Reviving a Tradition

  • Visit North Central

sauna interiorResidents and visitors looking for a place to cross-country ski or to enjoy a traditional Finnish breakfast know that the place to go is the Finnish Center at Saima Park in Fitchburg. Pannukakku Breakfasts featuring Finnish bread and oven pancakes, celebrations of St. Urho’s Day, and the Kesajuhla/Summer Festival keep ethnic traditions alive.

But another Scandinavian-tradition has pretty much fallen by the wayside in recent years: a trip to the saunas that once dotted lakeside properties, or the steam rooms that served those who didn’t own their own saunas.
The Saima center will recognize that once-familiar tradition on February 25, when it opens its Sauna Museum for the day to celebrate National Sauna Week. The little museum building, no doubt, will hold lots of memories for local residents of Scandinavian heritage. The Center’s sauna, built in 1957, was used by its members and athletes who attended its numerous athletic events. The museum, which includes a display of Lappland art, a history of how the sauna developed through the centuries, and a display of Finnish-made items, will be open during the Center’s February 25 Pannukakku Breakfast event.

Unfortunately, the past 40 years — along with neglect and vandalism — have not been kind to the building. Over the past nine years, though, restoration work has been underway, bringing it to the point where it is open on special occasions. There’s still much to do, though, before it can be again used as a sauna.
Still, for many local Finns, the memories linger.

Chair City SteamAfter the arrival of Swedish and Finnish immigrants in the late 1800s, a number of steam baths opened in the Gardner neighborhoods where they settled. The first steam baths of Gardner opened virtually next door to one another on Pine Street, while another soon opened on Monadnock Street; the longest-lived one — the Chair City Steam Bath — was located on West Street.

There is, of course, a difference between a sauna — which uses dry heat — and a steam bath, with its moist air. But back when indoor plumbing was a luxury for some, a public steam bath was a welcome visit. For many hardy Finns in the region, a cold shower, dip in a lake or — in the winter time — a roll in a snowbank — completed their visit to the sauna or steam bath.

These businesses were popular spots into the mid-twentieth century, when interest faded, leading to closures and even demolition of buildings. The Chair City Steam Bath, however, held on, with a brief closing around the turn of the century.

But you can’t keep a good idea down forever. New owners and a new name have revived this popular Scandinavian tradition. Now billed as the EZ Steam Club, the former Chair City landmark has been renovated and modernized, and is again welcoming visitors to experience a nearly-lost tradition.