Gustav Emil "Shorty" Gustafson 1887-1970 Wasilla Pioneer


by Coleen Mielke 2018

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Photo is from the Mark Fritzler Collection
Can you identify the other men
in this photo for me?

When you ask the old timers in the Wasilla area, about Shorty Gustafson, you will instantly see a smile; the kind of smile you KNOW is attached to a good story. Those who knew him, describe Shorty as happy, musical, colorful, hard working, adventurous, but most of all, "he was a real character".

Shorty left Gothenburg, Sweden on the "RMS Republic" and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1907. His immigration papers list Luleå, Sweden as his place of birth and Gustaf Thomasson and Ida Mikula as his parents. His last foreign address was Oravais, Finland and his American destination was Minneapolis, Minnesota where his brother Johann Gustafson and his cousin Carl Mikula lived.

Shorty applied for U.S. citizenship in Seattle (1910) and came to Alaska in 1915. By 1916, he had staked a 320 acre homestead just outside of Wasilla and received patent to it in 1921. According to Gloryjean (Fritzler) Wilson, Shorty's homestead would have been (by today's landmarks) along the Seward Meridian Road, between the Parks Highway and the Palmer-Wasilla Highway.

In 1917, Shorty's WW I military paperwork gives his full name: Gustaf Emil Gustafson and his birth date: 4/14/1887. He was only 5' 1" tall, weighed 136 pounds and was missing two fingers on his right hand. In 1942, he registered for the WW II draft and listed his next of kin as his nephew, Frank Swanson, of Anchorage.


The Herning diaries provide an occassional glimpse into Shorty's "every day" life in Wasilla. Here is an example:

He had a farm, just outside of Wasilla and was growing oats by 1918; he bought a motorcycle in 1921 and a "motor sled" in 1922. He was fur trapping in Eska in 1924 and he bought a Tin Lizzie in Anchorage in 1925. Shorty was a good mechanic, a good carpenter and people hired him to haul tons of freight up to the mines.

In 1927, Shorty had the contract to harvest 1,500 tons of ice (from Wasilla Lake) for the Alaska Railroad. It took him and a helper eight days to complete the contract for $2 a ton.

The following year, when Shorty won the ice contract, he built a gasoline powered ice saw and towed it out onto Wasilla Lake. He was able to harvest the ice twice as fast as the year before. The 1928 contract for 1,500 tons of ice was completed in 4 days and netted him $3 a ton.

Shorty Gustafson using gasoline saw to cut ice
O.G. Herning Photo

In March of 1923, Shorty went to Seattle; 16 months later, he returned with a new bride (a nurse) named Emmy Werner. By 1925, Emmy was having health issues and she spent time in Fairbanks and Anchorage hospitals. Later (1927) she went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Emmy didn't like Alaska, so in an attempt to save their marriage, the couple moved to Washington in the fall of 1928, but divorced in the spring of 1929. That is when Shorty came back to Alaska.

Shorty worked for the Alaska Road Commission for several years, mostly grading roads. In 1929, he bought an old Caterpillar from the railroad for $500 and used it to haul freight up to the mines. He also built a two story barn shaped building near Main Street in Wasilla and ran a very successful commercial auto repair shop in the bottom story while he lived in the top story. The building is now in the Wasilla Historic Town site which is behind the Wasilla Museum.

One of Shorty's "inventions" was a 1/2 HP gasoline engine that he used to charge batteries with. It was a big success and solved the ever present "dead battery" problems that plagued Wasilla (electricity didn't reach Wasilla until the spring of 1942).

In 1930, Shorty built a framework for the new school bell and mounted it on the roof of Wasilla School. Later that year, he started having health issues and went to a hospital in Tacoma. As luck would have it, his nurse turned out to be, none other, than his ex-wife Emma.

In 1932, Shorty took flying lessons in an open cockpit biplane at Star Air Services in Anchorage. He enjoyed flying so much that he bought his own Aeronca C-3.

In the spring of 1937, Shorty went back to Sweden for a three month visit. Upon his return, he went to work at the Fern Mine and the Cache Creek Mine. In 1940, he set up his own prospect on Craigie Creek.

In 1943, Shorty lost his car in a "booze deal gone bad" and later that summer had to get false teeth and have stomach surgery...Shorty was slowing down.


In an interview with May Carter, in 2003, she said
"Oh, Shorty, he was a character. He had the first airplane that was ever in the valley. He used to fly from Independence Mine because there was a landing strip up there (about a mile or two below Independence) and it was quite a wide open space beside the road and they landed there. There was another long landing strip over at Lucky Shot. Shorty had kind of a log building, near the store on Main Street in Wasilla. He lived upstairs and he did all sorts of different jobs. He played the guitar or banjo and he'd get a little high with his liquor and he would play. He was quite a character. He was a jack of all trades and he ran the mining game and ran kind of a taxi service from Wasilla to Palmer."

Larry Teeland told said:

"During the 1950's, Shorty was one of a number of 'old timers' (mostly men, but women too) who lived alone in Wasilla, some of them were quite poor and lived in rather shabby housing, but Shorty had a good reputation as a handyman, particularly when it came to carpentry and he had a heavy Swedish accent.

He had a small pension from the federal government and often cashed [his check] in the store. I recall that it was rather difficult for him to write his  name. This could be because he never really went to school and learned to write properly or it could be because the outer half of two of his fingers (third and fourth on the right hand I believe) were missing. I understood this to be the result of some accident when he was younger.

The kids growing up in Wasilla during these years generally liked Shorty; he never said much but he was always friendly and had a nice laugh. He was also a little mysterious. For one thing, he had a motor scooter and it was kept on the ground floor of the barn where he lived.  He almost never took it out but kids were always trying to peek at it through the windows, which were usually covered.  I recall that I saw it once when he took it out in the sunlight - it was blue and had some kind of package holder for tools, etc.

In the early 1950's, there used to be a metal frame lying in the grass between Shorty's barn and the Hill-top Restaurant. It was said to be the remains of an old airplane. Someone once told me that it was what was left of a plane that Shorty himself had built but that it crashed the first time he tried to fly it and that Shorty, himself, was injured in the crash."

Mark Fritzler says this is Shorty Gustafson's cabin
(it was originally built the area where the Sears store is today)
Oscar Anderson's cabin is in the background.

Fritzler family photo

Mark Fritzler wrote:
"Dad said Shorty and my grandfather, Oscar Anderson, hand dug a well, 80' down, on the property line between their two cabins, but did not get any water, so Shorty took his cabin apart and pulled it to Wasilla with some draft horses.  

Mom and Dad were good friends with Shorty way before I was born. He had other songs he sang, but the one that went...(imagine a Swedish accent here)... 'Ver doo  day come from und ver doo day go?' stuck in my head for days...years... and now half a century. I can still hear him singing it."

Allayne Nelson Dinkle wrote:
"I remember where he lived and mom sent me over with goodies once in a while. I remember him playing his banjo and singing 'Where do they come from and where do they go?' There must be places we don't know' (his "th" sound always sounded like a "d"). Sometimes he sat outside and played and sang, but my remembrance actually occurred in a local talent show or shows at the Community Hall."

Roger Lincoln wrote:
"He was sort of reclusive. He was most famous for his mandolin. He always had a bright smile and was quite happy. He was one of the town figures back in the day."


Everyone that I interviewed, for this story, agreed that Shorty loved music. Some say he played a guitar, some say a banjo and others say it was a mandolin. However, one thing they ALL agree on is that his song, called "Cheechako" was a community favorite. Here are the complete lyrics:


by Shorty Gustafson

We are among the thousands that have come up north,
seeing a fortune and partly for sport.
We boarded the steamer, our bags put away,
and landed in Seward the 19th of May.

Where do they come from and where do they go,
they must have places that we don't know,
you got to have your bacon and your beans that's all,
and crawl into your cabin when the snow begins to fall.

If you've always been a failure, now here is your chance,
go into the valley and get yourself a ranch.
There's gold in the mountains and fields of coal,
and rabbits in the woods, that's what we were told.

Where do they come from and where do they go,
they must have places that we don't know,
you got to have your bacon and your beans that's all,
and crawl into your cabin when the snow begins to fall.

Make your home in Alaska and put it in your mind,
that hunting, fishing and trapping up here is surely fine.
There's moose in the timber and fish in the bay,
and sheep in the mountains, that's what they say.

Where do they come from and where do they go,
they must have places that we don't know,
you got to have your bacon and your beans that's all,
and crawl into your cabin when the snow begins to fall.

If you don't like Alaska, and you don't like the style,
just bundle up your parcels, and be gone with a smile,
there's a train going to Seward, so hop on your way,
but this is what you'll hear all the sourdoughs say:

Where do they come from and where do they go,
they must have places that we don't know,
the boats are leaving Seward, so be happy on your way,
there is no one to hold you, if you don't want to stay.


In the spring of 1965, Shorty Gustafson moved to the Sitka Pioneer Home. He died there, five years later, on 8/24/1970, and is buried in the Pioneer Home Cemetery in Sitka, Section D, Plot 1722; he was 83 years old.


If you would like to add information (or a story)
about Shorty
please contact me.

[email protected]



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