When understood as a source of timber for commercial purposes, forests have always been full of treasures. Throughout the centuries, forests have provided building timber for houses as well as mast timber for sailing ships, tar and pitch for sale, and firewood for heating dwellings and saunas. The treasures of the forest also include such great sources of nutrition as berries, mushrooms and game. In addition to material wellbeing, forests have offered people peace and shelter. In the 1710s, during the Great Northern War, refuges were built in forests in the hope that they would not be reached by ravaging Russian invaders. During the Finnish War at the beginning of the 1800s, forests again provided shelter against Russian troops.


Tar was transported to coastal harbours on riverboats and, in the winter, by horse. But transporting tar from the backwoods was by no means easy. Before the tar could be sold to the bourgeoisie of the coastal towns, it had to be controlled and verified as legal. As proof of their legality, the manufacture year and a crown were burned onto the tar barrels. The most important tar harbours were located in Kokkola and Pietarsaari, and tar was transported on big sailing ships from there as far as Stockholm. In the 1700s, Central Ostrobothnia produced no less than a quarter of the tar produced in all of Sweden-Finland. More than a million barrels of tar were transported from the region in the second half of the 1700s.


As the forests began depleting already in the 1700s, tar burning moved further inland, to the forests of Perhonjoki river valley and Lestijoki, which meant that tar transport distances grew even longer than before. In the harbour towns, the exhausted tar transporters and horses were met by ‘tar boys’ sent by the townsmen, promising the transporters a wealth of benefits in compensation for good tar deals. If the deal was made, the transporters were entertained in the traders’ inns – salted fish, home-brewed beer, spirits, cigarettes and sweets were generously offered. As you can guess, the horses were also well taken care of.


The building and clearing of tar-burning pits, as well as tar burning itself, included various traditions, such as round games, dancing and entertainment. The pit master who ensured the success of tar burning also had to be kept awake. Some sayings relating to tar from those days are still alive, such as, “If sauna, spirits and tar don’t help, the disease is fatal.”



A tar-burning pit in Lestijärvi, early 1950s (Suur-Lohtajan historia II)


The tar culture also included its own superstitions. The ignition of the pit was a solemn ceremony with rituals that can seem strange: “Every pit had its own elf, and the tar burner would walk several times around the pit, which was believed to protect the pit” (Jämsä 1978, 136). Eino Isohanni (1978, 252) talks about a sorcerer who used tar for witchcraft. He “brought a toothache patient to the sauna porch and fetched pitchy wood, from which he carved three sticks. Each of these sticks he used for digging the gum of the sore tooth. Then the patient had to spit blood three times into the keyhole and cross his arms three times, like the blades of a windmill. Then the sorcerer hid the sticks and the tooth was supposed to be OK until the sticks rotted.”


Traditional tar burning gradually became less common towards the end of the 1800s and ended completely at the beginning of the 1900s. Tar was still in demand for household use, such as in oiling leather boots, sealing carts and sleighs, and treating cow hooves. However, it was no longer burned in people’s own pits, “of which only black, smelly holes were left in the nearby forests”, as Viljo S. Määttälä states in his book Rautamestareiden kylä (2000, 45). During World War II, charcoal were needed for the coal accelerators of cars. After the war, tar was produced industrially in Lestijärvi because it was needed for boats and as raw material for lubrication oil. There were even attempts to make chewing gum from pitch, but without success. In any case, the tar factory was an important regional employer until the end of the 1950s.


During Swedish rule, legislation and its non-existent supervision allowed people to use forests very freely. Forests were indiscriminately exploited and wasted: mast timber was felled, boards were sawn, slash was felled, and tar was burned endlessly. In the 1780s, for example, some houses in Lestijärvi were allowed to manufacture only a few barrels of tar per year, but the statutes were not put into practice: these houses would produce 20 to 30 barrels.


The forest decree of 1851 concerning state forests, as well as the establishment of forest administration (Metsähallitus) a little later, were attempts to regulate excessive forest utilisation. New professions were established to control forest use: forest rangers were the ones in charge of circulating their ranges and keeping watch for thieves, exploiters, wildfires, and illegal hunters. People were no longer allowed to fell or sell timber without permission. Reckless felling of timber would land you in the courthouse and result in punishment.