TOWER, Minn. — They make some of the best sauna stoves and wood furnaces in the United States in Tower, and the mastermind behind the Kuuma brand last week stood outside on a brightening day.
Reputedly shy, an animated Daryl Lamppa went into sharp detail about how his 85-year-old, fourth-generation business could be on the verge of the first zero-emission sauna stove, while at the same time, soon to conquer a 24-hour furnace burn on a single load of wood.
“We’re very concerned about the environment, the carbon dioxide and stuff that gets into the air,” the 71-year-old proprietor said outside an old creamery that formerly housed the family business and now serves as Lamppa’s private research and development lab. “If you get rid of that smoke, you get rid of a lot of problems.”
Lamppa Manufacturing moved to the edge of town one year ago, into a facility the city of Tower developed and leases to Lamppa and his heir, son Garrett, 42. The original plan had been to use half of the building, and attract another tenant for the other side.
“We were in here two weeks and decided we needed the other half of the building,” Dale Horihan, 64-year-old general manager, said. “We knew we could use all 9,000 square feet.”
The growth of Lamppa Manufacturing is what city leaders hope is a sign of things to come in Tower, where 500 people are located within a quarter-mile from beautiful and bountiful Lake Vermilion.
The intent for Tower is to see light manufacturing, recreation and lifestyle combine for a potent, sustainable mix.
Recent times are bearing that out. The downtown harbor was reconstructed and a private marina rebuilt. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church closed and was moved downtown, where it is being renovated for $1.3 million into the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, a future home to live theater, concerts, a library and an art gallery.
"The acoustics in here are gorgeous," said Mary Batinich, 84, owner of the Vermilion Park Inn bed and breakfast in Soudan.
One of the church's last surviving members, she led a non-profit group which bought the church. A new roof leaves only the inside remodeling to come and a final fundraising drive to go.
“We are earning it by blood, sweat and tears,” Batinich said.
An updated campground at nearby Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park brought regular daily travelers into town last summer, making for the best restaurant and tourist season in years. Only COVID-19 has slowed progress on a town that’s attempting a rebirth after it hit bottom following the closing of its high school in 2010.
“That was big,” Timberjay newspaper publisher Marshall Helmberger said. “It had a big impact on the identity of the community.”
It took a housecleaning at the top, but new leadership at mayor, the fire department, ambulance service and city treasurer and clerk desks has injected necessary optimism and resolve.
“We want to maintain the 25 miles of green space we have between Tower and places like Ely, Virginia, Cook and Biwabik,” Tower Mayor Orlyn Kringstad, 75, said. “The whole idea is to build sustainably: live lighter, live smaller, incorporate the outdoors with how we live and create economies that are self-sustaining like we had 50 to 100 years ago.”
Batinich called Kringstad “the best thing that’s ever happened to this town,” and it was the mayor who led a tour of the town’s upgrades.
Kringstad comes from a long career working with international democracy support alongside the United Nations with the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, Club de Madrid and World Academy of Arts and Science.
He and wife, Marit, leased and renovated Tower’s Marjo Motel and also operate a gift shop, Nordic Home North, on Main Street that imports rugs from a factory in Nepal the couple started and turned over to be run by a native woman.
“My interest is to expand the economic diversity and build a more resilient economy,” Kringstad said. “Minnesota has a tradition for not going with the ebbs and flows of the national economy, because of the diversity we have in this state. That’s what I believe needs to happen on the Range. It’s been my idea that Tower should grow by 10 to 15 jobs at a time.”
As executive director for the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation in Eveleth, Mark Phillips oversees support the state agency gives Tower, including a loan for the $1.8 million facility leased to Lamppa Manufacturing, and $268,000 granted for the cultural center. Phillips believes in supporting towns in ways that create a higher desirability factor for people to want to live there.
“People will figure out how to make a living — they’ll start a company or work for somebody else,” Phillips said.
Jodi and Marshall Helmberger famously moved to Tower and started their influential weekly newspaper business.
“It amazed me when he told me that,” Phillips said. “It solidified for me that people do live where they want to live.”
Indeed, at Lamppa Manufacturing, the customers find them and not the other way around. It’s always been that way with Daryl and his father, Herbert, a former Tower mayor and St. Louis County commissioner, and grandfather, Richard, of nearby Embarrass.
“Everybody in the Embarrass area, when they wanted a sauna stove, they called Richard Lamppa,” Daryl Lamppa said. “My grandpa was known as the best welder around.”
Now, it’s Lamppa Manufacturing's crew whose welds on stoves and furnaces are mistaken for robotic and deemed artistry.
The Kuuma brand features wood and electric sauna stoves as well as wood furnaces. Units come in small, medium or large, with even the smallest ones weighing hundreds of pounds. Normally, a welding shop is black, dirty and grimy, but not at Lamppa, where stoves that last generations are created from U.S. steel and boxed for shipping in a manufacturing environment that appears as clean as their stove emissions.
“When I started with the company, there were three employees in January 2017,” Hornihan said. “We have 10 right now, and I have another one starting (next week). That will be 11, and I just interviewed a guy yesterday I will very likely hire and that will make 12. We think we will get up in the 20 or 25 range.”
From 2017-18, revenue from Kuuma stoves jumped 60%, and from 2018-19 it grew 100%. The increased capacity has even withstood the pandemic. Even with a month’s lost productivity, the company will make 30% gains in 2019-20.
“What happened was their technology proved to meet all the federal standards when nobody else could,” Phillips said of Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards. “They have a terrific product. They’ve built their business word-of-mouth. Anywhere you go they’ll tell you, 'You want a sauna stove? You buy a Kuuma.' It sells itself.”
As Kuuma sales go north, so too do Tower's prospects. Kringstad calls it the highest paying employer in town.
Some of the fruits of the town’s resilience have been on display. Asked if the town is experiencing a revival, Helmberger said: "Absolutely. When you look at the situation that was here, there’s no doubt."
At the marina, Your Boat Club Lake Vermilion, 40 slips have been filled all season — a fifth of them rentals or Your Boat Club member boats.
“Rentals have taken off,” marina manager Tod VanNorman said. “Pontoons are really popular.”
The marina had been a blight on the town. Boat owners that dared use it risked the corrugated steel canopy collapsing onto their crafts. Following numerous conversations and visits, the Minneapolis organization Your Boat Club bought it and rehabbed it to a future capacity for 110 boats — all of it a short jaunt on the East Two River from the mouth of the lake.
"This was the perfect development to go with the harbor, so getting this turned around and renovated and getting a new owner in here who is really going to maintain it, which is part of their plan, was key," Helmberger said, wearing sunglasses bayside.
At the harbor nearby up the same water channel, the Tower Economic Development Authority owns 22 acres it hopes will attract a developer for Tower Harbor Shores — a planned 30-bed spa, resort and residential housing development that could feature commercial canoe and kayak rentals and, hopefully, a harbor-side restaurant.
“It’s a long-term plan,” Helmberger, an Economic Development Authority board member, said. “Doing economic development in a small community is exceedingly challenging. It’s hard to get people to invest in a small community because they think they’ll get a better return somewhere else. But there is interest here.”
Hiking, snowmobile and ATV trails all converge in and around Tower, where antique stores seem to abound.
Vermilion Country School is a newer charter school with 35 students grades 7-12.
Things are a work in progress. Just like the Kuuma stove. Even with a miniscule 0.72 grams per hour of emissions particulates, things can get better.
That’s according to Lamppa himself — the one trying to solve how to reduce any smoke from coming out of a chimney. Lamppa’s forced-air stoves gasify the wood, burning from front to back and not bottom up like most wood burns. Lamppa forecast his company looking across the Atlantic Ocean to its heritage in Finland. Every year, the Finnish people purchase 10,000 sauna stoves, he said — most of which one can carry by hand and figure to break down after six or eight years.
“When I get this (zero-emission) sauna stove perfected and start advertising it, then we’ll have even another thing that’s going to take off,” Lamppa said. “And for the community of Tower, it’s going to be great.”
This story was updated at 1 p.m. Sept. 16, 2020 to clarify that a non-profit group bought the St. Mary's Episcopal Church. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. Sept. 16, 2020.