Schrader: Stories from the Finnish Steam Bath

This photo of the Finnish Steam Bath on East Pleasant Street in DeKalb probably was taken not long before it was demolished in 1989.

Legendary Sycamore football coach Pete Johnson recently told me about the “Switch and Bucket Club” formed in the late 1940s by a few coaches and their friends who gathered Saturdays in the winter at the Finnish Steam Bath, 1105 E. Pleasant St., DeKalb.

It seems Leland Strombom started the informal group. Lee Mathes and Leroy Swanson were a couple of the other members, Pete remembered. He said the “switch” in the club’s name came from the evergreen boughs (others said willows, birch or eucalyptus) that bathers could use to beat on their skin to aid blood circulation.

The steam bath was opened in the building in 1924 by a Finnish immigrant, Jack Makela, and remained in the same family until it was closed in 1985.

The second-generation owner was Genevieve Davis. The building fell into disrepair and was abandoned after she said she no longer could afford the high gas bills. So in 1989, the city condemned the building, and it was torn down.

I had gone there once in the late 1960s with a DeKalb friend, Fred Dickey, and I remember it was a suffocating heat that I only could stand for a few minutes while profusely perspiring.

The late Carl Lindeberg and I talked about the steam bath just before his passing in 2018. As a youth, Carl lived on 11th Street, and he and his friends used to hang out at the bathhouse and help the owner sometimes. He said some of the Finnish men used to really “turn on the steam” by tossing a bucket of water on the hot coals.

There were three parts to the steam bath: one section for men, one for women and a family section, in addition to the dressing rooms.

Back in Finland, many families had their own saunas in their homes, but over here, it was more likely people would go to a commercial bathhouse similar to the one on Pleasant Street. It became a social gathering place for many families in “Finntown” over the years.

The temperature in a typical steam bath is about 112 degrees. Too much heat or prolonged exposure can cause dizziness, a rapid heartbeat or dehydration. Pete joked that sometimes the Sycamore coaches would have a hard time staying awake at their Saturday night games after spending part of the day at the steam bath.

The building’s demolition came after a group called the Third Ward Coalition, headed by Marshall Hayes, asked that the city step in and clean up eyesores in its neighborhood. It had the support of 3rd Ward Alderman (the late) Bill Hanna.

At the time, Hayes was quoted in the Daily Chronicle saying that the group helped the owner obtain a $2,000 grant to assist her with the cost of having the building torn down.

The demolition cost of $4,000 was split between the city and the owner. City official Bill Nicklas told the Chronicle that there were plans to tear down unsightly or abandoned buildings on Fisk, Oak and Market streets, as well.

Maybe a historical marker at the bathhouse site would be appropriate, but there probably first should be one at the Finnish Temperance Society’s Majakka Hall, at 1021 State St., where Anna Marie Coveny’s DeKalb Area Women’s Center now stands.