Preserving the past: Kaleva Historical Society brings authentic Finnish sauna to museum

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KALEVA — In search of a new life, Finnish settlers called Kaleva of Manistee County home nearly 100 years ago.

Oftentimes, the first thing a family would build on this new land was a traditional Finnish sauna. Many lived in these structures while they built more permanent homes and, afterward, the sauna continued to be used for health, bathing and even birthing.

In the spirit of preserving Kaleva’s Finnish heritage, an authentic Finnish sauna now sits beside the village’s famed Bottle House Museum, a listed landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. The project was made possible by the hard work of the Kaleva Historical Society and local support.

“We have hundreds of visitors a year (come through the Bottle House) and, especially if they know about Finnish culture, people will ask if there are any saunas still in operation around here,” said Cindy Asiala, member of the historical society’s board of directors. “It was such an important custom to the Finns.

“A few are still around, but most of them now are just storage areas and very few people who have moved in even know that (those structures) were at one time bath houses.”

Last week, the demonstration sauna was transported to the Bottle House and permanently placed at its new home.

Local builder Sam Bontrager used material from the area to construct the sauna and shares the hope that Kaleva could once again embrace the Finnish custom.

“Sam builds things out of logs that he harvests around the area and became so interested in the project, he actually built himself one,” Asiala said. “He’s building more to sell, thinking the idea might catch on.

“We’re hoping it will too, with anyone who loves Kaleva or is connected to Finnish culture.”

A sauna is a small room or building used as a hot-air or steam bath for cleaning and refreshing the body, both for physical and mental relaxation. In Finnish culture, it is a place to also relax with friends and family.

“Ours is completely authentic and soon we’ll have signage telling about the sauna and how it was important in the culture,” Asiala said. “During the Bottle House’s open hours, (the sauna) will be designed to self-tour.”

To finance the majority of the project’s $10,000 price tag, the Kaleva Historical Society raised money through a crowd funding campaign.

The Finlandia Foundation also granted $2,500 for the project and historical society members donated the remainder of the cost.

“(We wanted) to build a true replica of a Finnish sauna, made of materials in a size that was common to early Kaleva when first settled by Finnish ancestry,” stated historical society member Jim Draze, who also serves as chair of the village’s planning commission.

“This project started two years ago with donations from members of the historical society,” Asiala said, “and here we are: it’s done and beautiful. And now people can have a true experience of what it was like to step into a Finnish sauna.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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