History

“Shorty”

By Heinie Snider – From his book, Centennial – 100 Stories of Alaska, published in 1967.

 

We often read in our papers that a Sourdough has moved to the Pioneer Home in Sitka.

As newly elected historian of Igloo No. 31, my main duty is to record not only the collective doings of the Pioneers here in the Matanuska Valley but also those of our individual members.

One such old timer was, like many others, born in the Old Country on April 14, 1887 (Umes, Finland). He is, as the saying goes, “pushing 80.”

His father, a stone mason, moved the family of ten, including a six month old baby, to Jormac, Lapland, by sled and horsepower. When our Alaskan old-timer was eight years old, the family moved to Lulu, Sweden.

It was the custom in Sweden to attend the “conform school,” where young people were taught the Three Rs, and given lessons in obedience to the law, honoring the king, and leading a Christian life. I might add that in those days a young man who had not attended the Christian school might have a hard time to find a preacher to marry him or to sign his papers.

For a time, it seemed that our friend might become a preacher himself, for book learning, especially the Scriptures, came easy. However, anything mechanical was duck soup for him; he could fix any kind of broken farm machinery.

Upon the suggestion of a preacher friend, he migrated to America. Arriving at the port of embarkation, Gotenburg, like the Prodigal son, he had just one drink and fell in with thieves who stole his money, but left his ticket to America, where he landed at Boston.

He worked in logging camps, moving to Great Falls, Montana (where he bought an American suit, derby hat and all) then to Seattle. The following summer he worked for a Canadian corporation.

It was in Franklin, Washington that he became an American citizen, and it was in 1915 that his name appeared on the hotel register at Knik, Alaska. With Berd Steward, a former prize fighter, he worked in the gold bullion mines at Craigie Creek, headwaters of Willow Creek. They and Oscar Anderson took up a homestead not far from the Carl Fritzler homestead, dug a deep well, and built their cabins.

When I resigned (by request) as foreman of the Alaska Railroad at Matanuska, I was walking the trail towards Wasilla (there was no road) at dusk, when I heard the notes of a mandolin, coming from the cabin.

I knocked at the door and was invited in. My host served coffee and homemade sourdough bread. On the wall hung a wooden handmade airplane propeller. “Shorty,” as my excellent host was called, informed me that some day he was going to fly. A few years later, when working at the Lucky Shot mine as cat driver and general mechanic, he took a few flying lessons, and was one of the first to fly passengers between the mine and Anchorage. The plane, like his Ford car, were museum pieces. A roll of wire always went along in case of repairs. After two near-accidents, he gave up flying.

His old Ford, which he repaired after someone else discarded it, was not only used for transportation but had a plowing attachment. He built a contraption that looked like a Rube Goldberg invention, and with it cut enough wood in a few days to last the winter.

In 1923, he joined the Elks Lodge in Anchorage. Shorty and his mandolin were always in demand. Like troubadours of old, he sang songs of his own experiences, the rhymes and melody of his own making, in English, Swedish, and Finnish.

He played for the dances in Wasilla, and tuned the old piano at the community hall.

When the Good Friday Earthquake struck, Shorty and some friends were at a downtown bar in Anchorage. The earth cracked open and swallowed the building, sending barkeep and customers scrambling to reach the street; but Shorty was absent. Jim Wilson and others went down and found Shorty still sitting on a stool, holding his mandolin. They helped him to the surface. Unhurt, unperturbed, holding the mandolin between his knees, he pulled out his snuff box, unscrewed the top, took a pinch, placing the chew between his teeth and lower lip, and said, “Now, who the heck did this, Jim?”

By his own request, this farmer, mechanic, songwriter, musician, timberman, flyer, inventor, carpenter and Sourdough pioneer, has retired to the Pioneer Home at Sitka.

Some time ago, Don Ingalls, secretary of Igloo No. 31, received a letter from fellow member Gustav “Shorty” Gustafson, telling the brothers that he is well-pleased with life at the home, and as a gift sending one of his original songs, “Cheechako,” the chorus of which goes,

“Where do they come from and where do they go,

They may have places that we never know.

You got to have your bacon and your beans, that’s all,

And crawl into your cabin when the snow begins to fall.”

 
Printed with permission from the family of Heinie Snider.

Categories: History

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