Growing up in a sauna — memories of the Steam Baths

When I was nine years old, our family moved to the Sylvan Lake, in Central Alberta, from northern B.C.

Central Steam Baths - circa 1960

Central Steam Baths - circa 1960

by Brenda Allan (nee Anderson)

When I was nine years old, our family moved to the Sylvan Lake, in Central Alberta, from northern B.C. I was still young enough not to be too troubled by the prospect. My two sisters, my brother and I were going to live near a lake and a beach and our grandmother.

So, I didn’t actually grow up in a sauna, but we did live above the family business. The large, white stuccoed building was named “Central Steam Baths”. It was built by my paternal grandfather, Charles Anderson, in 1947 in an area where many other Finns had settled.

My dad, Richard, took over the business from my Uncle Clarence in 1963. When our family moved into the upstairs living area my parents decided it needed renovating. Walls came out, an extra bedroom went in for my brother, and the modern new furniture and appliances helped my mother adjust to the change.

I remembered visiting when it had been a warren of cozy rooms, with storage under the eaves in cubby spaces where we would read comic books, and the living room had a black bear rug on the floor and antlers on the wall. There were cast iron radiators in each room that heated the house, and there was no feeling cozier than when they would clank to life. In the winter, wool mittens lined up steaming on the top and boots pushed in under the bottom.

Now it was an open, bright space with large windows and a white wrought-iron railing above the stairway. The stairs led from our living room down to a door that opened into the business part of the Steam Baths.

The business consisted of six private units on the main floor that customers could rent. Each unit had a brass number on a white wooden slat door and a dressing room, a shower room and a steam room. The concrete floors were painted a shiny grey and had brightly coloured braided rag rugs scattered about. White benches lined the walls for customers to wait for their turn.

A counter wrapped around the corner with a cupboard for towels and face cloths at one end and a big, rectangular pop cooler filled with glass bottles of Coca-Cola, Orange Crush and 7-Up against the wall. We kids were happy to see a shelf holding chocolate bars, Cheezies and chips for sale and were fascinated by the big cash register.

The Steam Baths came with a resident cat, Big John, a large, white and very fluffy cat whose habit was to leap up on the red counter-top and then spring to the top of the high towel cabinet to preside over the room.

In the back of the building was the furnace room, which was filled by a huge gas-heated (originally coal-heated) boiler to produce the hot water and steam, fascinating with its gauges and noisiness and the way it would roar when the burners fired up. There was a back stairway that led down through this room and connected to a laundry room but I only cut through when I absolutely had to.

Dad was the quintessential Finn. His brothers seemed much more jovial, but Dad was taciturn and responsible. He was also thrifty. He worked hard building up the business.

When I look at photos now of before and after we moved, he must have lost 40 pounds within the first year. First, there were the stairs which he was up and down many times per day. After each customer finished his bath, Dad and Mom would wipe down each unit from top to bottom with clean towels to prepare for the next person. The rooms would still be warm and my parents would be sweating almost as much as the bathers. I can still remember the crisp, kind of piney scent of the sanitizer they used. The place was kept spotless. There were always towels to wash, dry and fold, floors to be mopped and venetian blinds to dust. We all took our turns doing jobs. The business and family life blended together.

In the evening at suppertime, one of us kids would stay downstairs sitting on a high stool behind the counter working on homework or reading, while Dad had his meal. Then he could relax a bit and not worry about listening for the bell on the door if a customer came in. When it was my turn, for some reason I was terrified of having to talk face-to-face with someone walking in to pay for a bath. Many of the patrons were farmers, golfers or businessmen coming in for a relaxing steam at the end of the day. The one large family-sized unit with double dressing rooms was popular on weekends. But I was shy and when I saw a car turning in to the parking lot I would grab my books and sprint for the door to the stairs to call Dad down.

I realize now that it can’t have been easy to support a family with such a niche business, but Dad, in his frugality managed it well. I knew that we never went on holidays, since that was one of the busy times at the Baths.

“Besides”, Dad said, “we live in a lake resort”.

That stinting attitude was sometimes hard to take. Our only telephone was downstairs. It was a business phone. Never was I allowed to talk with my friends for more than ten minutes. How excruciating for a young teenager!

All in all, the experience of living in such a unique environment contributed in forming who I am. I learned to walk lightly, since no clumping was allowed.

My voice is moderate but I love to talk for hours on the phone. My health is good, perhaps from all those steam baths? I appreciate the industriousness of the Finns and my family background.

We lived and worked for over ten years in the Steam Baths in Sylvan Lake and my parents then moved on to Salt Spring Island, B.C. The building was sold and in 2007 it burned to the ground just a few months before my father passed away, marking an end to an era.

Brenda Allan (nee Anderson) is a former resident of Sylvan Lake. Her family lived in the town from 1963 to 1976 and ran the Steam Baths built by her grandfather in the late 1940s. Brenda moved to Edmonton and now lives in Powell River, B.C. on the Sunshine Coast.