Historic sauna continues to serve downtown Duluth

The word “retirement” isn’t a part of Herb and Kate Jensen’s vocabulary. They did have plans once of moving permanently to their cabin up north and they did try to lease out their business for a couple years, but the two just can’t stay away. Why should they? The Jensens have been successfully running the Duluth Family Sauna, located on First Avenue East, for more than 40 years. They show no sign of stopping anytime soon. Herb still stops by the business twice a day and Kate continues to manage the books.

Duluth Family Sauna changed its name from the Duluth Steam Bath in 1989, when the city adopted a new regulation on signs. Their old sign can still be found at Grandma's Sports Garden in Duluth. Photo Credit: Lisa Mattson

“What else would I do,” Herb said. “Just sit and watch TV all day?”

Herb, 83, bought the sauna in 1969 when it was known as the Duluth Steam Bath. He had been using the sauna to treat a back injury and didn’t want to see the building torn down to make way for another parking lot. Thanks to Herb, the building has stood in the same place with the same purpose for 90 years.

“It’s a real sauna,” Herb said. “It’s just a little dinky business, but it serves its purpose.”

Back in 1921, when the sauna was built, there were more than a dozen steam baths in the area. According to “The History of the Finns in Minnesota,” the Duluth Steam Bath was one of the many saunas built for the primarily Finnish miners, loggers, and railroad workers who lived and worked near Duluth in the early 1900s. Today the sauna serves tourists and die-hard regulars alike. Some use the sauna to warm-up after a day of skiing or hunting while others, Herb included, just enjoy the relaxation of a steam bath. People of all ages and backgrounds are welcome at the Duluth Family Sauna.

“We’re non-biased to anybody who comes in,” Herb said. “They pay their money. They can get their sauna.”

Duluth Family Sauna provides private sauna rooms for singles, couples and families. Each sauna contains a shower and is connected to a private resting or dressing room. Building these areas was one of the major overhauls the Jensens took on when they took over the sauna all those years ago. Herb did most of the plumbing and handy work himself. Kate helped to decorate the space.

“At first it was all cement walls,” Kate said. “It looked like an institution or something.”

Decorating wasn’t the only updating that needed to be done. When it came time to open up a wall to create more space in the private rooms, Kate was given a sledgehammer and was put to work. The task proved much more difficult than it first appeared. Behind the thick cement walls was a layer of strong wire mesh. The sledgehammer bounced right back at her.

“That building was built really, really solid. It used to be a fallout shelter,” Herb said. “I feel sorry for anyone taking down that building.”

The Jensens don’t plan on that happening anytime soon. Herb wants to stay true to the Duluth Family Sauna name and keep the sauna family owned and operated. He wants to pass on the business to his kids someday, but an uneasy and ever changing Duluth economy has been an obstacle. At times the Jensens have had to rely on savings to keep the sauna running, but business has been picking up recently.

“We’re hanging in there,” Kate said.

So maybe someday will come for Herb and Kate.  Maybe after 40 years of devotion to the old “maintenance hog” they will decide to head up the north shore for good. Maybe Kate can finally finish her collection of wildlife photos she has hanging in the hall, each of a different animal found at their cabin in the woods. For now, they have their backyard with the squirrels and the deer, and they have an old building on First Avenue East, perhaps the last sauna of its kind.

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