Tag Archives: Finnish

The Saunas of Kaleva: Revisiting the Land of the Heroes

by Stewart A. McFerran

Arthur (right) and Alan Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan.
Arthur (left) and Allen A. Hulkonen, of Kaleva, Michigan.

Arthur Hulkonen grew up in Kaleva, Michigan, at a time when saunas stood in most backyards of town and on surrounding farms. At that time, neighborhood and family saunas were entrenched in community life and stoked with wood on a weekly basis. Routinely, sauna baths were taken and enjoyed by all. Not surprisingly, Arthur’s parents and many of their neighbors hailed from Finland, a country known for its saunas.

Shrouded in the mists of long-forgotten times, the Kaleva were a race of giants called Titans occupying a land called Kalevala. Songs of their deeds are still sung on the heaths of Finland. Many of them tell of a Finnish hero, Vainamoinen, who reveled in sauna heat after performing such deeds as riding an eagle or catching a pike as big as a school bus. When wounded from conflicts, he and his brothers would go to the sauna to heal.

The Finnish national saga known as the Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lonnrot in 1849. Containing 22795 lines of poetry, it became the Finnish national epic and a source of pride as Finland became a nation. Considered a world classic, the Kalevala has been translated into many languages. The great Finnish composer Sibelius was inspired by its power and beauty.  

I have a good mind
Take into my head
To start off singing
Begin reciting
Reeling off a tale of kin
And singing a tale of kind.
The words unfreeze in my mouth
And the phrases are tumbling
Upon my tongue they scramble
Along my teeth they scatter.

Sauna Aika, or "Sauna Time" in Finnish. Portrait of Arthur Image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.
Sauna Aika, or “Sauna Time” in Finnish. Portrait of Arthur Hulkonen. Image courtesy of the author, Fall 2016.

Wednesday and Saturday were the days they fired the saunas of Kaleva, Michigan. Wood-burning stoves were lit, the heat from the large stoves filling the small cedar-lined rooms. Rocks on the top of the stoves sputtered and popped when splashed with water.  Steam enveloped the Hulkonen family and their friends, sitting on high benches and thrashing their skin with birch whisks to improve blood flow.

Many strange beliefs and superstitions are connected with the sauna and with bathing customs. The ancient Finns believed that fire came from heaven, and was sacred. The fireplace and the pile of stone in the sauna were altars, therefore. All diseases and evils of the body were driven out by means of various rites and magic spells. The Finnish word loyly–meaning the steam that rises from the stones–originally signified spirit or even life. In the sauna, one must conduct oneself as one would in church– according to a Finnish saying.

Art Hulkonen met his wife, Mildred, at her family sauna in Kaleva after returning home from World War II, this meeting proving that the family sauna was, indeed, a jolly meeting place. Keeping alive the tradition, Art’s son Allen A. has a sauna in his backyard, now one of the few in Kaleva still in operation. Hulkonen family reunions take place every couple years at the Bear Club.  

The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of the author.
The Bear Club of Kaleva. Image courtesy of the author.

The Bear Club is north of Kaleva on Bear Creek, its light blue sauna, just feet from the creek where sauna bathers can take a cool dip. The Club has a long history: Vernor Sarenius bought  the property in 1912, farming the land until returning to his native Finland. In 1930 it was bought by a group of Standard Oil agents and served as a retreat until 1966, when the Hulkonens bought it.

If you walk down Sampo Avenue in Kaleva, you can see where the saunas once stood. Sauna sites can be found in many backyards there.  Once I stopped at a garage sale on Waotski Street and noticed a dilapidated stone shed at the back of the yard.  It had been painted pink and had a green roof. Sure enough—the sales attendant told me that it had once been a sauna.

After a few inquiries, I found a sauna behind the barbershop and another behind the hardware store. There is a sauna in the yard of the old parsonage of the Lutheran church and a foundation of a sauna behind the Kaleva Bar. A garden blooms on the site of the Hodimakie family sauna.

Tovo Johnson’s old homestead is just down the road. I could still see the large sign on the sauna outbuilding that reads: “Tovo’s Sauna.” Tovo and all Finnish enthusiasts of the sauna will relate to this verse from the Kalevala:

I have stoked up the sauna
Heated the misty bath-hut
Softened the bath-whisks ready
Steeped the pleasant whisks.
Brother, bath your fill
Pour all the water you want
Wash your head till it is flax
Your eyes till they are snowflakes!

Hillari Johannes Viherjuuri describes the whisk–as well as botanical details–that was used in saunas in his book, The Finnish Bath:

Options for making a whisk, from The Finnish Bath by Viherjuuri.

The Birch whisk is an essential part of the Finnish sauna. The best whisk is made from leafy branches freshly gathered in summer. But whisks are used in Winter as well as Summer. In the old days a special week was set aside for making whisks. Curly birch (betula verrucosa) a subspecies of silver birch is the best.

The traditions of Finland live on in Kaleva Michigan and stories from its recent past merge with the mythology of the Kalevala.  To tell a final myth, I will speak of Ilmarinen (Vainimonen’s brother) who forged a magic sampo.  Clues to the magic of the Sampo are found in the text of the Kalevala. Some claim it is a pillar that connects Heaven and Earth, while others say it is a mill that can make gold out of thin air.  When the Sampo was lost, enormous changes rocked the land of heroes before it was returned.The Kalevala reads:

Then the smith Ilmarinen said:
Put this into words: ‘I’ll be
Able to forge the Sampo
Beat out the bright-lid
From a swan’s quill tip
a barren cow’s milk
a small barley grain
a summer ewe’s down
because I have forged the sky
beaten out the lid of heaven
with nothing to start off from
with not a shred ready made.

The shiny lid of the Sampo was broken and scattered after it was made in Kalevala.

Then she reached for the Sampo
With her ring finger: she dropped
The Sampo in the water
felled all the bright-lid
Down over the red craft’s side
In the midst of the blue sea;
There the Sampo came to bits
And the bright-lid to pieces.

The saunas of Kaleva have fallen down, but the sites where they once stood litter the village. A few persons still practice the tradition of sauna there and elsewhere in Northern Michigan–you might see a sauna if you walk down Sampo Avenue.

Who knows? Maybe you will even see the shiny lid of the long-lost Sampo.

Three final notes:

February 28, is Kalevala day in Finland.

The village of Kaleva Michigan will hold Kaleva days July 15 – 17   2016

Kalevala is available for checkout at the Traverse Area District Library.

S. A. McFerran is a regular contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal, and has built his own sauna where he experiences a loyly each week.