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Steam of Life

Premiere Date: August 2, 2011

'The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition'

Noted journalist of the civil rights movement Carl T. Rowan (left) was named U.S. ambassador to Finland in 1963. Prior to assuming his post in Helsinki, Rowan enjoyed a sauna in Virginia, Minnesota, with the local Finnish club president. Rowan had earned his degree at the University of Minnesota and began his career at the Minneapolis Tribune. Photograph by Chuck Brill; copyright 2010 Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul).

Sauna became known and practiced throughout the [United States], particularly during the 1950s and early 1960s, after the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen's 1961 visit to the White House during the Berlin crisis, and a flock of articles in magazines and newspapers promoting the exotic healthful practice. In 1962, a Wall Street Journal headline confidently announced, "Relaxing Sauna Baths' Growing Popularity Lifts Equipment Sales." In early 1963, Life proclaimed, "U.S. Takes Up Sauna Bake-bath: A Hot Fad from Finland."

Some Finns of the Lake Superior region saw a clear opportuenity to assert their authentic claim as a local source of sauna supplies. In March 1963, John F. Kennedy’s newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Finland, Carl Rowan, was invited to the Iron Range and presented with an electric sauna stove locally manufactured by Ronald Lahti for delivery to President Kekkonen. With U.S. Senators Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in attendance, the Iron Range marked Carl T. Rowan Day in honor of the first African American to reach the highest echelons of national diplomacy. Rowan experienced his first sauna at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Luopa of Virginia, and gamely shared that "there are people in Washington waiting for a report on this." The new ambassador was offered a birch vihta but cautiously responded, "I don’t intend to join any Birch Society." The Mesabi Daily News reported the next day that Rowan had lost four pounds during his initiation.

Text excerpts and photographs taken from The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition by Michael Nordskog, photography by Aaron W. Hautala. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Michael Nordskog. Photographs copyright 2010 by Aaron W. Hautala.

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