This summer marked another event depicting unity and reconnection between Alberta descendants of Estonian pioneers and relatives in Estonia.
The first known Estonian immigrant to homestead in Canada was Hendrik Kingsep of the Horma estate in Võrumaa, south-east Estonia. He settled in 1899 onto lands in what is now west central Alberta. In 1905 his father Ott Kängsep, also known as Horma Ott, travelled from Estonia to see how his two sons were doing in the wilds of Western Canada, but, after a short illness, died. He was buried in a tiny unofficial graveyard in the Gilby area, kindly donated by the Raabis family. In May of 2007, a piece of stone from Horma Ott’s headstone in Alberta was taken to Võrumaa by Bob Kingsep, Hendrik’s grandson and current president of the Alberta Estonian Heritage Society (AEHS). This tiny item was ceremoniously placed at Horma Ott’s memorial stone located on the Horma estate. In turn, a piece was chipped off the Horma Ott memorial in Estonia to be brought to Canada. All this is clearly depicted in the half-hour DVD documentary produced by the Alberta Estonian Heritage Society in 2007.
Note: Until a chance encounter in early 2007 onto a then unknown relative’s website led to reconnection of the extended family, neither group on either side of the Atlantic was aware of the other stone dedicated to the same ancestor.
This summer, on August 16, 2008, two Estonian descendants of Horma Ott who were visiting Canada for the first time, participated in the event involving the second piece of stone, thus enacting the GESE or the Great Estonian Stone Exchange. AEHS members were invited to attend the ceremony at the Raabis cemetery near Gilby. Among those present were almost all of the people featured in the previously mentioned documentary. Over half of the 50 attendees were members of the extended Kingsep and Saar families.
Bob Kingsep introduced the event with some humorous memories of growing up among the Estonian descendant farms, often playing Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy cowboy games with his best friends in and around the then unfenced and mostly forgotten cemetery. As of the 1999 Centennial of Estonians in Canada, the tiny cemetery has been officially consecrated, re-consecrated and fenced, with metal white crosses added to symbolically mark the final resting places of approximately 14 other Estonians who were buried there before any official cemeteries were established in the area. Horma Ott’s stone marker had been covered in moss, all of which was cleaned off for the 1999 celebration, and has been carefully maintained since then.
Now this stone was central to the event of August 16, 2008.
Thus, candles were lit to the memory of the others buried in the little hilltop location. Two young seventh generation descendants of Ott Kingsep, Madison Smith and Danielle Werenka, each placed an apple in front Horma Ott’s gravestone in tribute to the apples he brought with him on his trip to Canada - the pioneer family members had not had any apples since leaving Estonia six years earlier, so this fruit was an exceptional taste treat in 1905 as testified in well kept diary records.
Estonian relatives Evo Saar, Evar Saar and his wife Mariko Faster, passed around the rock bit chipped off Horma Ott’s memorial stone in Võrumaa the previous year. Each and every person present had the honour of handling this symbol of unity and reconnection. Evar and Evo Saar then officially handed the little piece of stone from Estonia to same generation Canadian family members Tobi Kingsep, and Jean Maki. All four briefly jointly held the stone. This was truly a cherished moment of connection. Former cowboy playpals of Estonian descent, Garry Raabis, Allan Posti, Howard Posti and Bob Kingsep now took on a different role, preparing the resting place for the stone of honour on the same hill where they used to playfully track each other down among the bushes.
Amazingly, Evar Saar had recently stumbled across an 1890 draft of Horma Ott’s will and now proceeded to read portions of the Estonian text out loud, standing immediately behind the gravestone of the unexpectedly “unfinished” life of the author. Next, Bob Kingsep’s daughter Tobi, representing the Alberta side of the extended family, began to read the English translation of the unfinished document. Unintentionally yet symbolically, the ceremony itself became “unfinished” as Madison’s great grandmother gracefully fainted into the bushes from the heat of the midday sun.
By the time the 50 member group re-gathered at the Friendship Centre in the nearby town of Eckville, the fainting Great Grandmother had apologized a thousand times for causing an interruption. Everyone was glad to hear of her quick recovery and continued the celebration in the Estonian way - meaning two buffet tables groaning with food. Some of the pot luck fare was of delicious Canadian variety featuring fresh produce from local farms, some was very Estonian. At first the kilu (small salted fish) and diced egg sandwiches were left almost untouched, however, as the afternoon progressed, the entire large trayful disappeared. Same applied to the Estonian style lightly pickled cucumber, the best “roosa manna” dessert ever and many other dishes.
The visitors from Estonia were particularly interested in the new display created by Dave Kiil, depicting the voyage routes of Alberta’s Estonian pioneers and other excellent related graphic information. True to the Estonian penchant for singing at any gathering, Eda McClung accompanied “Perekonna Valss / Family Waltz” on the piano long ago dedicated the memory of Estonian Lenny Kingsep. Garry Raabis and Edna Oborne led the song.
The afternoon concluded with Evar Saar and his wife Mariko Faster presenting their wonderful slide show on Võru County, of which they are very proud. Both are employees of the Võru Institute which propagates the Võru language, very closely related to the standard Estonian language, and other unique aspects of Võru culture. They are on the staff of the võru language weekly newspaper Uma Leht / Our Own Paper.
From Alberta, Evar Saar and Mariko Faster proceeded to Toronto to make presentations at the International Congress of Onomastic Science ( http://icos2008.yorku.ca/ ) at York University August 17-22. Onomastics is the academic study of place names, personal names, names in literature, and names in relation to such disciplines as geography, linguistics, sociology and history. Interestingly, four others from Estonia also authored research papers there.
Evar Saar is a specialist in place names and family names of Estonia, particularly in the Võrumaa region. He is the main force behind an extremely detailed map of Võrumaa place names, having worked on it for 8 years and interviewed 7000 households in the process. The map is available online and on paper. He states that he would be happy to assist people tracing their Võru region ancestry through confusing old records mentioning manor houses, lakes, villages, etc. differently in the various languages that have been used over past centuries in Estonia on documents. This is very good news for the many Estonian descendants in North America persisting in tracing their ancestry despite considerable difficulties. Contact Evar Saar at or by telephone at 372-7828754 or cell 372-56213177.
Upon leaving, the Saars and Mariko Faster stated, in their Võru language:
„Kõigilõ eestäisile ja võrokõisilõ sääl kavvõn Kanadamaal! Hää ja lämmi oll’ ti man ollaq. Hää oll’ nätäq jupikõist kodomaad nii kavvõl Eestist. Aituma tuu vaimu hoitmisõ iist!”
Translation: „To all Estonians and Võru folks in faraway Canada! Being amongst you was a great and heartwarming experience. It was wonderful to encounter a little bit of our homeland in a place so far from Estonia. Thank you for maintaining that pioneer Estonian spirit.”
President Bob Kingsep followed up the GESE with a letter to AEHS members, in which he states in part:
“I can't emphasize enough the gratitude we feel for the support of all of you who attended our Great Estonian Stone Exchange (GESE). Thank you to those who planed, showed up, pitched in and made a great day for our Esto visitors. I know the Horma people were overwhelmed by the appearance of so many people who came from great distances to be part of the ceremony. It was pretty impressive. It was so rewarding to look around at the group at the cemetery and realize that once again our little organization has recognized an opportunity and rallied to create an impressive event...
Horma Ott's magic continues to come through somehow. It appears the more we dig into Ott's gravesite, the more interesting the results! As I said when we were there, I think his story is so symbolic of the Alberta Estonian roots, that we probably have discovered not only a 'headstone' but a 'cornerstone' of our Alberta Esto heritage.”
Alberta’s GESE and place name researchers from Estonia (2)