The Shackers: Another type of Finnish Jätka

By Ed Sandene

Some of the men who cut the mining wood and pulpwood were “shackers”. They lived and worked in the forests where the type of wood they were cutting grew. Mostly this was cedar, balsam and spruce which was easy to cut with a one man saw.

The picture shows the saws that were used in those days. The bottom 2 saws are typical 1 man saws. The mining timbers which were larger diameter hardwood were cut by workers with 2 man crosscut saws and later power saws. They lived in camps with other lumberjacks or traveled from home. The shackers that I am familiar with were Finnish, single and of course, loners.
The shacks that they lived in were brought in by the logger who employed them. They had to be no wider than 8 feet and about 10 or 12’ long so they could be hauled in on a trailer or on the back of a truck. Inside were the bare necessities, a wood stove for cooking and heat, a bunk, and a table and chair. This is where they lived all winter by themselves, no bathing facilities, no companionship, the only light was a kerosene lamp. In spite of this I never heard one complain about his lot in life, they seemed to accept it as the way they wanted to live.

The logger would bring a horse which would be used for skidding the wood products to a “landing”. This was an area which was accessible to the trucks which hauled the wood products. The cedar lagging went to the mines and the pulpwood went to loading docks by a railroad. In most cases it was loaded directly into the gondola cars that were provided. A side note is that I loaded many railroad cars with the contractor as my “swamper”. This was done on Saturday and Sunday which technically were overtime hours. I was paid in cash for a day’s wages, no overtime and no income tax, which was just fine for a young single guy.

In the winter they spent the daylight hours cutting the lagging and pulpwood. Then they had to go in and cook something for supper. The employer would bring the groceries and whatever else the “shacker” needed. I delivered groceries and kerosene to them also if I happened to be hauling from their area. This would all be recorded and settled at the end of the winter cutting season. When spring breakup came the accounts were settled. They had money and were anxious to get out of the woods for a while .

Spring breakup was spent drinking and blowing in all of their hard earned money. Many would end up in Hurley where they probably pursued other interests also. They would return to the woods to sober up, sometime with a pint of whiskey to help them along. I know a few that sold their good pocket watches, one sold an early model power saw. He was one of the few that had used a power saw for cutting, the others used single man crosscut saws or buck saws.

The horse that lived in the woods with the Finnish “jätkä” was kept in a small enclosure similar to a stall. The ones I saw were made of small poles which were cut in the immediate area. Boards would be used only for the roof to provide some protection from the elements.They were well taken care of by the “jacks”, after all the horse was their only companion in the woods. These horses knew their job well; they would do the skidding without instruction. After they made one trip into the cutting location and back to the landing, they didn’t need further control except for voice commands. The reins were coiled and hung onto the hames. The horse would go back to the cutting area, find the pile and stop. The jätkä would chain together a 1 horse bundle and then gave several click like sounds to the horse. The horse would tighten the chain and then go straight to the landing.

I often saw the horse stop if the dragged load got stuck on a stump or a rock. He would look back and pull sideways to free it. When he got to the landing he always looked back to make sure he stopped just right. It is no wonder they were treated with such respect and well taken care of. Then of course the horse must have recognized the good treatment and returned the favor.

During the spring and summer they had a constant battle with the mosquitoes and those nasty black flies. Much of their cutting was done in cedar and spruce areas which were often wet and therefore natural breeding grounds for these pests. Most of them had their own favorite homemade repellents which they claimed to be effective. If memory is correct at least some used the pitch from the spruce and balsam trees.

Whenever I dropped off groceries I would take a couple of minutes to visit with them in their little house in the woods. The conversations were in Finnish of course, I doubt that any of them knew much English. Imagine spending a night in a small shack near a cedar swamp with a blizzard or -30 degree weather outside. Looking back I wish we had talked more about their solitary life living alone many miles away from civilization. In a way these men and the other jätkas who did farm work, had some similarities. They didn’t own a home or have many possessions and they were loners. I recently watched (again) the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” starring Robert Redford. I could not help but make the comparison to those mountain men who preferred to live like this.