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by Nelson Gerrard  (Interlake Spectator - 1994)

GrenimorkAlong the highways and byways of old 'New Iceland' in Manitoba's Interlake, signs are going up - new placename signs bearing the old Icelandic names of homesteads, roadways, and landmarks. On April 23 1994, the first batch of over 50 custom-made placename signs was unveiled and distributed, and in the months that followed, these eye-catching signs began to appear throughout the Arnes, Hnausa, Riverton, Geysir, and Arborg districts.

The concept of erecting historic placename signs, publicized only by word of mouth to date, has met with an overwhelmingly positive response in these areas, and it is anticipated that many more property owners will wish to participate when the signs are made public and word spreads. Only one prototype of the sign, made of heavy gauge aluminum and measuring 15 x 24 inches, has been available as a sample so far... but the enthusiastic reception in northern 'New Iceland' will mean that as of next month, thousands of area residents and visitors will see these blue and white signs with a falcon crest - a traditional symbol of the Icelandic heritage.

Manitoba's Interlake is just one of many areas in North America which has a rich heritage that needs to be enhanced - for tourists and area residents alike. For decades, many of those features that make our former Icelandic settlements unique have been in decline, and especially those things associated with the Icelandic language have come face to face with extinction. Nowhere is there a richer placename heritage than in 'New Iceland', but to date visitors from Iceland and all over North America - having read about this unique historical area - have been disappointed to find few vestiges of this colourful tradition. Only a few villages and rural districts have maintained an Icelandic profile, and until now dismayed tourists have had to settle for road signs proclaiming such unimaginative names as 'Distillery Road' and 'North 40 Road' - in place of colourful and historically rich names dating back to the clearing of the very first survey lines in 1876.

The Rural Municipality of Bifrost (named in 1907 for the 'rainbow bridge' to Asgard in ancient Norse mythology) has become one of the first public bodies to recognize its wealth of placenames as a valuable historical asset - a colourful attraction to both visitors and cottage owners, as well as an acknowledgement of the area's history. In response to a request from Bifrost's secretary treasurer, a file on local road names was compiled over three years ago by members of INL chapter 'Esjan', and all new proposals for road signage in the RM of Bifrost must be compared with the traditional names on record in the municipal office in Arborg. In this way, makeshift names suggested without consideration of original names can be screened, and the integrity of Bifrost's local history can be preserved. Bifrost council members have also approved a plan to erect appropriate signage for all their municipal roads intersecting Highways 8 and 9 along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, and the INL prototype served as their model at a meeting held this past winter. This signage, which will show fire road numbers beneath the suitable Icelandic road names, will fill a growing need for reference points created by increasing cottage and recreational traffic along beach areas.

Another area of special interest is Hecla Island, with its high profile as a tourist destination and an Icelandic heritage park. Unfortunately, few of the many homesteads that once lined the island's east shore remain today, and there is little visible evidence to show visitors that here was once a thriving Icelandic community for over a century. Houses have been cleared away and building sites have in many cases become overgrown - except in the 'village' itself. Present park administrators, however, are considering a proposal to erect placename signs for all the homesteads along the east shore drive, as far north as Gull Harbour. While this is cold comfort for islanders who recall the homes and farmsteads as they were years ago, it is a significant acknowledgement of the island's history and could serve in guiding the descendants of pioneer settlers to ancestral sites, as well as providing all future visitors with a 'taste' of Hecla's still unique historical flavour. Self-guiding tours and possibly even audio guides might also be produced in conjunction with this sign system.

Residents throughout the rest of 'New Iceland' and elsewhere are invited to join into this placename project, to create unique 'historic districts' that will not only honour our pioneers, but will pass on something of the area's heritage to the next generations - at the same time offering some local colour to all who visit our communities. In the past there has been some reticence on the part of local officials to preserve trraditional names, for fear of alienating those of other backgrounds, but more and more we are becoming comfortable with our identity as Canadians and appreciative of sharing the best of our traditions with our friends and neighbours, who in turn share the best of their culture with us. Often, in fact, it is those who move into our communities who most appreciate the uniqueness of our heritage - in the words of an old Icelandic proverb, 'Glögt er gestsins auga.'

Anyone wishing to obtain more information on the heritage sign project is advised to contact Nelson Gerrard ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) Box 925, Arborg, Manitoba R0C 0A0, phone (204) 378-2758