The First Icelandic Club of Chicago

Many of the Chicago Icelanders are from families that migrated to Canada in the 1870’s.  They became fishermen, fur trappers and farmers for the most part.  The second generation, looking for a better way of life, came to Chicago in the early 1920’s.

Hjortur Thordarson, who had a transformer manufacturing company in Chicago, hired a good number of these young Icelanders when they came to the city.  Some of those men started their own companies.  Arni Helgason was one – Lawrence Johnson was another.  Arni Helgason’s firm was the Chicago Transformer Company, no longer in existence.  Lawrence Johnson’s firm was Johnson Electric Coil Company and is still in existence located in Antigo, Wisconsin, enjoying sixty years of successful business.  It is still owned by the second and third generation of Lawrence Johnson.

From this nucleus, the first Chicago Icelandic Club was formed around 1923.  The “Visir” Club was extremely successful, meeting monthly from September to May, with a picnic in June at Harms Woods, north of Chicago.  Speeches, games and races were all an intricate part of these picnics and they were well attended.  (Marge has old movies of some of these picnics.)

The Visir meetings attracted a large number to which they were treated to good food (some Icelandic), speakers and news from Iceland.  An Icelandic student entertained us with his great tenor voice at one time.  Young people wrote and produced small plays and skits.  There was also poetry and group singing.  These meetings were attended by both parents and children.  Many came from quite a distance.  The meetings were held at the Norski Club on Kedzie Avenue in Logan Square, Chicago.

A Halloween costume party with live music always brought out a lot of members and guests.  Each year the annual February Thorrablot was held.  The Iceland Airlines also gave round trip tickets to raffle.

A Christmas party was given for the children in December.  Each youngster had to perform, sing, dance, play music or recite before Santa Claus arrived to give each child a gift around the big Christmas tree.  Sveinn Storm and Arni Helgason were Santas for many times.  Arni’s white hair and rotund figure made it hard for anyone to doubt this was really Santa. (He was President of Visir for some time and also Counsul to Iceland.)

A large faction of this group started the Icelandic Chess Club in 1928.  They met in the homes monthly during the winter.  Dorothy Johnson has the minutes of these meetings, written Icelandic until 1939.  The last minutes were written in 1963.

Visir began its decline during and after World War II, when so many of the young were in the service and the group of older ones occupied in defense work. It started up rather weakly during the late 40’s and early 50’s, but did not survive.

The Chess Club continued into the 60’s when the older members began to pass away and chess did not hold an interest for the younger people, busy starting their families.

These clubs were a good opportunity for the members to speak Icelandic and keep up the skills of their language. (At one time Joe Bjornson, who was a teacher at Harrison High School, gave Icelandic lessons to some of the younger members.)  Also, many of these Icelanders came to Chicago leaving their families in Canada.  Therefore, a closeness was established between them to fill the family void.  The early social life revolved around these Icelandic groups.

These notes are compiled – with the help of several long-time members still living – of their memories and ours:

Marjorie Johnson Krengel
Dorothy Clemens Johnson
Dolores Thorkelson Johnson
Second generation of the Canadian immigrants

The following is a list of the families in the early days of Visir,
The First Chicago Icelandic Club

Joe Bjornson, PresidentArni Helgason , President
Oli AlfredJoe Gudmundson, President
Gustav AndersonSkafti Gudmundson
Julius AndersonLawrence Johnson
Petur AndersonC. Melsted
Egill AndersonDaniel Olafson
Arni ArnasonSveinn Storm
Alex BensonAllen Sveinsson
Ben GestonWm. Taylor
Ingolfur BrynjolfssonTh. Thorkelson
Kris ChristiansonEric Vigfusson
Paul ClemensVigfus Vigfusson – and later ones
Pall EinarsonEarl Krengel
Kristin HelgasonMonte Johnson
Vigfus JohnsonFred Weisman
Apologies to those who may have been omitted

Reflecting on this history, I have some impressions of my own as a child of these first Icelanders in Chicago.  My grandfather, Paul Melsted Clemens, came directly from Reykjavik to Chicago with his family in the 1890’s. Icelanders in Chicago were in significant numbers at that time. He was one of the founders of the Icelandic Club in 1923. My mother was born in Winnipeg, however, the family returned to Chicago in the  1920’s.  She graduated from Hyde Park High School.  My father was born in Gardar, North Dakota but was raised in Wynard, Saskatchewan   He came to Chicago in the 1930’s and was welcomed and housed within the caring and generous Icelandic community. Hjortor Thordarson, who was mentioned in the article above, was a prosperous Icelander who provided jobs for many Icelanders. (Google Chester Thordarson – Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company.)They were hard workers (and annoyed many of his other employees who didn’t want to work so hard – according to lore). There were clusters of Icelanders all over the city.  My family was on the south side, but many were on the north side. They helped each other and nobody even entertained the question “What’s in it for me?” This attitude influenced me greatly as a child.

Many came from Canada and I spent many summers in Canada with family members. However, we didn’t say we were going to Canada or the US – we said Winnipeg, Wynard, Ashern, Kandahar or Chicago.  Who knew there was a border? We were all one – Icelanders in North America.  It was a shock to me when a few years ago I had to have a passport to visit my family.  For most of my life we were one and in my mind we still are.

Their children were included in the gathering.  I particularly remember the picnics where there was Glima and long speeches which also included Rimur.  Three legged races and egg tossing games were for the children – and PONNUKOKUR.  They encouraged the creative side of their children. We were one big family.

I lovingly remember more than half of these Chicago Icelanders and my actions and decisions are generally informed by the lessons learned from these loving, generous and pragmatic Icelanders.

Joni (Johnson) Shaw