The sauna goes to college

According to many Finnish narratives, the first building built on most Finnish farms was the sauna. This building would also often be the first home to many of these early settlers until a separate house could be built. The warm, comforting sauna building was the site for many a child's birth on the Finnish homesteads. The hand-squared, notched, or dovetail log corners are a hallmark of the woodworking skills of the builder. This sauna on a northern Wisconsin farm has outlived the other original buildings. Saunas were usually some distance from the house and barns to cut down on the possibility of fire spreading to the rest of the buildings.

When a person leaves a hometown to travel out into the world, whether for further education, a job, or military service, new experiences are assured. Maybe she will eat a type of food that is unfamiliar, or he will hear a language he has never heard before. And, in turn, that person may share with others things from the hometown left behind.

For those of us who grew up on the melting pot of nationalities called the Iron Range, we took with us many wonderful things when we went to new environments. I remember sharing my Mother’s potica with girls in my college dorm. They were fascinated by the description of how it was made. And the taste! Most of them had never eaten such a delightful bread!

A few years later, when I was teaching high school students, one of my students came from a family who had immigrated to America from India. This young lady brought to class sandesh. I had never had these excellent cookie-like desserts before, nor had any of the other students. We all learned something that day.

Sharing one nationality’s culture with people from a different nationality is a great way to learn from and appreciate others. Travel, it is often said, is a “broadening” experience, but even just tasting the food or hearing the language of another culture can be enlightening.

The following story was written for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, February 27, 1994, by Doreen Lindahl, who wrote for the newspaper for many years. She tracked down the story of two Hibbing boys who took their love of the traditional sauna to a new level when they decided to share it with their college.

The sauna. That’s been a hot topic at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, since the fall of 1991 when two Hibbing students set out to introduce the culture of the sauna through a club at Gustavus.

Marc Dissell and Lars Hammar, life-long sauna buffs, one night were sitting around talking about how much they missed taking a sauna. They thought how cool it would be to get a group together at the college who liked to sauna – or wanted to experience a sauna for the first time.

At first the group included just their friends. Then they started a newsletter (“Sweat – er Letter”). Soon, others beyond their initial group wanted copies. According to Marc, “Eventually we got more and more people taking saunas seriously.” Newsletter subscribers now number 120, with 70 to 80 people actively participating in the group.

So what do Sauna Society members do? They sauna!

Gustavus Adolphus, a liberal arts college founded by Swedish Americans, has many ties to its Scandinavian roots. Among those is a campus sauna. However, it is a “third rate” sauna, according to the founders of the Sauna Society. They explained that the Gustavus sauna has an electric stove, tile floors, and considerable distractions for saunaing.

The sauna is just off the pool area, with lifeguards monitoring how long and how hot they can sauna. Diving coaches can be heard yelling instructions to divers in the pool. All of this a far cry from the quiet of a sauna by a lake.

Still, “We love our sauna,” says Lars, “because it is our ‘home sauna.’ “

A principle activity of the Sauna Society is teaching people the correct pronunciation of “sauna.” Most of them say “sah – nah.” Hammar and Dissell have talked to English professors and checked dictionaries. They all agree that the correct pronunciation is “sou – nah.” (As explained in the wonderful book “The Opposite of Cold – The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition” by Michael Nordskog and published by the University of Minnesota Press, the correct pronunciation has “a diphthong drawing out the transition from the ‘a’ to the ‘u,’ similar to ‘sauerkraut’ and distinct from ‘fraud.’ ”)

Those who have difficulty twisting their tongue correctly are given this rhyme to repeat: “How now, brown sauna.”

The young men also point out that people new to the sauna “don’t have much of a clue as to what the sauna is about.” The sauna is not a mere “steam bath,” they stress. It is a whole, total experience.

To give club members that “sauna experience,” trips up north are arranged. Winter trips are called “Sweat and Snow” trips. Hammar and Dissell concede that any trip off campus is like a vacation, but, “It’s such a high cultural experience to come up north and sauna the way it was meant to be done.”

With much struggle, the students were able to establish the Sauna Society as an official Gustavus group that qualified for funding. Just like all other campus groups, they had to lobby the campus committee which provides funding and approval for sanctioned clubs. That was tough. “We had a hard time when we said we wanted to include trips up north. They kept saying that it was nothing but a big vacation trip. The thing they didn’t understand is that you go to have a true cultural sauna experience that can’t be had on campus.”

They received the funding.

The trip last fall was a cultural experience for students from all over the nation, plus from the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, and Yugoslavia. Even people from southern Minnesota need to be introduced to proper saunaing. Of course, many Scandinavians are just following tradition through the club, but the most recent group to join were Asian students.

“Professors will talk about ‘culture hearth’ in geography, and as far as the sauna culture hearth goes in America, northern Minnesota and northern Michigan is where it’s at,” explain the students.

Many of those getting the sauna experience had thought a sauna was just “steam baths and whirlpools, which have nothing to do with saunas.”

Hammar and Dissell further state, “To truly have the sauna experience, you have to be where there is a lot of cold, lots of snow, lots of trees.” The biggest of the Sweat and Snow trips had 27 people who participated. Hiking through the snowy pine forest near Lake Vermilion was a high point of the trip, the first time most of the group had ever done such a thing.

Proper saunas include whisks to slap one’s back with – cedar branches being a winter favorite and birch for summer. Says, Dissell, “Cedar has the flat needles and good smell. Awesome. You really know where you are when you smell the cedar.”

They have sauna oil to put in the water bucket as the sauna heats up. It smells especially wonderful when that water is then tossed onto the hot rocks once the sauna is well-heated. The oils come in various scents. The students have quite a collection: Siberian pine, fir, eucalyptus, cedar, and a new Finnish one called Loyly (with two dots over the o). This oil came from a Swedish boy who bought it in Norway for his American girlfriend to give to the Sauna Society. Loyly, with the two dots, means “steam” in Finnish.

Almost always, the northern lights have come out for the Sauna Society trips, and one of the favorite trips featured a full moon. For many of the participants, to see the aurora borealis or the big shining moon across a frozen northern Minnesota lake was a remarkable experience. Many want to come back to the north again. Some never want to leave.

But what about a roll in the snow or a jump in the lake? Hammar and Dissell have done both, and Society members have at least done the snow roll. They got permission at the campus sauna at Gustavus to snow-jump – going through the pool area, out an emergency exit, and through the snow to a stand of pine trees.

So far, Society members haven’t done the frozen lake jump. One fellow offered to chainsaw a hole in the frozen lake for them. They didn’t accept because “building codes in St. Louis County require the sauna to be 75 feet from the lake. It takes 30 seconds to get to the lake and by then you are cold. You want to be hot when you jump into the water.”

Sauna stories are a vital part of the total sauna experience. Swapping sauna stories and just good old storytelling makes for an excellent sauna experience, according to Hammar and Dissell. Candles are put into a three-pound coffee can so the melting wax stays in the can. The can is placed on the floor and the storytelling begins.

Besides the day when they find a sauna they can use that is close enough to a frozen lake so everyone can experience the frozen lake jump, what else does the Sauna Society look forward to doing? “It would be nice to have a real traditional sauna built on campus.” Some serious convincing would need to be done, along with calling alumni and general fundraising. It is a good dream.

The Gustavus Sauna Society has set the guidelines and good precedents, so in the future other colleges will have a clue how to go about organizing a Society on their own campuses. Students from other colleges have already made inquiries, including from Yale.

And there is yet another dream, says Dissell. “Lars and I have talked about how we’d like to come to campus twenty years from now and show up at 4:00 on a Sunday and sauna with the Sauna Society and then go on a Sweat and Snow tour.”

And that’s not just a lot of “loyly,” either.


At the beginning of the new schoolyear in 2008, a couple of Gustavus Adolphus students, a young man and a young woman, and a female professor (a self-described “sauna connoisseur”) resurrected the Sauna Society which had been on a decade-long hiatus. The stated purpose of the Society was “To educate the Gustavus community about the physical and spiritual health benefits of the sauna.” An article by student Max Beyer in the student–run campus newspaper, “The Gustavian Weekly,” describes a large crowd around the Society’s sign-up table at the Activity Fair where students can learn about campus clubs.

One of the original founders, Lars Hammar, was contacted in 2008 by the campus newspaper. He recalled that part of his motivation for founding the Society was to honor his Finnish heritage. So he was very glad to hear that the Sauna Society was making a comeback.

• • •

Looking Back

The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.


January 21, 1987

The Hibbing Rotary has been served by 67 presidents. Don Larson is the most recent to hold this post.


July 14, 1994

Sears wants to come to Virginia. But only if someone is willing to open a store carrying the merchandising giant’s name. The company is launching what it calls “retail dealer stores.”


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