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New Focus on Neglected Heritage Sites (Interlake Spectator – 2007)

Nes, the site of a sadly neglected and eroding smallpox cemetery on the banks of the Icelandic River, is finally receiving some long overdue attention. Not only was this historic spot near Riverton the inspiration for a recent interpretive performance by Manitoba dancer Freya Olafson during a Winnipeg arts festival, it is a top priority for the newly-formed Icelandic River Heritage Sites Inc.


Nes SignMarked only by a solitary blue and white sign bearing the inscription “Nes Cemetery 1876”, this virtually forgotten site shows little outward indication
of its dramatic history. One of at least eight smallpox cemeteries dating from New Iceland’s fateful winter of 1876-77, Nes is not only the resting place of some 30 identified Icelandic men, women, and children, but of an estimated 50-80 people believed to be members of the Sandy Bar Band. The site served as the only cemetery in the Riverton area until about 1880.

Nes JawboneAround that time, a homesteader from Hecla Island chose this spot as a building site and erected a home amidst the graves. Following his untimely death some 10 years later, the house was abandoned due to strange occurrences, and though attempts were made to reoccupy the site, no one ever remained long. Neighbours, including local poet Guttormur Guttormsson, reported mysterious happenings at Nes over the years, and eventually this low site along the river reverted to meadowland. Over the years, however, riverbank erosion has exposed more and more graves, and in July of 2006 Manitoba Historic Resources staff members were called in to deal with the situation. Details of their work remain confidential, and until the site can be properly stabilized, curiosity seekers are discouraged.

It was this dramatic history that inspired Freya Olafson’s dance piece, performed recently at Winnipeg’s Gas Station Theatre as part of the arts festival “NÚNA”. In her performance, Olafson uses music and art as well as dance to interpret the historical significance of the site as well as her relationship to this history. She is a great-great-granddaughter of the pioneer who built his home among the graves at Nes.

Group NesThe goals of Icelandic River Heritage Sites Inc. include not only riverbank stabilization at Nes, but a unique monument incorporating both a bronze sculpture and a symbolic sheltering structure. The group is currently developing plans that will be officially unveiled at a public event planned for October 21st of this year, the anniversary of the group’s first meeting in Riverton last October 21.

Plans are also underway to commission and install a life size sculpture of Sigtryggur Jónasson, “Father of New Iceland”, at Möðruvellir near Riverton. Jónasson’s original homestead on the west bank of the Icelandic River, Möðruvellir is considered the most appropriate location to honour this visionary leader of Icelandic settlement in Canada. During his occupancy from 1876 to 1881, this site near the Riverton Centennial Park served as Government House for New Iceland, as well as a cultural centre housing the district’s first school, the post office, and the editorial base of the pioneer newspaper Framfari. Jónasson’s home also became the headquarters of New Iceland’s first major corporation, a shipping, mercantile, and sawmill enterprise. While Sigtryggur Jónasson has been widely recognized for his remarkable achievements, his grave in the Riverton Cemetery is marked only by a modest stone.

IcelFamNes“It’s time we turned our attention to neglected heritage sites ,” observed a member of Icelandic River Heritage Sites Inc. “History is all around us, not just in museums, and commemorating sites will demonstrate in a tangible way the value we place on preserving our heritage for future generations. We also anticipate that our initiatives will provide significant benefit to the area in terms of increased tourism. Thousands of visitors from throughout North America and Iceland come to Manitoba every year, eager to visit the places where the saga of New Iceland unfolded, where family members or relatives settled and in many cases where they are buried.”

Icelandic River Heritage Sites Inc. is presently consulting with various authorities with regard to these priority projects, and is seeking charitable status with a view to commencing ambitious fund raising efforts. The Board of the corporation is comprised of President Harley Jonasson, Vice-President Nelson Gerrard, Secretary Joel Fridfinnson, Treasurer Wanda Anderson, and Directors Sigmar Johnson and Margaret Wishnowski.