If you’re a person who is inspired by Alberta’s amazing vistas and vast prairies, you might understand how Icelandic immigrant Stephan G. Stephansson – later known as the Klettafjallaskadið, or “the poet of the Rocky Mountains” for those of you who don’t speak Icelandic – became one of Canada’s most prolific poets.
Born on a farm in northern Iceland, Stefán Gunðmundsson (later called Stephan Stephansson) arrived in the Alberta district of the Northwest Territories in 1889. Already an experienced farm-hand, Stephansson raised cattle and sheep north of Calgary and west of Red Deer along the Medicine River, and later became a key player in establishing the region’s first creamery. Stephansson then added to his resume by becoming a justice of the peace, member of the local school board, and the settlement’s first rye farmer.
Like many other pioneers, Stephansson never lost touch with the culture of his homeland, and that connection to that past continues to enrich our province today. After working his various jobs during the day, Stephansson wrote at night, composing poems and letters that merged the style of Icelandic poetry with American philosophy. As described in his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, “His long view of history and man’s place in it is evident in his poem ‘Staddur a grothrarstoth’ [At the forestry station] of 1917:
Monuments crumble. Works of mind survive
The gales of time. Men’s names have shorter life.
Forgetful time may mask where honor’s due
But mind’s best edifices live and thrive.
Stephansson’s works touched on themes familiar to those whose lives were so close to the land; hard work, the beauty of Alberta’s landscape and the transience of life. His work also flirted with controversy on more than one occasion; Stephansson was disenchanted with the rigid doctrines of the Lutheran church, and was heavily critical of Canada’s involvement in World War I, after which he published a collection of pacifist poems that itself drew heavy criticism.
Stephansson died in 1927 after suffering a stroke on his farm. By the end of his life, Stephansson had filled more than 2,000 pages with his words, making him one of Canada’s most prolific poets. In 1976, Alberta declared his homestead a provincial historic resource. Even so, his biography notes that Stephansson’s greatest honour “came in 1917 when the people of Iceland invited him to return for a four-month tour, the first time he had returned to his homeland since he left. He was regarded by many there as the best Icelandic poet to have emerged since the 13th century.”
Visit Stephansson House
Not only do his poems live on, but Stephansson’s homestead and several other important buildings of his day also endure and are preserved for you and your family to explore in nearby Markerville.
Restored by the Stephan G. Stephansson Icelandic Society, the homestead, the Historic Markerville Creamery Museum, Fensala Hall, and Markerville Lutheran Church all present a snapshot in time, bringing the story of a small group of Icelandic immigrants in the early 1900s to life.
If the story of Stephan G. Stephansson captured your imagination, Sunday, July 10 might be something for you. From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Stephansson House will be hosting Poetry at Stephan’s House, a annual celebration of poetry and the magic of words. There will be music, Icelandic baking, and crafts and games. A number of poets will share poems inspired by nature. Come feed your soul! Please note: regular admission rates do apply and this is a cash-only historic site.