The sweat life of urban saunas in Minnesota

Twin Cities locals celebrate hot Finnish traditions behind steamy doors

The sweat life of urban saunas in Minnesota
E. Katie Holm

It's hot, damn hot, on the upper bench. The thermometer needle points into the red. Someone on the lower bench tosses a ladle of water on the rocks above the stove, unleashing a sizzle and a cloud of steam that rises to meet you.

"Breathe in," your friend tells you. "It will feel great."

All you can think about is how delicious a cool breeze or a chilly pool of water would feel on your overheating body. You begin counting the seconds before the sauna door will open and let you escape into the air outside. Even the thought of diving into a snowbank suddenly appeals to you. And you realize that, in longing for such extremes, you've been inducted into the sauna club.

John Pedersen fell in love with saunas while traveling in Scandinavia
E. Katie Holm
John Pedersen fell in love with saunas while traveling in Scandinavia
Clint Carlson built his sauna in his garage
E. Katie Holm
Clint Carlson built his sauna in his garage

During the worst winter in 30 years, Glenn Auerbach would step out of his 180-degree sauna and stand in the backyard of his home near Minnehaha Creek, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. With steam rising from his body, Auerbach would dump a pail of cold water over his head and shoulders, let out a "whoop!" and drink Summit IPA from his homemade "nICEMug" — a beer stein molded out of ice.

For Auerbach, a gregarious 50-year-old salesman for Nestle, sweating in the sauna is a therapeutic and thrilling way to survive the winter. It's also his way of upholding a time-honored tradition.

The Finns brought their savusaunas to Minnesota, building the first in 1868 in Cokato, one hour west of Minneapolis. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, three Finnish immigrant families — the Barbergs, the Selväläs, and the Salmonsons — shared the sauna after settling on the rich farmland three years earlier.

The Lakota Native Americans performed sweat lodge ceremonies in domed structures typically made with flexible willow branches and covered with blankets and canvas. Participants would sit in a circle around a heated rock pit, while the leader of the ceremony poured water on the stones to create steam.

In fact, the practice of gathering in small groups in huts made of wood, earth, or stone and introducing fire or hot rocks to induce perspiration has been common to many civilizations throughout the ages. In the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates wrote, "Give me the power to create a fever and I shall cure every illness."

Immigrants to Minnesota brought their sweat culture with them. Those from the Nordic countries built saunas across the forests of the northern Midwest, from the Iron Range to Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. Eastern European immigrants working in industrial factories and living in squalid urban quarters at the turn of the 20th century frequented community bathhouses, which offered their only opportunity to wash. One of the remaining few, the Division Street bathhouse in Chicago's Ukrainian Village, inspired these words from Saul Bellow: "Down in the super-heated subcellars all these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash ice water on their heads by the bucket."

Saunas remain common in northern Minnesota — who hasn't enjoyed a good schvitz after a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters? — but they have largely disappeared from the Twin Cities. Late 20th-century homes near Lake Harriett had saunas in their basements that are now mothballed or used for storage.

Auerbach is trying to change that. His backyard sauna is one of a dozen he has built since moving to Minnesota in 1988 — four for himself and eight for others. The backyard hot room is part of a 22'x28' two-car garage and features a comfortable changing room and an attic, lounge, and office above the sauna. Auerbach has built audio speakers into all four corners of this temple of sweat; he prefers to listen to mellow jazz, reggae, or Afro-pop, but never rock 'n' roll or music heavy on the vocals. Only mellow music enters the sauna.

In 2008 he launched the website, which promotes sauna tradition and lore and extolls the physical and mental health benefits. Auerbach has mentored several younger sauna aficionados and helped them build their own huts.

"I love the health and wellness benefits of saunas, and it's exciting to build saunas," Auerbach says. "I did the website not to monetize, but to share the joy of sauna culture."

Auerbach's fascination with saunas began in the summer of 1985 when he and his friend John Barnett were hitchhiking through Scandinavia. It was a cold summer, and the gray Nordic skies showered rain on the travelers, soaking their sleeping bags and tents.

As luck would have it, a local woman took pity on them and brought them to her home in a Swedish village, where she and her husband lived in a quaint apartment above a dental office.

The Swedes fired up their sauna, and once Auerbach and Barnett emerged, the host had prepared Swedish meatballs and baked a cake for dessert that, in the Scandinavian tradition, sported little Swedish and American flags.

"That was my first real sauna, and it was the first time in weeks I was actually dry," Auerbach remembers. "The mosquitoes were wicked that summer, too. The sauna warmed me, and got rid of the mosquito bites."

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