History made on sauna size

In August 2005, the world’s record for number of people in a sauna was set during FinnFest USA. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — The Upper Peninsula had the highest concentration of people of Finnish descent in the country in the 1990 U.S. Census. Marquette had the honor of hosting Finn Fest USA twice, in 1996 and in 2005.

It is an annual festival celebrating Finland, Finnish America, and Finnish culture and rotates geographically throughout the United States.

In 1996, one of the activities was an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Sauna. One of the organizers, Jorma (pronounced Yorma) Lankinen, recalled where the idea came from. “Well, it was no big scientific thing,” he said. “We were having some beers, and somebody had a brain fart and we all concurred.” The previous record, from Satahanka, Finland in 1987 had 304 “sauna takers.”

The sauna in Marquette measured one hundred by forty feet on the NMU football field. The bleacher-style seating was made of wood by Northern Michigan University. Heating the sauna was a challenge as the fire marshal forbade live fire.

The solution was two American Eagle 400,000 BTU airplane heaters, used for de-icing jumbo jets, burning jet fuel. The company even sent a technician to run them. He cranked up the blowers and blasted out heat from 2-foot diameter pipes for 10 hours to get the makeshift sauna up to temp.

The dry heat provided by the airplane heaters provided a more accurate traditional sauna. The temperature was kept at 150 degrees to keep potential problems such as fainting to a minimum.

On Aug. 10, 1996, festival participants filled the blue and white tent to enjoy the sauna and hopefully, break the record of the world’s largest sauna. Clothing was mandatory!

Volunteers were on hand to supply cups of water, provide first aid if needed, and fresh air was being continually pumped into the tent. Sprinklers outside of the sauna tent provided relief from the heat and NMU opened the swimming pool for those who wished to take a dip.

After ten minutes at peak heat, a count of participants was taken- 660 people! Fun was had by all…except…Guiness officials did not recognize it as a world record. They said the event took place in a tent and not in a real sauna.

Nine years later, in 2005, Marquette was again hosting Finn Grand Fest USA and organizers planned another attempt at setting the world record.

Organizers built a 4,000-square-foot sauna near the Dome, with temperatures reaching 160 degrees. Entertained by Crystal Hayes, Miss Michigan USA, and Carl Pellonpaa, host of “Finland Calling” on Aug. 13, people again gathered to attempt the world record. This time they had 663 people in the sauna.

News reports in 2005 indicate that a world record was set but it isn’t currently listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe it’s time for another attempt.

While we’re contemplating that possibility, join the Marquette Regional History Center for our annual winter open house on at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 and learn more about the history of saunas in our region and their origins in Finland.

Presented by Ron Hill, president of the local Finlandia Foundation National, Lake Superior chapter. Free open house, donations appreciated.


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