First thing you need to know when you visit Embarrass: It’s pronounced sow-na, not saw-na. Home to about 600 hardy souls, this tiny township in northern Minnesota is situated low in a river valley between the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges, creating cold-air pools that can push temperatures down to 40 or 50 below zero. So visitors are bound to get an education in the little wood-heated shacks that once provided the only winter bathing opportunity for the Finnish immigrants who toughed it out in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The area was first mapped in the 17th century as French fur trappers passed through and named the nearby waterway after the French word embarrasser, loosely translated as to hinder or encumber, because they found the narrow, shallow river hard to navigate. When the first shipment of iron ore passed through in July 1884, the mining boom began, and many Finnish immigrants settled in this northeastern corner of the state. Seasonal events such as the Finnish Homestead Tours keep the stories of these early settlers alive. Held Memorial Day to Labor Day, the tours offer a 15-mile, three-hour exploration of eight sites for the bargain price of $6.
On a cloudy Saturday, I met five others at the visitors center, a weathered, hand-hewn log building made from tamarack trees. Our tour guide was longtime Embarrass resident Mike Salo. Our group consisted of two middle-aged women from Lino Lakes and one retired couple from Tennessee, who reported that they were exploring the country in their RV and made note of Embarrass because the town was frequently listed in their newspaper as having the nation’s lowest temperature.
As we got ready to drive to the first stop on a cold, dreary day, Mike remarked that there was “quite a parade of us,” adding that “we get more people when it’s cloudy because you can’t go jump in the lake.” One of the first points of interest was the Northern Comfort Bed and Breakfast, a 1901 Finnish boardinghouse with an original Remington stove and trap door in the kitchen floor leading to the cellar.
At the Anna and Mikko Pyhala farm built in the 1890s, we heard about how the family of 19 would take a “bath” in their sauna every Wednesday and Saturday. “If a farm in Embarrass didn’t have a sauna, a Finn didn’t live there,” said Salo. Summer cooking was also done in the sauna so the house didn’t get hot.
While traveling down a deserted dirt road deep in the North Woods to one of our stops, I began to think of this journey as a cross between “The Blair Witch Project” (“a year later their footage was found …”) and “Gilligan’s Island” (“five passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour … a three-hour tour.”)
Although tours are given during the “nice” part of the year, I would recommend a truck or SUV. I had wisely borrowed my sister’s Ford Explorer as I thought my little Ford Focus wouldn’t appreciate the landscape.
So what must it have been like to get off the train in Embarrass and travel by carriage to a dense forest that would need to be cleared so you could build a house? As a modern-day visitor to this region that didn’t even have electricity until 1948, I began to appreciate the Finnish word “sisu,” a term connoting determination and resilience.
Many of the structures on the tour are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Seitaniemi housebarn, a two-story log building combining the family’s dwelling, animal shelter, milking parlor and crop storage in one 90-foot structure. Constructed between 1907 and 1913, it is a rare example of this type of housebarn. In 1987, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Embarrass as one of America’s “Uncommon Places” for the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution.
As we pulled up to our last stop, the Hanka homestead, the white doormat read “Tervetuloa” (Finnish for “welcome”) in fancy red script. When you step in, just remember, it’s “sow-na.”
Sarah Johnson is a Minnesota-based freelance writer who covers history, sports, food and travel for a variety of publications.