Barrel making is making a comeback in Engadine, but this time around, the barrels are much larger and kiln-dried, ready for use as saunas.
The Upper Peninsula Sauna Company has been cranking out the 6-foot-by-11-foot barrels since 2013, with demand spiking since the pandemic. The lumber is locally milled, and the saunas are assembled in the Mackinac County community, once a lumbering town known for its cooperage mill.
The handcrafted portable saunas have found homes across the U.P. – including at camps and vacation rentals – and in the lower peninsula, and as far away as Maryland and Colorado.
“They’re affordable and portable self-contained units. We’re proud of the quality and how well they work,” said Zeak DeWyse, who is also a licensed contractor and builder of log homes and other structures. “Most of the cedar is milled and kiln-dried locally and the saunas are built and assembled here in the U.P., as well.”
“Some people have bought one for their camp in the U.P. and then they bring it home with them because they’re easy to move with a trailer,” DeWyse said.
Saunas, of course, are common throughout the U.P.
Keweenaw Peninsula, which has the highest population of Finnish descendants, is where it all began.
“First of all – something to highlight is how to pronounce it properly,” said Fred Huffman, a Marquette-based historian who is known for his tours across the peninsula.
“It’s not ‘sawnah,’ it’s ‘sow-nah.’”
Finnish immigrants came to the U.P. in the mid-1800s, many of them pursuing jobs on farms or in copper mines. “They were attracted to the area because it reminded them of their home country,” he explained. “Sometimes their sauna was the first thing they’d build because you could live in one. They provided heat, you could cook over the stove and use the benches to sleep on.”
Wednesday and Saturdays were, and, in some cases, still are, considered “sauna nights” for friends and family.
Saunas serve more than one purpose. They’re typically used for cleansing/ and bathing, health reasons, socializing and meditating. While many Americans wear bathing suits while basking in the heat, the traditional way is to be naked.
Over the years public saunas have opened and closed in the U.P.
The longest operating one – Second Street Sauna – is in Marquette, which was home to FinnFest USA in 1996 when more than 600 people gathered on bleachers under a tent in the “World’s Largest Sauna.”
Portable saunas have been around for more than a decade and they’re not going anywhere soon.
“In Finland, portable saunas were brought to war with them. Today, I see the barrels traveling down the highway. It’s pretty neat,” he said.
The inspiration to handcraft his own saunas came while DeWyse was flying to Florida during a family vacation. He noticed an advertisement for barrel saunas.
A contractor by trade, he daydreamed about how he’d make one, even sketching a design on scrap paper.
“I ended up throwing it away and didn’t think about it again for a while,” he said.
Then, years later, DeWyse saw a homemade sauna for sale online in the Keweenaw Peninsula. “I found a guy that made a barrel sauna in his backyard in Pelkie. It was in pretty rough condition, but I told my wife I was thinking about buying it because I was interested in making them. It was during the (last) recession
so she wasn’t crazy about the idea at first,” he laughed.
Since he didn’t initially come up with the idea of a barrel sauna, DeWyse called the man, told him about his plan and asked if he’d mind. “He says with a heavy Yooper accent, ‘I don’t care what you do with it.’ So, I put it on a trailer, brought it home, started the fire and used it. And as crooked as it was, it worked great,” he said.
Around this time, DeWyse’s construction company had built a customized home for a client who was interested in having a sauna as well.
“We started pricing out how much it’d cost to build one and back then it would have been $20,000 or so. Today, it easily would be 60-70 grand,” DeWyse said.
Instead, he suggested a cheaper, alternative route for his client – a barrel sauna.
DeWyse’s company made four to begin with and they all sold. They used the barrel DeWyse bought in Pelkie as a prototype.
“So, we bought some property that nobody wanted on U.S. 2, where we advertise them, and to this day, I’d say one-third of our saunas are sold that way,” DeWyse said.
A year after opening Upper Peninsula Sauna Company, Michigan Country Lines – a magazine that’s distributed throughout the Great Lakes region, published an article about the units being made in Engadine.
“The article came out and we had no idea how big it would be. We started getting calls from all over the United States and a few from Canada. We sold 20 units in four days,” DeWyse said. “We were totally unprepared, but that article was a huge gift for us.”
During the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeWyse said 22 units alone were sold in September 2020, including the four on display at the company showroom.
“From that time on, we have been back ordered about 12 units or so,” he said.
Upper Peninsula Sauna Company
The customized cedar units vary in price, according to size and the amenities. Prices typically range from around $5,000 - $10,000.
The most popular package is “Ready to Sweat.” The four-person barrel comes with everything you need to get started, including a custom fabricated wood stove, water pail and wooden cedar spoon, solar light, thermometer-hygrometer, firewood and Upper Peninsula native rocks.
All you have to do is spark the fire.
Customers have the option of picking up the saunas in Engadine or having them delivered to their doorstep, DeWyse said.
“Our driver will unload it, place the rocks on the stove properly, and they’ll literally light the fire for you if you want,” he explained. “You could be using it within a half hour or an hour depending on how hot you want it.”
While the construction business slows down in the winter, DeWyse is able to keep his employees busy throughout the year because of the sauna company, something he’s especially proud of. He has a crew of nine.
“It’s local jobs with decent pay and we’re shipping things to people that make them happy … and we’re doing it all in Engadine,” he said.
The materials also have come from local mills, helping the local economy. The company has purchased white cedar from B & B Woodmizing in the Germfask area, Tuttles Cedar Yard in Gulliver, and Bigger Forest Products in Gould City.
“The main economy for the town was the cooperage mill, a barrel-making facility, in the 1800s. Now here we are years later making barrel saunas. I think that’s pretty cool.”
For more information about Upper Peninsula Sauna Company, visit www.dewyseconstruction.com.