Stephan Gudmundson Stephansson
Icelander Without Formal Education Became Old Country's Leading Poet
Central Alberta was fortunate enough to attract quite a number of very talented pioneers but none was more illustrious in his sphere than Stephan Gudmundson Stephanson, now ranked among the greatest of Scandinavian poets. Born in Skagafjord, Iceland, on Oct. 3. 1853. He had no formal education, a clergyman having taught him to read and write along with the rudiments of arithmetic. In 1873, he emigrated with his parents and sister to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the family settled on a farm in Shawano County and it was while there that he was married in 1878, His wife, Helga Sigfridur Stephanson was born in Iceland on July 3, 1859 and she had also emigrated to Milwaukee in 1873. In 1880, both families moved to a farm or farms in North Dakota and during the nine years spent there, the father died.
In 1889, together with his mother, Mrs. Gudberg Hannendoter Stephanson and his sister, Mrs. C Christianson, he moved his family to Alberta and homesteaded in the Hola district, three miles north of Markerville.
In those first years, in common with other homesteaders, outside employment was necessary to provide cash income and he worked on ranches in the Calgary district and on survey gangs on the Calgary and Edmonton railway. After the arduous task of clearing and breaking the land, the first grain crops were harvested by hand and threshed with a flail.
Throughout his life, Stephanson was active in all phases of community life in his district. He helped organize the first school district in 1893 and was concerned in both the establishment of a post office and the first creamery. Roads and bridges were built in the district through his efforts and he served as a school trustee and secretary-treasurer of the creamery. His mother, who was born on July 31, 1831, died on Jan. 18, 1911 and was buried in the Markerville Cemetery.
Stephanson's first poetry was written In 1868, when he was 15 years of age. His first volume of poems was printed in Iceland in 1898 and he later turned out several volumes of verse covering more than 2.000 octave pages. He appears to have been one of those rare geniuses to whom poetry was the natural medium of expressing his thoughts and impressions and neither hardship and privation nor long arduous days of toil deterred the vigor and volume of his verse. In sheer bulk of output, no other Canadian poet is comparable, according to an article by Watson Kirkconnell, president of Acadia University, which stated that he published more verse than Bliss Carman, Charles G. R. Roberts and "Wilson MacDonald combined. All of Stephanson's poems are written in the Icelandic tongue, and he translated little of it into English, of which however he had an excellent command, and the modicum of translation was excellently done. The prairies, foot-hills, Rockies and pioneer life in Western Canada were among his favorite themes and in the peasant poet affinity and style, some of his poetry can be compared to that of Robert Burns.
His best works were entitled "Andvokur", which roughly translated into English means "Night Musings", and which ran to five volumes. So highly were these esteemed that in 1919, admirers in Iceland collected funds for his transportation and expenses to enable him to spend several months in his native land.
He died on August 10, 1927, and he was buried in the family plot on the bank of the Medicine River in which his mother and other members of the family were also interred. Close to 500 people came to Markerville for the funeral and the services were in charge of Rev. Ragnaldur Peterson of the Icelandic Unitarian Church, Winnipeg.
On July 19, 1936, a cenotaph, financed by contributions accumulated by Ofeigur Sigurdson, a neighbor and close friend for over 27 years, from Icelanders throughout Canada and the United States, was unveiled with over 200 of his compatriots in attendance.
This was followed on September 4, 1950, by the dedication and unveiling of a memorial erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in the small Provincial Park known as Stephan G. Stephanson Memorial Park directly across the Medicine River from the village of Markerville, with about 350 people in attendance. The unveiling was performed by Jacob K. Stephanson, then the only surviving son of the poet, and the park was the first esstablished by the Provincial Parks Board to honor the memory of an outstanding cultural leader.
Stephanson's widow, Heiga Sigridur Stephanson died of a heart attack at the home of her daughter, Mrs. S. V. Benedictson, on December 12, 1940. Beloved by all, and an original member of the Icelandic Ladies Aid organization called "Vonin", she had been a cheerful and untiring worker in church and community organizations until her activities were limited by a fractured hip suffered in a fall on December 12, 1939. She was honored by the King of Denmark, in recognition of her distinguished husband, when he bestowed on her "The Order of The Falcon." Her death was followed by another family bereavement, when her daughter, Mrs. A. B. (Fanny) Bardal of Bearberry, was killed when the car went off the road and turned over in the ditch on the way home from the funeral.
The Stephanson family consisted of three daughters, Mrs. Fanny Bardal, Mrs. Sigur Sigurdson and Mrs. Rosa Benedictson, and three sons, Baldur, Jacob G. and Gudmundur.
RED DEER ADVOCATE, JANUARY 5, 1967.