Hot Stuff: Finding the source of Minnesota’s thermaculture boom starts with a trip to the Iron Range

One of Lamppa’s Stoves in a sauna // Photo by Tj Turner

Deep in the remote Iron Range of northern Minnesota on the shores of Lake Vermilion sits the quiet town of Tower, population of about 500. The Minnesohhtan accents here are as thick as they come—right on Main Street, Uffda Thrifts & Gifts shares a building with UBetcha Antiques & Uniques. The town has a rugged, salt-of-the-earth appeal that comes with adapting to a harsh, brutally cold climate. Oddly enough, we’ve come here to the state’s coldest, northernmost reaches to find one of the country’s foremost masters of heat.

Seventy-year-old Daryl Lamppa is the third-generation owner of Lamppa Manufacturing, which produces wood-burning and electric sauna stoves under its Kuuma brand. Lamppa’s wood stoves are known around the world for being some of the cleanest, most efficient sauna stoves on the market, a fact verified by an EPA certification. But Daryl, a lifelong resident of the area, doesn’t care much about any sort of accolade for his engineering feats—for him, and for his father and grandfather before him, it’s always just been about improving the product.

“He’s a staunch environmentalist, and always has been,” says general manager Dale Horihan. “That’s kind of how he started with this—he didn’t want to produce anything that would produce smoke. If there’s no smoke, there’s no creosote, and there’s no risk of a chimney fire. The saunas burn incredibly clean, but not clean enough. So now they’re gonna be cleaner.”

Manufacturing the stoves // Photo by Tj Turner

Daryl’s grandfather, Richard Lamppa, first began making traditional Finnish sauna stoves out of used oil drums for Finnish settlers in the nearby town of Embarrass back in the 1930s. He quickly developed a reputation for making the best saunas in the area, which was no small feat as it was a region abundantly populated by Scandinavian immigrants. In 2015, one of the first sauna stoves made by Richard found its way back to the Lamppa headquarters, complete with the original inscription of “Steam King” written across the front with a welding rod.

Though the innovation has seen immeasurable progress since the early days, the endearing, old-fashioned spirit is still apparent today. Daryl politely shows about as much interest in chatting with me as I imagine he would listening to someone pitching a vacation timeshare—he’d much prefer to let the product speak for itself.

“We don’t advertise. It’s all word of mouth,” says Dale. “We have a website, and then there’s these…” He leans back and calls to the lady with whom he shares the front office: “What do you call those Morgan? Where you go out online and talk to each other? Blogging?”

“Social media, or blogs? Blogging? Facebook?” Morgan offers.

“Yeah, where people just talk… Forums!” he exclaims. “I’m not techy—I’ve never been on social media, so I’m an old fogey.”

Daryl Lamppa’s patented Kuuma stove // Photo by Tj Turner

What makes the Kuuma such a stand-out is Daryl’s patented design, resulting in a clean, efficient, long-lasting burn. Rather than burning the wood from the bottom up, Kuuma stoves have a front-to-back burner, which burns off all of the gases and liquids trapped in the wood that would otherwise rise and create smoke. Each stove—which has a lifespan of up to 40 years—is crafted from heavy steel, with the smallest weighing in at upwards of 400 pounds.

Lamppa’s old-fashioned, no-nonsense approach to making quality, long-lasting stoves is what they’ve built their reputation on and is what allowed them to more than double their production space last year. “From 2017 to 2018, we grew by 60 percent,” Dale says. “From 2018 to 2019, we doubled. And we don’t know yet, but we’re hoping this year that we can double again.”

After 30 years in a decrepit workshop in downtown Tower, the business moved to a brand-new facility up the road funded by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. In the new facility, they’ve managed to bring their three- to four-month lead time down to three to four weeks. And Dale hopes that, with all the added space, they’ll be able to start keeping stoves in-stock and ready to ship. Lamppa ships their Kuuma stoves all over the world, recently sending one as far as Sudan.

Though sauna and other similar sweat traditions stretch back thousands of years, some as early as 7000 B.C. (one of the first documented mentions in Finland was by Nestor the Chronicler—appropriately named—in 1112, who wrote of “hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves”), the practice is seeing a revitalization with the release of new health studies. Its benefits have been found to range from stress reduction to improved circulation to easing symptoms of Lyme disease. In northern Minnesota, the practice has been woven into the local culture since Scandinavians began flooding the region in the early 20th century, but in the Twin Cities, it’s getting a savvy re-brand thanks to enthusiasts like John Pederson.

The birth of “thermaculture”

A sauna stove being built // Photo by Tj Turner

John, co-founder of Stokeyard Outfitters and the founder of the 612 Sauna Society Cooperative, is one of the big players behind the Twin Cities “thermaculture” boom. And his wood-burning stove of choice? You guessed it. 

“The Kuuma’s a really deep, radiant heat, and it enables you to heat up slowly, almost from the inside out in your body’s thermoregulatory system,” John explains. “You’re able to really have controlled, slow, relaxed breathing, so you have less of the parasympathetic, cortisol and adrenaline high […] it’s more circulatory. That’s where a lot of the health benefits come from.”

Though John has helped organize much of the metro’s thermal movement in recent years—Stokeyard’s recent projects range from mobile, rentable saunas at the Sauna Village in South Minneapolis to one built in on the roof of the Hewing Hotel—he’s quick to give due credit to his heat mentor, Glenn Auerbach, founder of the blog Sauna Times. “He is kind of the guy who’s been raving about quality heat for years, and he’s the reason we have a Kuuma at the co-op, he’s the reason we have Kuumas here,” John says. “He keeps us honest about the good heat.”

When asked about the local fascination with “thermaculture,” John breaks into a knowing grin. “I invented it this summer,” he says of the term. “It’s just the perfect word for this thing that’s been happening, and the thing needed a word. The thing of it is, the projects and a lot of my experiences, they’re not traditional. They’re not Finnish, I’m not Finnish. There’s nothing Finnish about a Hewing rooftop with a DJ, but it’s real and it’s really healing.” 

This determination to define our own means of thermaculture is behind much of what John’s trying to do with his popular programming. “There are different thermic bathing traditions, from Finnish sauna to [Mesoamerican] temazcal, and they’ve all adapted to meet the needs of the culture and society that is experiencing them. What I’m interested in is doing that here,” he says. “There are other projects […] that really want authentic, Finnish sauna. But in my opinion, it’s always evolving and always changing. But the quality of the heat is always a constant. That’s what is giving people something to really work with, something real to start with. That has been the core of what’s really been the substance of the revival.” 

Back up in Tower, Daryl Lamppa is happily far removed from the metro movement that he’s quite literally fueled. For him and the company he’s helped build, it’s about continuing a beloved tradition while providing opportunity for his neighbors. “He likes to build a product that people love,” Dale simply says. “It’s more about providing employment for the employees and contributing to the community.”

As we’re chatting, Daryl’s bundling up and getting ready to take off. “I gotta go on a church roof and shovel it off. That’s where I’m going right now,” he says.

“This is Daryl—he plows snow for all the old people in town, he works for the church, he works for the food shelter,” says Dale, smiling. “Every Sunday after church, he and his wife go to various nursing homes to people that have no family left and visit. He grew up here. But that’s just the kind of guy he is.”

A Kuuma stove in a sauna // Photo by Tj Turner