Area’s Finnish heritage found in surviving saunas

The Sydorowich sauna in Andover. Click any photo to launch the gallery. All photos by Devin Colman.

By Devin Colman
Vermont State Architectural Historian

©2107 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Ever wondered why the area around East Hill Road in Andover is often referred to as “Finn Hill?” In the early 20th century, groups of Finnish immigrants moved to the area and began new lives. Settling primarily in the towns of Andover, Chester, Mt. Holly and Ludlow, many Finns purchased existing farmsteads vacated by farmers who had migrated west. Several settled along East Hill Road, giving rise to the local nickname.

Evidence of these Finnish settlers can still be seen on the landscape, in the form of small, freestanding saunas.

While the typical farmstead already had a house, a barn, outbuildings, and land cleared for crops and pasture, it lacked an essential component of Finnish culture: a sauna.

Settling primarily in the towns of Andover, Chester, Mt. Holly and Ludlow, many Finns purchased existing farmsteads vacated by farmers who had migrated west.

The Kangas sauna in Andover.

To most Americans, the word “sauna” conjures up visions of a hot little room in the basement of the local YMCA or health club. But a true sauna (pronounced SOWna, not SAWna), is a centuries-old practice in Finland, where it is firmly entrenched in everyday life. Using skills passed down through generations, Vermont’s Finnish immigrants built saunas on their farmsteads as a means of embracing and maintaining their cultural heritage in a new land.

Nearly a century later, several of these saunas remain standing in various states of repair.

Detail of dovetail corner at the East Hill Farm sauna. The tight joinery is a hallmark of Finnish construction.

They range from early 20th century savusaunas (smoke saunas) to a 1970s sauna built in the Finnish tradition. Very few are still functioning, while others are on the verge of collapse.

These humble buildings are landmarks of Finnish culture in southern Vermont, and should not be left to decay back into the ground. An effort is under way to identify representative examples of Finnish saunas in the area and lay the groundwork for future research and documentation of these buildings. The Finlandia Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports Finnish culture in the United States, recently awarded the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation a grant in support of this research.

Historically, saunas were built as free-standing structures using traditional Finnish log construction techniques. While many cultures have utilized log construction, Finns refined the craft by carefully squaring and scribing each log for a precise fit and locking them together with intricate corner notches.

The hallmark of Finnish log construction is that the logs fit together so tightly that no chinking is necessary to fill gaps between them. Finnish homesteaders in the middle and western United States built entire farmsteads in this manner, including the house, barns, outbuildings and, of course, the sauna.

The hallmark of Finnish log construction is that the logs fit together so tightly that no chinking is necessary to fill gaps between them.

 

The owner of the Gibney sauna hopes to get it in working shape.

Most saunas consist of two spaces: a small changing room and a slightly larger sauna room with a stove. To take a sauna, a small fire is built in the stove. The fire heats rocks piled on top of the stove, and water poured onto the heated rocks creates steam. The steam cleans out the pores, and the heat is relaxing and soothes sore muscles. The act of taking a sauna is both practical, as a means of cleansing the body, and social, as a means of gathering together with friends, family and neighbors.

In May 2016, a group of local Finnish-Americans and historians set out on a day-long tour of Finnish saunas that remain standing in the towns of Andover, Chester, Mt. Holly and Ludlow.

Besides me, the group consisted Eva Suojanen, a resident of Springfield and the daughter of Finnish immigrants; Nils Shenholm, owner of Solhem Saunas in Duxbury; Peter Farrar, a historian from Andover; and Janet Kalinen Albrecht, also the daughter of Finnish immigrants and a resident of Andover.

Participants in the May 2016 sauna tour are, from left, Nils Shenholm, Janet Kalinen Albrecht, Peter Farrar and Alice Suojanen.

Georgia Brehm and Linda Tucker from the Black River Academy Museum joined the group too, and provided a tour of the Finnish Heritage Gallery at the museum. The group visited nearly a dozen saunas, and several others were noted in the countryside for future research.

There are undoubtedly more sauna buildings in the area that have yet to documented, as well as other structures built by Finnish immigrants, such as barns and small outbuildings. If you know of any such buildings, whether or not they’re still standing, please contact me at at devin.colman@vermont.gov.

The goal of this research is to compile a comprehensive inventory of Finnish-built structures in the area, document them with photographs and measured drawings, and possibly help stabilize and preserve some of the best examples. By doing so, this important part of Vermont’s cultural and ethnic heritage can be preserved and shared with present and future generations.

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  1. Peter d says:

    Cool to know that you’re related to Ruben Fossi. I worked for him when he took care of the phone company. Lived on 103 south of Chester.

  2. Ritva Burton says:

    Great article! In Finland every home has a sauna, even apartment buildings in the city. My brother, Kalevi Pajala, who lives in Andover built a log sauna next to his pond.

  3. Charlie Record says:

    Nice article. My grandmother and her family (Fossi) were Finnish and lived and grew up on East Hill in Andover. I remember them telling stories of sliding down East Hill in the winter on a toboggan to go to school at the schoolhouse on the bottom. I am not sure if they had a sauna growing up, but my father’s uncle, Ruben Fossi, had one in later years and he would take a sauna and roll in the snow after to cool off. Supposedly that was a Finnish tradition.

  4. Gregory Higgins says:

    My grandparents Carl and Katrin Kaplan moved to Mt. Holly in 1954 and built a sauna to live in while they were building their house. The house and sauna are on Sawyer Hill Road and the sauna is collapsing and no longer owned by our family.
    My parents Viola and William moved onto the adjoining land on Sawyer Hill Road. In 1980 and built a sauna that is still here in use by me.

  5. Kathy Bentley says:

    I was so sad when the sauna was torn down at my grandparents old farm. Modern ones just aren’t the same.

  6. Bob Furman says:

    My Dad grew up in Ludlow and although not Finnish, he could speak the language because all of his playmates were Finnish. The sauna tradition became a part of our family, thanks to the public “steambath” in Springfield near the hospital; 24 Old Chester Road is the address and the building is now a private residence.

  7. Edward Peck says:

    Fantastic to see this effort before it’s too late.

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