STEPHAN G. STEPHANSSON

Icelandic Poet's Home Reflects Love to Nature

MARKERVILLE — It's amazing what wonderful sights can be found off the beaten track. On the way to this gem of a village southwest of Red Deer, for instance, we drive past a kitchen garden protected by an entire family of rotund scarecrows, all dressed in*discarded farm garb.

They're all in a row, gazing on the well-tended plot. There's Mr. Scarecrow, Mrs. Scarecrow and two chubby Scarecrow kids — the best-looking scarecrows I've ever seen.

If I had my own car I'd stop for a snapshot, but I'm on a bus tour sponsored by Alberta Culture. We're visiting historic sites and we're hurrying on to Stephansson House.

You might guess that Stephansson House was a fur-trading fort, like Rocky Mountain House, but it's not — Stephansson House is just an old farmhouse that once was home to Stephan Gudmundsson Stephansson.

The gent died in 1927 but I'm told folks still call him Stephan G. around here. They remember him fondly, as well they might — Stephan G. was one of the finest poets ever to put pen to paper in Canada. Trouble is, very few Canadians know how good he was simply because he wrote in Icelandic.

Stephansson was born in Iceland in 1853, emigrated to the U.S. in 1873 and finally made his way here in 1889. Compared to the dismal farming conditions in Iceland — the island's volcanoes were making life miserable — the scenic and fertile Alberta parkland must have seemed like heaven.

It's certainly beautiful today but there's a chill in the morning air when the Culture bus pulls into the parking lot. I'm glad there are sturdy partitions around the reception area so we're not exposed to the breeze while a guide presents a brief background chat.

Our guide is Mina Jewett, a modern miss dressed in 1927-era clothing similar to that worn by Stephansson's wife, Helga. As part of Culture's policy of reinforcing historical reality, all guides are in period costume.

I'd heard of Stephansson and knew his house was somewhere in the foothillls, but I had no idea he was regarded as the finest Icelandic poet since the days of the great saga poets some 700 years ago.

He was a hard-working man with a big moustache. He started a farm, built a house, served on the school board, helped to form a debating society and a library, and wrote poetry every night after the children went to bed. Often his wife would find him the next morning slumped over his desk, his pen still clutched in his fingers.

That same pen is in the house today — along with his desk, some of his books and much of the family furniture.

I'm no expert on Icelandic but there is great strength and charm to many of the English versions of Stephansson's work that I've seen. He wrote with passion and intelligence — against war and profiteering, and for the beauty of nature. He spoke out strongly for equality between women and men.

I can't guess how accurate the translations are, but anyone can see that Stephan G. had the soul of a poet when it came to building his house. It's a perfect pink-painted jewel still encircled by the protective windbreak of spruce trees and poplars that he planted. Near the front door is a large lilac bush and at the kitchen door a honeysuckle. At his favorite Window there is a wild rose bush in full flower.

The house came close to falling down about 15 years ago but Alberta Culture has completely restored the structure, even setting it on a full concrete basement to replace the old dugout cellar. The only fault I can find is that the new window glass is too smooth — it lacks the ripples and other flaws that old windows should have.

Still, the house is alive. One guide is in the kitchen, baking cookies on the wood stove. As I stroll along the lawn, coffee cup in hand, I hear another guide start playing an old Icelandic song on Stephan G.'s piano. The wind has stopped, the sun is shining and I wonder why on earth I've never bothered to come here before. I know I'll be back.

Stephansson House, Markerville, and the nearby Scarecrow family all are about 25 kilometres west of Highway 2 on secondary road 592 (which is the Penhold turnoff). The house is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until Labor Day/Admission is free.

CALGARY HERALD, JUNE 20, 1986.


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