Arborg Heritage Village History

The thriving modern town of Arborg, 140 kilometres north of Winnipeg, had its formal beginnings over a century ago in 1900. This region was originally settled by a combination of Icelandic and Polish-Ukrainian pioneers, and is now home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and walks of life, who love their home and are committed to ensuring Arborg remains a welcoming, prosperous community in the years to come.

There are no written records of the areas earliest occupants, semi-nomadic aboriginal peoples of the Interlake woodlands, but stone spear points and arrowheads found along the banks of the Icelandic River (formerly known as the Whitemud River) attest to the fact that native people once hunted and trapped in the area. In the 1860's, a Hudson Bay Company post called Grassy Narrows House was in operation at the mouth of the Whitemud River, near the present day site of Riverton. A small band of native people associated with Sandy Bar lived in that vicinity. Among the members of this group was John Ramsay, the legendary Saulteux hunter, who later assisted the Icelandic settlers during their difficult first years in the area and eventually taught native hunting techniques to a few privileged sons of the pioneers.

Icelandic immigrants first settled along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg in 1875, in a colony granted to them by the Canadian government, which was called New Iceland. The Arborg area, which was just west of New Iceland, first caught the eye of forward-looking pioneers as early as 1878. Early settlers along the lower reaches of the Icelandic River recognized the excellent potential of the fertile meadowlands further inland. Exploring the territory upriver by boat, they first proposed expansion into this area at that time. Major setbacks in New Iceland, including a severe outbreak of smallpox around 1880 and the extreme isolation of this inland district, delayed settlement along the upper reaches of the river.

Although the Borgfjord brothers, Gudmundur, Porsteinn and Jon, technically became the first settlers of the Arborg district just before 1890 when they settled west of the  boundary of New Iceland, large-scale settlement did not begin until the summer of 1900 when scouts from Icelandic communities in North Dakota arrived in search of land suitable for homesteading. Traveling from Winnipeg to Hnausa by boat and then inland along a muddy trail known as Geysir Road (the current location of Highway 68), these ambitious individuals saw great potential in the sparsely-wooded meadowlands of the area. They returned to North Dakota with glowing reports that fall.

Good land in North Dakota had become scarce and expensive, and settlers with sons old enough to claim homesteads quickly joined the movement to relocate to the wilderness of the Interlake, which had been absorbed into the enlarged Province of Manitoba in 1881. The vanguard of this group from North Dakota, which included settlers with 10 - 15 years of experience as prairie farmers, claimed land on the banks of the Icelandic River in the spring of 1901, and within a year many of their neighbours from North Dakota had joined them. With government support, a road along the riverbank was cleared that same year, and in 1902 settlers applied for a post office. The post office was given the name Ardal (River Dale), after the homestead of the first postmaster, Stefan Petur Gudmundsson.

The Ardal Settlement, as the district quickly became known, received another major influx of settlers in 1902-1903 when Icelandic pioneers who had been flooded out of their homes in the Isafold district north of Riverton came west in search of better land. Many of these families settled further upstream, expanding the settlement west and north along the Icelandic River into what soon became the twin district of Framnes (Fore Ness), named for the post office established there in 1905. With improvements to the road along the river, still more homesteaders arrived in the years that followed, both directly from Iceland and from the older settlements in "New Iceland." In 1907 the Vidir district was established beyond the marsh that flanked the upper reaches of the Icelandic River.

Progress in the Ardal-Framnes Settlement was relatively rapid, and those early years saw the building of schools, community halls, and miles of new road. Ambitious drainage projects were undertaken almost immediately to allow for farming, and within a short time fields of golden grain were a common sight, alongside neatly whitewashed log and lumber houses, gardens, stables, and enclosed pastures where cattle and flocks of sheep grazed.

The year 1910 was a major turning point in the history of the area. Thanks to the efforts of Sigtryggur Jonasson, who represented the region in the Manitoba Legislature, the Canadian Pacific Railway built a line north to Ardal. With the establishment of a railhead on the banks of the Icelandic River, a town sprang up virtually overnight. The town was named Arborg, which means "river town" in Icelandic. The train station made Arborg a regional hub, from which goods such as livestock, grain, cordwood, and dairy products were shipped south to Winnipeg.

The arrival of the railway at Arborg in 1910 was extremely significant for a second reason. With the opening of the area to trade and transportation, the unsettled lands to the north and south of Arborg were actively promoted as homesteads, and within a few years hundreds of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian state of Galicia had settled the surrounding area. The second major influx of settlers, hardworking farmers with extensive agricultural expertise, helped establish a solid economic foundation for the area and played a large role in shaping the culture of the town of Arborg as we know it today.