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Pres. Hinckley, Iceland leader dedicate Sp. Fork memorial

Duo pay tribute to the first settlers from island nation

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Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson shakes hands with LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley after rededication ceremony.

Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson shakes hands with LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley after rededication ceremony.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

SPANISH FORK — President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rededicated a memorial on Saturday to the first pioneers from Iceland who began settling the region 150 years ago.

The president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, participated, marking his second visit to Spanish Fork since 1997, when he came to observe the 100-year celebration of the Icelandic Association of Utah.

The memorial includes a lighthouse replica and marble wall with the first 410 settlers' names inscribed on it. The dedication ceremony was marked by weather that ranged from sunny to overcast skies, wind and rain, in quick succession.

"For us in Iceland that is no surprise," Grimsson said of the weather. "Those who came here 150 years ago would have felt right at home."

The first Icelanders were converted to the LDS Church is 1851. They were baptized in a pool that would form on the North Atlantic seashore of the Westmann Islands when the tide was out. A rock from the site was shipped to Spanish Fork and became part of the Icelandic Memorial, first constructed in 1936. More than 2,000 people attended the rededication.

When they arrived in Salt Lake City in 1855, Brigham Young sent the Icelanders to settle Spanish Fork with other Europeans. But unlike other settlers, the Icelanders kept their heritage and identity, President Hinckley said.

The LDS converts made the trip until 1914 when the Icelandic mission was shut down because of World War I. At first the settlers lived in dugouts but then developed farms.

"They had a better life than they had known in Iceland," he said.

Speaking to the descendants of those pioneers, "with the blood of the Vikings in your veins," President Hinckley lauded their forebears for becoming "a credit to this nation."

In his dedicatory prayer, President Hinckley recounted the history of those early converts and their accomplishments in settling Spanish Fork. He prayed for Iceland and its freedom and democracy and also for America and President Bush.

"May (the Icelandic Memorial) remain sacred in the eyes of all and a constant reminder of the faith . . . of those early pioneers," he said.

The first Icelanders left their native land under uncertain conditions, Grimsson said. When they arrived in what was to become Spanish Fork "this was a dismal place, a desert," he said.

"They came here with nothing 150 years ago but were able to create a legacy that makes us very proud," he said.

The Iceland of that era was among the poorest countries in the world, he said. Icelanders then were mostly fishermen and farmers.

In 2000, the Spanish Fork descendants put up a sister memorial in Iceland, which strengthened the bond between them.

"We are one family in spirit, in faith, in heritage and in vision," Grimsson said.

Consul of Iceland J. Brent Haymond noted that when his ancestors left Iceland "they slammed the door." Until meetings began with Grimsson, "We didn't know if we were still part of that Viking family."

Bridges have been built between the two countries through the rededication of the memorial, Icelandic Association of Utah President Kristy Robinson said. Bridges were also reinforced between generations, she added.

Other dignitaries at the rededication were Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. Herbert said he was impressed by the love the descendants of those first Icelanders had for their ancestors and the people of Iceland today.

Earlier in the day, Grimsson met with officials, staff and international students at a Utah Valley State College breakfast meeting where he related the economic successes Iceland is having.

"The best option is to be rooted in Iceland, but operate globally," he said of his countrymen who use technology to compete in business.

He predicted more economic success with American-style competition than with the unification force of the European Union.

E-mail: rodger@desnews.com