Shorty Gustafson Wasilla Alaska
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Gustaf Emil "Shorty"
Gustafson was a diminutive 5' 1" tall and, in spite of missing some fingers,
he played a "mean mandolin" and loved to sing. He immigrated from Sweden
in 1907 and staked a 320 acre homestead in the Valley in 1916. By todays
landmarks, it was near the intersection of the Seward Meridian and the Parks
Highway. His cabin sat about where the Sears store is today.
By Coleen Mielke
When you ask the old-timers
in Wasilla about "Shorty" Gustafson, you will instantly see a smile; the kind of smile that hints
a good story is next. His friends described him as happy, musical, colorful,
working and adventurous, but most of all, they say, "he was a real
Mark Fritzler told me: "Dad said, Shorty and my grandfather hand dug an
80' well on the property line between their two cabins, but never hit water,
so Shorty dismantled his cabin and pulled it to Wasilla with some draft horses
and rebuilt it near Main Street and added a 2nd story to it; he lived in
the top story and had a auto repair shop on the bottom level.
Shorty was known as a "man of many interests". He was growing oats commercially
by 1918; he bought a motorcycle in 1921 and had a "motor sled" in 1922. He
was fur trapping in Eska in 1924 and he bought a "Tin Lizzie" in 1925.
In 1927, Shorty had a contract to harvest 1,500 tons of ice (from Wasilla
Lake) for the Alaska Railroad. It took him and a helper 8 days to complete
the contract, at $2 a ton. The following year, he built a gasoline powered
ice saw and towed it out onto Wasilla Lake, where he was able to harvest
the ice twice as fast.
In 1929, Shorty bought an old Caterpillar from the railroad for $500 and
used it to plow winter snow and haul freight up to the mines.
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 "downtown" Wasilla before electricity
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, which he used to fly people from the mines to Anchorage and
back. Legend has it, that on one of those trips, he made an extremely hard
landing that ruined his propeller, so Shorty carved a wooden replacement;
it worked well for years.
In the spring of 1937, Shorty worked as a dozer operator for the Fern
Mine and in 1940, he set up his own prospect on Craigie Creek, but had little
In 1943, Shorty told everyone that he lost his car in a "booze deal gone
bad". After that, he repaired an old abandoned Ford truck and attached a
homemade snow plow which he used to clear the roads around Wasilla.
The "kids" (now old-timers) in Wasilla said they liked Shorty because
he was "always doing something interesting". Some of the boys remember sneaking
into his garage to play with the tools. Larry Teeland told me "Shorty had
a motorcycle once and we all used to peek through his downstairs window to
try and catch a glimpse of it, but it was really dark down there. I actually
saw it out in the sunshine once; it was blue and had some kind of package
holder for tools. I also remember there used to be a metal frame laying in
the grass by Shorty's house" Larry said, "Someone told me that it
was the remains of a plane he tried to build."
Everyone I talked to, had a different "Shorty Story", but there was one
thing they all remembered fondly, and that was Shorty playing his mandolin
and singing his "Cheechako" song at every community gathering; it was a
Everyone I interviewed about Shorty,
had fond memories
of him singing the following song:
To get the full effect of his strong
Swedish accent (that everyone loved),
I've changed all
of the "W's" to "V's" and the "Th" sounds to a "D" sound
by Shorty Gustafson
Vee are among da dousands dat have come up nord,
seeking a fortune
but partly for sport.
Vee boarded da steamer, our bags put avay,
and landed in Seward
da nineteed of
Varr do day come from and varr do day go.
Day must have places dat
vee don't know.
You got to have your
bacon and your beans dat's all,
and crawl into your
cabin ven da snow begins to fall.
If you alvays been a failure, now here is your chance,
come to da Walley and get yourself
Dare's gold in da mountains
and fields of coal,
and rabbits in da woods, dat's vut vee verr told.
Make your home in
Alaska and put it in your mind,
dat hunting, fishing and trapping up here is surely
Dare's moose in da timber
and fish in da bay,
and sheep in da mountains, dat's vut day say.
If you don't like
Alaska, and you don't like da style
just bundle up your
parcels and be gone wid a smile.
Dare's a train go-in to Seward, so hop on your vay,
but dis is vut you'll hear
all da sourdoughs say:
Varr do day come from
and varr do day
Day must have places dat
vee don't know.
Da boats are leaving Seward, so be happy on your vay,
Dare is no one to hold you, if you don't vant to stay.