Anderson: Ely Steam Sauna was hot before saunas became cool

That Ely does not have a floating sauna tells you all you need to know about the difference between that northeast Minnesota town and the state's other, and tonier, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness gateway city, Grand Marais. That and the fact that a group sauna (limit six) in Grand Marais can set you back nearly $300, while a individual 90-minute heat-up in the Pit, as we used to call it at the Ely Steam Sauna, is chump change by comparison, $11 — soap, towel, shower and perhaps a dozen new Finlander friends included.

The topic arises following reports about the emergence in Minnesota of a so-called sauna revival. Telltale of this trend, we're told — and perhaps telltale also of civilization's imminent collapse — are the arrival of "Thermaculture Events," which, if experienced on the rooftop of a Minneapolis hotel, offer for $65 "a unique combination of gentle guided sauna steam aromatherapy, light breath work and meditation designed to activate parasympathetic thermoregulation.''

Whatever that means, it's different from the first saunas, which were smoke-filled caves whose origins predate the birth of Christ — and different also from the long-practiced form and function of the still-operating Ely Steam Sauna, which was founded by Emil Ahola in 1915.

Iron ore was already being shipped from northeast Minnesota when Emil fired up his sauna's boiler the first time, and immigrants from more than 40 nations had arrived to dig the region's rock with shovels and pickaxes. By 1930, Ely's population had swollen to more than 6,000, about double what it is today, and Finns represented the largest portion of the newcomers. Before constructing other buildings, many built saunas not only for bathing but for sleeping and eating.

Fast forward to 1977.

That's when I moved to Ely to run the Miner, a now-defunct newspaper founded in 1895. Some years earlier, the story went, Fred Childers, the Miner's former publisher, had gone down with the ship, as it were, tipping over face-first into that weekly sheet's behemoth letterhead press. His widow, Columbia, a fiery Italian with a bleeding ulcer, induced me to follow in her husband's ink-stained footsteps by offering $200 a week and a small cabin to rent on White Iron Lake, just outside of Ely.

Columbia forgot to mention, however, that the cabin had no shower, which is how in time I made the acquaintance of Emil "Slim'' Ahola, owner of the Ely Steam Bath and a descendant of the establishment's founder.

If I recall, Slim and I first met on a Friday, a day when, after a week's toiling at the Miner — if our archrival, the Ely Echo, hadn't embarrassed us too much by publishing a more comprehensive collection of potica recipes, or perhaps a more complete listing of church services — Columbia, sensing victory, might lead me and our crackerjack ad salesman, Bob Whitten, down Chapman Street and over to Sheridan, where at a local watering hole we'd knock back a round of boilermakers, Columbia's favorite.

In this revelry, if it were payday on the Range, we'd often join with real workers from Reserve Mining, allowing us to pretend if only for that brief time that we also had put in a day's hard work for a day's good pay. Then, often, Columbia's ulcer would flare, and the three of us would bail, Bob and I trailing our boss back to the office like puppies.

For me, this also was a cue to grab some dinner before sauntering over to Slim's place for a heat-up. Today the Ely Steam Bath is owned by Richard and Nancy Petrzilka. But when I lived in Ely, Slim was the man, and for a few bucks on any night he was open, you could get a clean towel and entry into the Pit — a home-run twofer, especially in winter.

Once inside, however, you'd better be able to take the heat, especially if any of the Pit's toweled inhabitants were named Eino, Toivo or Arvo, as was often the case.

In this company, no newcomer ever sought, nor was granted, the higher of what I recall were three-tiered benches in the Pit. The province of veterans for whom even blast furnaces would pose no challenge, this top flight was reserved for sauna pacesetters who often were armed with cedar boughs, with which, at their discretion, they whacked the backs of the men sitting in front of them, in the lower tiers.

I don't know about the whacker. But after about 15 minutes the effect on the whackee was a rare combination of pain, pleasure and mystery, a trifecta that at ritual's end, after a cold shower, would send me happily into the good night at the wheel of my '57 Willys pickup, deep snow flying, my little cabin awaiting in the distance, its paned windows aglow.

"No one brings cedar boughs anymore,'' Nancy said. "We sell synthetic ones you can strike against your skin. But nobody uses them.''

That bummer aside, other news from the Ely Steam Sauna is upbeat. The place has been fancied up quite a bit. There are men's and women's group saunas, as well as private saunas. You can even make reservations online.

But don't expect anyone to guide you gently through light breath work and meditation.

"A lot of the old guys are gone, but we still have regulars who love to heat up the sauna,'' Nancy said, "and watch the newbies whither and die.''