Tiny Embarrass, regularly one of the coldest towns in Minnesota , was settled in the 1890s by Finns who wanted to farm instead of mine. It took its name from the Embarrass River, which had been christened by French voyageurs (the name comes from a word meaning “to hinder”) who had trouble navigating it due to the many downed trees.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that non-Finns began arriving in significant numbers. (According to the WPA Guide to the Minnesota Arrowhead Country, published in 1941, the entire township’s “population of 652 includes only two persons who are not Finns.”)
The Finnish heritage remains strong today, and to preserve their roots and attract tourists, the community has opened the Embarrass Visitor Center (7503 Levander Rd., 218/984-2084, 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.) along Highway 135 and started the caravan-style Heritage Homestead Tours (1 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., $6 adults), which visit several early-20th-century farmsteads and other historic sites around the town each summer. The knowledgeable guides share stories of the pioneers’ lives and explain some of the clever construction methods they used to make their log structures.
While some of the sites are on private property, you can visit a pair of them on your own. The Hanka Homestead is 1.5 miles north of the village on County Highway 21, one-quarter mile west on County Highway 26, one-quarter mile north Pylka Road, and then east at the first driveway. The Pyhala Homestead is on Salo Road, just east of the campground.
There are several relocated Finnish structures in the village along County Highway 21, and nearby is Timber Hall, which locals believe is the largest freestanding log building in the United States. Regardless of its rank, at 144 feet by 60 feet it is worth a look.
The Finnish-American Summer Festival, held the first Saturday in June, is a daylong celebration of all things from the motherland, including food, crafts, music, dance, and pesäpallo, a Finnish game that resembles baseball as it would be played if the writers of Mad Magazine made the rules.
Experience a little of the life of those Finnish farmers at Northern Comfort Bed and Breakfast (4776 Waisanen Rd., 218/984-2014, www.northerncomfortmn.com , $65–90). Secluded and not overly fancy—the old farmhouse has a real Finnish sauna, and your hosts are happy to offer evening wine and cheese in addition to breakfast.
The Heritage Park Campground (4789 Salo Rd., 218/984-2084, $18 with electric and water), half a mile east of Country Road 21 on Salo Road, has 20 shady campsites. Hiking trails and a bog walk lead from the campground through the forest along the Embarrass River.