June 17 marks the official anniversary of the 1944 founding of Iceland as a republic independent of Denmark. Two Kentuckians had the opportunity to experience this nation of “extreme contrasts” (to quote its web site) both before and after its independence, and their impressions are recorded in the collections of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
In January 1942, Hopkins County native Jim Wooton, then serving in the U.S. Army, was ordered to Iceland to help staff a transfer station for troops and equipment being sent to England. He and 1,200 other men experienced a rough, late-winter crossing in a 300-foot United Fruit Company “banana boat,” but arrived in Reykjavik unmolested by German U-boats. Hunkered down with his fellow soldiers in reinforced Quonset huts, Wooton vividly recalled the howling winds that gusted as high as 120 miles per hour. He returned from his 9-month tour of duty understanding the reason for the island nation’s high literacy rate: “everyone stays home and reads.”
In August 1977, Bowling Green’s Clara Hines, the widow of cake mix magnate Duncan Hines, visited Iceland as part of a tour of several Nordic countries. Her experience, needless to say, was starkly different from Wooton’s. The intrepid 73-year-old hopscotched around the island by bus and small plane, viewing lakes, forests, lava formations, natural hot springs and waterfalls as well as picturesque villages. The weather was warm and sunny most of the time–she only found the wind “very cold” on the walk from her hotel to the airport. She spent her krona on a souvenir doll and a figure of the god Thor fashioned from lava, and pronounced herself tired but exhilarated by the sights in this “fantastic country.”