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This building was constructed by Emil Ahola in 1915 (about). He poured the concrete foundation and the 8x16” cement blocks himself.  He designed a hot water heating system originally fueled by wood, later converted to coal and then to oil. The Steam Bath business stayed in the Ahola family for 87 years. In 2002, the Petrzilkas bought the business, continuing this important community service to this day. For more information on the Ahola family and the Ely Steambath, continue reading below. 

The Ely Steam Bath

Building, Window, Property, Door

The Ely Steam Bath Waiting Room

Property, Building, Window, Door

Emil Ahola was born in Finland in 1880 and came to this country in 1899. In 1901 he sent for his wife Mary to join him in America.  Emil initially worked in the mines and later as a plumber for the city. In 1915, he built the building you see here today.

In 1922, the Steam Bath (or sauna) was open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 6:00 to 11:00 and on Saturdays, noon to 12:00.  Emil and Mary lived on Conan Street near the bath house.

The Ahola family continued to run the sauna for over 80 years, first by Emil’s son, Toimi, and later by his grandson, Dick.  Toimi also ran the Ford Garage on Conan Street, and the Ahola Apartments on Camp Street. Toimi served as a St Louis County Commissioner for 23 years.  

Dick, the last Ahola to manage the sauna, worked for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.  Dick died in 2001, leaving the sauna without a caretaker. Then in 2002 the business was purchased by Rick and Nancy Petrzilka. The Petrzilkas have updated many of the rooms, but they still offer separate rooms for men (the bullpen) and women and private rooms for couples or families.

The process to take a traditional sauna, involves several steps. First the sauna taker, undresses, although a towel or even swimwear may be used for modesty.  Then he or she fills a bucket with temperate water, finds a place in the sweltering steam room on the long benches and builds the steam by tossing water on the heat source. The body is scrubbed with soap and water, and cedar switches can be used to whip one’s body to encourage perspiration.  The idea is to become very relaxed and very warm. The final steps involve rinsing first in temperate water and then in cool water, to close the pores. If the sauna is near a lake, one can take a refreshing dip and feel the velvet water of northern Minnesota while watching the summer night sky overhead.

As any Finn can tell you, and more recently they have been supported by emerging evidence in several medical studies, saunas can improve health by reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and stroke, and may also have benefits in treating non-vascular diseases such as the common flu, headaches, and skin conditions.

But in Ely’s history, the public steam bath was more than a tradition or health activity. It was a necessity for the early settlers who did not all have bathrooms indoors. Even those who lived in the city.

When the Finnish homesteaders came in the rural areas, the first building they built was the sauna. It was used to cook in, wash in and sleep in, until other buildings could be raised

Today the Ely Sauna is used by many families of Finnish descent, as well as others who just enjoy the camaraderie of a group bath.  Many of the hearty outdoors people who come through Ely stop by as a time-honored tradition following an extended workout, canoeing in the wilderness. It is a popular stop for local college students as well.


1915 – Emil builds the Ely Steam Bath building

1963 – Toimi dies, 1964 his father Emil dies,

1963 – Dick runs the business until 2001

2002 – The Petrzilka buy the business

The Ely Summertime publication, Ely Mn., Raven Words Press, 2011 Accessed April 8th, 2022.         

Information from Judy Ahola Maki (granddaughter of Emil Ahola)

Information from Nancy Petrzilka (current owner)  

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Ely-Winton Historical Society

Ely-Winton Historical Society