Newspaper article

How Did 19th Century Minnesota Settlers Deal with These Winters? Saunas May Have Helped

Newspaper article

How Did 19th Century Minnesota Settlers Deal with These Winters? Saunas May Have Helped

Article excerpt

"Sauna" is the word used to describe the Finnish practice of bathing through heat, sweat, and steam, and the building in which this bathing takes place.

Sauna has been practiced for centuries in Finland, and Finnish immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not want to leave sauna behind. Often, the first structure they built on their new rural property was a sauna, which they could live and bathe in while they built their other farm buildings. That was the case with the Barberg-Selvala-Salmonson sauna in Cokato, Minnesota--the oldest savusauna, or smoke sauna, still existing in Minnesota and likely in the United States.

Finns first came to Cokato in 1865, looking for available farmland. Three Finnish families--the Barbergs (also known as the Barbas), Selvalas, and Salmonsons--were among the town's earliest settlers, moving onto their adjoining homesteads by 1868. That year, the families agreed to build a shared savusauna along the property line between the Barberg and Selvala farms.

Traditionally, sauna occurred at least once a week, often on Saturday nights, throughout the year. The simple savusauna was a wood building with a hearth inside. The hearth was covered with rocks that could be heated to great temperatures. Also inside was a wooden platform for bathers to sit or lie on, near the roof to maximize the savusauna's heat. Steps and a lower bench were available for those who did not want the maximum temperature. A fire burned in the savusauna's hearth during the day and then was put out, allowing the smoke in the sauna to dissipate before bathing. The hearth's heated rocks kept the sauna warm for hours after the fire was put out and provided heat for the bathing that followed.

Sauna users like the Barbergs, Selvalas, and Salmonsons sat in the structure long enough to sweat and then cooled off by going outside or rinsing with cold water or snow, if available. They would repeat the process as needed. Bathers also used whisks made of flexible birch branches to beat and stimulate the skin, which caused cleansing through exfoliation.

Non-Finns in Cokato and elsewhere were unfamiliar with sauna. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.