Icelandic Associations in the Chicago Area

The following information is from my memories beginning about 1932. I cannot guarantee that it is all absolutely correct and may be subject to differences of opinion. However, I doubt that there are many people that did live through that entire era as I did.

The original Icelandic Association in Chicago began in the late 1920’s. The original name was “VISIR,” and held meetings at the Norski Club facilities on Kedzie Avenue and Fullerton Avenue on the North side of Chicago. Most meetings were held there and consisted of various functions including business meetings, Halloween parties, Christmas parties, Thorrablot, etc. In addition, a picnic was held every summer at the Harm’s Woods in Glenview, Illinois. The Icelanders were very interested in their children and the parties, as well as the picnics, always included activities for them. Christmas was an important event with a large tree, and an appearance by Santa Claus with gifts for all of the kids. However, the children had to perform for the group with a recitation or a song or dance, etc., before they could receive a gift from Santa. The Halloween party was always well attended. Events included all kinds of races for the kids with winners receiving a dime or a nickel as a prize. Remember that that was in the depth of the Great Depression and a dime or a nickel was a lot of money.

Activities for the adults included a Tug of War, Glima wrestling, and, of
course, the inevitable speeches – all in Icelandic. The women brought
picnic baskets complete with Icelandic delicacies, such as Skyr and
Icelandic pancakes.

Many of the members were born in Iceland, but the majority were born in Canada, of parents who immigrated to Canada in the late 1800’s. These people all spoke Icelandic, and, as years passed, English replaced Icelandic at most functions.

One of the more prominent Icelanders in the Chicago area was a gentleman named Árni Helgason. He was very active in the Visir group, and served as President for many years, and made a really great Santa Claus at Christmas time. He unfortunately died rather young and the group was left without a leader that was willing to carry on. I believe that this, along with the advent of World War II, led to the demise of the organization in the early 1940’s. The war occupied everyone’s efforts, and as a result, the Visir group disbanded. I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the many loyal people that made Visir a success for many years. Some, but not all of the names that I recall incuded: Sveinnson, Benson, Anderson, Johnson, Helgason, Thorkelson, Taylor, Alfred Brynjolfsson, Storm, Goodman, Einarsson, Bjornson, Olafson, and Thordarson. Most, if not all of these people, have left us, but they did leave a legacy of Icelandic heritage.

There was another Icelandic organization called the OUR Club. I know very little about it or its activities and members. It existed in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. It was a spinoff from the Visir organization, and, I believe, it was the result of some disagreement. I don’t believe it was ever very successful and disappeared soon after it was formed.

When World War II ended, the Icelanders once again became active and formed the Icelandic Chess Club of Chicago. The person responsible for the organization was August (Gusti) Anderson. He had been an active member of Visir for many years and an avid chess player, as were many of the early Icelanders in Chicago. This became a very active group that had a longevity of more than twenty years. The members took turns meeting in their homes several times a year. Each host was responsible for the refreshments for the group. Chess was played as well as card games for those that did not participate in chess. The year consisted of elimination chess matches until a champion emerged. This was always a very competitive group that took their chess very seriously. I recall that Icelandic was spoken more than English. The women particularly enjoyed these gatherings where they could socialize while the men engaged in the game activities.

Once again, the membership began to lose the older folks and soon it became very difficult to continue, since the younger people were not that interested in chess. Few, if any, of the younger members spoke Icelandic and it lost the flavor it once had. As a result, the group gradually dissolved and eventually, sadly disappeared.

Someone other than I would be qualified to present the history of the current Icelandic Association of Chicago, although I have been a long-time member and served as its treasurer for a time, some years ago. I have not been active since we moved to Antigo, Wisconsin.

I hope that this serves to acquaint you with the history of the early Icelanders in the Chicago area and the efforts that they made to preserve their Icelandic heritage.

William L. Johnson
Antigo, Wisconsin
February 7, 2005