homeland and seek new opportunities.

This past Tuesday, the Washington Island Archives held an Open House in the Rutledge Room of the Community Center, welcoming members of the community to learn more about the Archives, but foremost, to greet three guests who are descendants of Jon Gislason.

Almar Grimsson, Iceland, recently traveled to Grand Fork, North Dakota, to attend a convention celebrating Icelandic roots in North America.  He's been to the U.S. and Canada numerous times, tracing his ancestry and meeting with others of Icelandic immigrant descent. A common goal is to maintain strong ties with Iceland, the mother country, its history and culture.  Grimsson then drove from North Dakota to Washington Island for his first ever visit here.  He met up with two Gislason cousins of his, Amy Welt, joined by her husband, Craig, of Iowa City, Iowa, and Laurie Latimer, Evanston, Illinois.

Archivist Steve Reiss prepared a Gislason genealogical tree, based on information available in the Island Archives, and with help from Jeannie Hutchins and others, connections to Jon Gislason were made.  In Almar Grimsson's case, his great grandfather was a brother to Jon, and as a Lutheran minister, slightly older than Jon, that brother chose to remain in Iceland.  Amy is a great-granddaughter of Arthur Gislason, and Laurie is a great-granddaughter of Esther (respectively, brother and sister to Lawrence Gislason.)  Island residents may remember best Lawrence and Ruth Gislason who continued to run the Gislason family store in Jensenville, situated along the shores of Detroit Harbor.  This building later became the Island's first Community Center.  It was later demolished, and there is a sandy playground today where it once stood.

After closing their store in the 1930s, Lawrence and Ruth then sailed on Great Lakes vessels as a couple, for a time.  Gislason Beach, across the road from the present day Red Barn facility and adjacent to the Shipyard Marina, was the site of Gislason pier, once used by freighting vessels for the shipment of potatoes and lumber, and for receiving incoming products and visitors around the turn of the century, in the early 1900s.

One daughter of Jon and Augusta Gislason, Evaline, married Ben Johnson ("Hotel Benny" as he became known) who built Hotel Washington next door to the Gislason residence and boarding house.  It was at this same boarding house that a young couple, Julianna and C. H. Thordarson, for several years stayed when visiting the Island. This was before Thordarson purchased his property on Rock Island.  At the time, Julianna's mother and father lived on Washington Island.

Jeannie Hutchins adds meaning to what seemed like a mile-long
list of family names provided by Archivist Steve Reiss.
All named are descendants of Jon Gislason, one of
four earliest Icelandic immigrants to settle here.


On hand during Grimsson's visit, and most helpful in sorting out the often confusing family lines of descent (not to mention the many other associations and connections made in a small community over the decades) was Jeannie Hutchins.

Jeannie is both an Archives volunteer and a volunteer docent at the Jacobsen Museum, and she can claim perhaps the closest association of any Island person to the Thordarson family.

It was Jeannie's Aunt Helga (Lindal) who married the Thordarson's oldest son, Dewey.  Dan Lindal, Jeannie's father, answered an ad placed in the early 1920s by Thordarson in an Icelandic newspaper published in Gimli, near Winnipeg, Canada, and Lindal (and later his sister, Helga) came to Washington Island, working first as a foreman on Rock Island for C. H. Thordarson, and then as an Island fisherman.

Jeannie (Lindal) Hutchins poses with the traditional
 Icelandic wedding dress of Julianna Thordarson,
on display at the Thordarson Boat House.

My first association with Almar was through filling his email order for a book about Thordarson and Rock Island.  Several exchanges and several years later, and serving as an Island Archives representative, I offered to prepare an agenda of activities during his two-day stay that might prove meaningful in connecting with his family Icelandic heritage, and also with the Rock Island and Thordarson history.

Looking back at the opportunity to visit with each of our guests, I believe we had a most rewarding time, during which new bits of information and history about the Gislason family or Rock Island came to light.

Casual conversation revealed that Almar and Mary Jo are also cousins, through a Dane named Knudson who came to live in Iceland.  Shown photos from our recent, 2015 family trip to Iceland, Almar recognized several faces, including   Mary Jo's Gudmundsen cousins, Dora and Bjorg Thorsteinsdottir, who were also his relations.  So, in this way our visiting was both enlightening and entertaining.

Grimsson, who is a retired pharmacist, is also a past president of the Icelandic National League of Iceland. He became actively interested in pursuing general Icelandic genealogy and emigration, and in particular his own family ties, approximately 20 years ago.  But until a colleague asked him a specific question about Washington Island, he was not aware of the Jon Gislason family connection, or of the importance of Washington Island's place in the minds of fellow Icelanders.

This Island is considered the first, true settlement location by most Icelanders (although there was also a large group who left from southern Iceland in the 1840s, following a Danish Mormon leader to Spanish Fork, Utah).  The arrival and subsequent settling here by those first four men then became a wave of emigration to North America - many settled on the plains of Canada - that spanned approximately 1870-1914.

Having gained deeper knowledge about his family and this island community - the one Icelandic settlement location he had yet to visit in the United States - Grimsson hopes to return again some day, along with his wife.

Welcoming Almar Grimsson (center) at the Archives Open House
Tuesday, May 9, were Karen Jess, Connie Sena and Judie Yamamoto.

Wednesday, May 10, we stopped at points of interest that aren't typically open to visitors until later in May. We were accompanied by videographers Brett Kosmider and Andrew Phillips, of Peninsula Filmworks, LLC.  Their company is associated with Peninsula Publishing and Distribution Company and was commissioned by the Door County Visitor's Bureau to produce short video segments on Door County culture and history.  These productions, approximately five or six minutes in length, play on the DCVB website. The topic chosen by Phillips and Kosmider to air in June will describe Washington Island's Icelandic connections.

I received Andrew's email contact out of the blue, at about the same time Almar's plane touched down at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.  Through this coincidental timing, we linked up and were able to provide timely opportunities for them to witness Icelandic connections as they unfolded.  We look forward with interest to viewing the results of their interviews and photography, based on our day together at various Island locations.

*        *         *

For the fine welcome given our Gislason relations guests, I'd like to thank Archives committee members and volunteers for helping to prepare the Open House event.

Also, I must give special thanks to Rock Island State Park Supervisor, Michelle Hefty, who allowed us the opportunity to visit the Thordarson Boat House prior to its official opening date.  And to Terri Moore, who prepared the pioneer buildings and opened up especially for us at the Island Farm Museum.  And Jeannie Hutchins, both for knowledge shared over the days during our guests' visit, and also for the private opening of the Jacobsen Museum at Little Lake to see artifacts there.

Each of these above-named facilities, as well as the Stavkirke, display facets of Island history and culture, and each helps to educate and interpret Washington Island's development as a community over several generations.  These institutions become important stops for Island visitors, but also for residents, especially during the "warm months" of the tourism year.  

-  Dick Purinton

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