Bill Waiser

Joe Stefansson, Vilhjalmur’s brother, known for his hair

In May 1913, the New York Times carried a story about the latest expedition of famed arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

The article reported that Stefansson was in Ottawa finalizing expedition details with the Canadian government and that he planned to visit family in Wynyard, Saskatchewan before setting off for the Pacific Northwest.

The naming of Wynyard as Stefansson’s home was curious in that he has always been associated with his birthplace, Arnes, North-West Territories (near present-day Gimli, Manitoba). In fact, Stefansson was often considered American because of his position at Dartmouth College. He lived the better part of his life in the United States, continuously from 1923 to his death in 1962.

The article also mentioned a brother, named Joe, who was 12 years older than Vilhjalmur and living on a Wynyard-area farm with their mother.

Joe might not have been as famous as Vilhjalmur, but he was something of a local celebrity, known for his long, flowing hair.

The Stefansson family emigrated to Canada in 1876 and joined a large Icelandic settlement along the southwest side of Lake Winnipeg.  Two of the children, Joe and Inga, had been born in Iceland. A third, Vilhjalmur, was born in 1879.

When Lake Winnipeg flooded in 1880, the Stefanssons “saved ourselves,” in the words of Vilhjalmur, “by getting up and going elsewhere.”  That elsewhere was a homestead across the border in Mountain, North Dakota. There, another child, Siguros, was born in 1882.

Vilhjalmur had no interest in farming but pursued his education at the universities of North Dakota, Iowa, and Harvard before becoming involved in arctic exploration and research.

Joe, on the other hand, went into the ranching business. He visited farmers in Cavalier county and offered to pasture their cattle on nearby government land for a fee per head.

It was a lucrative arrangement — one that enabled Joe to live his dream of being a cowboy modelled after Buffalo Bill. One of the favourite books in the Stefansson household was a biography of the wild west legend.

Joe grew his reddish-brown hair into long, wavy curls and began to sport a large handlebar moustache. He also acted as if he had been born in the saddle.

Joe would braid his hair and wrap it around his head when working cattle. But in his other profession — ironically, as a hair tonic salesman — he would show off his mane as surefire proof of what he was peddling.

In August 1904, Joe headed to the North-West Territories and took out a homestead among other Icelandic settlers in the Sleipnir district (near Wynyard). The land was just south of Little Quill Lake. He was joined the following year by his mother and youngest sister Siguros.

Joe secured the patent to his homestead in the spring of 1908. But he was an indifferent farmer and preferred fishing the nearby lakes and selling his catch to settlers in the Wynyard area. To this end, he appeared before the 1909-10 Dominion Fisheries Commission and called for the stocking of Big and Little Quill Lakes.

When Vilhjalmur visited his family in Saskatchewan in June 1913 on his way to the arctic, he was welcomed as an international celebrity. There was a public reception at the Good Templars’ Hall in Wynyard followed by a private banquet.

Joe did not escape the spotlight. The reporters found the famous explorer’s brother to be something of a local character who was never short of words — about anything.

That’s how Malla Jeroski (born Malfridur Sigurlin Josephson) of Saskatoon remembers her uncle. The daughter of Joe’s sister Siguros, Malla fondly talks about the “colourful” Joe with his long flowing hair and fondness for drink. He was “always up to something” and “a lot of fun.”

Joe did not escape tragedy, though. In 1918, he married Gudfinna Finnson, only to lose her that same year to the flu. He continued his antics, but Malla believes that it was his way of hiding his grief.

Joe also faced the loss of his land. But Vilhjalmur bought the farm so that his brother was able to live there until his 1943 death.

By then, Joe’s trademark hair had been cut. The locks were kept in a trunk by his sister Siguros and eventually sent to Iceland.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Joe Stefansson (right) and friend in an undated studio portrait.
Photo courtesy: Malla Jeroski

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers