The Djúpavík Herring Meal Factory

Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir and her husband, Ási, first started to get interested in Djúpavík when they heard a report on the radio.  It was the early 1980's, and the news was that Djúpavík was about to be deserted.  The last residents of the hamlet were moving south, to more comfortable places.  Left behind was a small clutch of houses at the head of a bay - and one gigantic, decaying, abandoned herring factory. Not long after, when Eva and Ási moved in, the factory was full of garbage.  The windows were broken, the machinery was rusted.  A dead seal had somehow been deposited in one hallway. Today, after decades of work, the Djúpavík herring factory is mostly free of trash, lighter, more ordered.  The decay has been halted, but the industrial core of the place remains.  We took a meandering tour through the building with Eva, marveling at how beautiful a ruin can be.
The road to Djúpavík is a long one, the scenery is desolate.  On the last hour of our drive - meandering along a string of lonely fjords, kicking up dust on the dirt road - we saw nothing but wind-touseled sheep.  There are no houses or people.  It feels like a road to the end of the earth.
When Eva, Ási and their three young children arrived here, the place felt even more bleak.  It had seemed like a foolish move at the time.  Ási sold his business, Eva quit her job as the Reykjavik kindergarten headmistress, they sold their apartment, they went into debt.  In their new home, groceries were delivered infrequently, neighboring kids broke their new windows, the northern winters were very dark.  A few farmers remained in the hills around, but the roads were almost impassable.  The trip to school was by boat in autumn, snowmobile in winter.  There was industrial trash scattered everywhere.
Still, they loved the simplicity and rawness of the place.  "It was a once in a lifetime chance," they say.   Some other people moved into town, a little community grew. Eva taught her children to ice skate in one of the huge factory tanks, where standing drip-water froze solid.  "The only problem," Eva said, "was that we only had one pair, and we all had to share." Since then, the north has opened up, the Westfjords aren't as isolated.
A project from the start, the factory has consumed much of their last three decades.  There are roofs to patch and walls to shore up, windows to replace, metal to move, machines to fix up, bulbs to keep burning.
The question, of course, is why?  There's no real answer - or none that makes sense.  The factory won't be used again, the space isn't good for much, it will always be cluttered and rough-edged.  People come to see it, but not in great numbers.  At the same time, it's striking and engaging - almost like a dreamworld of mechanical time, where nothing has a purpose but everything's connected.  The building  seems infinite.  Doors and stairways lead to darkness, pools of light, vast spaces or clusters of wire.  Every sound echoes, pipes run in awkward patterns, holes open in the floor, monstrous machines stand in the gloom.
The Djúpavík factory was, at the time it was built, one of the largest concrete buildings in Europe - and it was a questionable venture from the beginning.  In 1917, during the height of fish speculation in the North Atlantic, a separate herring packing facility had been set up at the head of the bay.  Like many other Icelandic salting enterprises, this original gamble failed in 1919.  A global drop in demand for herring wrecked havoc on the industry.
In 1934, renewed interest in the northern fish stock and new technology brought Djúpavík Ltd. to town. They built their enormous plant in a little over a year, using tiny cement mixers and timber offloaded at sea and floated ashore. In 1939, the company advertised at the World's Fair in New York - herring was booming again and the plant thrived.  
The Djúpavík factory processed herring into two separate products.  First, and most importantly, they separated oil from the fish and stored it in gigantic, concrete tanks.  These tanks were heated, so that the oil could remain liquid, and had a combined capacity of almost six thousand tons.  Secondly, the factory produced herring meal - ground and dried fish meat stored in 200 pound sacks, intended for human or animal consumption.
This immense boiler was scrapped from a wrecked ship and floated to the bay.  Because there is a large spigot-head at the top, the workmen had a hard time rolling the salvaged piece into place - ultimately, the foreman measured the circumference of the thing, then dug holes every sixty feet so that the huge cylinder could be moved without damaging it.
During WWII, Djúpavík enjoyed its best years, with high fish-oil prices and plenty of stock.  After, the plant began a slow decline.  By 1954, it was defunct.  It was truly abandoned soon after, and left to fall to pieces.
The factory is still rough.  It's too big to be completely cleaned or made neat.  And, as they've come to understand, nobody wants Eva and Ási to sanitize the place completely.
In fact, the roughness of Djúpavík is exactly its charm.  It feels fossilized, a relic of a forgotten civilization, closed up and left behind.  There is so much twisted rust and mildewed cement, so many shapes and shadows and interesting corners.   It's ugly in some ways, but haunting and pleasing in others.  The thickness of the cement muffles the noises of the outside world (waves, a nearby waterfall, car engines - all left behind), but causes voices and footsteps to boom against the walls.  It's hard to imagine the racket of the grinders, the heat of the fires, the vibration of the pumps - it's all very intimate in the closed-in present.  There are stories of men competing to see how many hundred-kilo sacks they could carry, women running the machinery and dances held in the dormitories.
The factory has become a collection place for ideas and things; Eva and Ási have convinced the people in the lands around to store their old cars inside, to keep them from rusting into the landscape.  There are ancient tractors, too, plus dusty Volvo trucks and a few unseaworthy boats.
Since 1985, the couple have run a guesthouse in the old women's dormitory, a few steps away from the factory - the building is also their home, and is one of the cozier places we've ever stayed.  The Westfjords are a lonely place, and the people that go there are generally adventurous, end-of-the-earth types.  The "hotel" offers welcome rest, with good food and great company - the kind of gathering place where everyone at dinner has some kind of story.  Some guests have stayed months or come back, putting their own stamp on the factory. 
Artists have installed works in some of the lighter, more open spaces.  There are photographs hung in the upper breezeway and tiny sculptures of horses.  Eva calls this work - made of fishing line and metal weights - her "sunbeams."  She couldn't bear to take it down after it was put up; she loves the way it catches and reflects light.  The factory has hosted an international chess tournament and the band Sigur Rós.  The people who come here remember it.
After about an hour and a half, we stepped out a low door and unexpectedly found ourselves outside.  The smell of the sea was the first thing I noticed, then the sun on my face.  It was a strange, wonderland moment - as though I had emerged from my imagination and found myself awake in the real world.  Somehow, the Djúpavík factory feels even older than it really is, and it's hard to think of it actually being used for anything.  Some kind of disconnect happened, where the place became a concept more than a remnant.
But there are still people alive who not only remember the factory in its glory days, but actually worked in it.  We were shown pictures of young men and women, told which ones were still around.  In the wooden walls of one gallery, signatures and small graffitis were carved.  Eva pointed out names of people she had met, told us stories about some of the others.  It made the place feel even more magical.
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