Finding Embarrass

Minnesota's cold spot is the stronghold of the Finns.

The Seitaniemi Housebarn in Embarrass.
The three-peaked Seitaniemi Housebarn is the last of its kind in this country.

It took plenty of sisu to settle Embarrass.

It's the consistently coldest spot in the Lower 48; arctic blasts blow up against the Laurentian Divide and pool over the township, which set a record of 64 below in 1996.

The soil is poor, allowing farmers to do little more than grow potatoes and raise a few cows.

The very word Embarrass is French for obstacle, and comes from French voyageurs' opinion of the local river: curvy as a corkscrew and usually too low to navigate.

The Germans left. The Irish left. But the Finns stayed. They had sisu -Finnish for stubbornness and a can-do spirit-in spades.

When the Finns came at the start of the 20th century, many to work at nearby mines and logging camps, they had to settle for leftover land. But they knew how to get by and, especially, how to build.

Today, the buildings they raised out of tamarack, pine and poplar have become enduring symbols of these tenacious early pioneers, many of whom were blackballed for union organizing at the mines and turned to their farms for subsistence.

There, they built sturdy houses, barns and saunas with the same skill and care they had used to hew the timbers that kept mines from collapsing.

Their dovetailed corners and double-notched joints, pointed out on daily tours, make architects swoon. Not long ago, volunteer firefighters, with the blessing of landowners, were torching Finnish buildings for practice.

Now four are on the National Register of Historic Places, and they and other sites are visited by thousands every year.

Tours leave from the log Visitor Center, which, with the café across the highway, is as close as Embarrass gets to a downtown.

Visitors follow guides to the Hanka homestead, with a tamarack barn built in 1915, and to the silver-painted Nelimark sauna, made large to accommodate the family's 11 children.

There's the 1906 Apostolic Lutheran Church, a craft co-op known as Sisu Tori and the Timber Hall community center, a Taj Mahal of Lincoln Logs.

The Seitaniemi Housebarn is the piece de resistance. Built between 1907 and 1913, combining a house, hay barn and cattle barn under one three-peaked roof, it's the last of its kind still standing in the United States.

Trip Tips: Embarrass, Minnesota

Accommodations : Ten campsites at Heritage Park on the Embarrass River are first-come, first-served. Giants Ridge Resort is nearby and has lodge rooms and villas.

Events : Embarrass Region Fair, the weekend before Labor Day.

Finnish Heritage Homestead Tours : Three-hour guided tours from the Visitor Center at highways 135 and 21 are given between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Information : Embarrass tourism, 218-984-2084.

Last updated on April 14, 2021

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