Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sleepy Eye: the man behind the name January 14, 2015

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WHEN I LIVED AND WORKED in Sleepy Eye for six months in the early 1980s, I didn’t fully appreciate this southwestern Minnesota community.

Mostly, I was too busy laboring away at my more than full-time job as a newspaper reporter and photographer for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. Anyone who’s ever worked as a community journalist understands that the profession demands much time, energy and an endless skill set. Basically, I didn’t have a life outside of work.

Now that I’m much older and long ago realized that life should be about more than a profession, I realize what I missed. I may have covered the people, places and events of Sleepy Eye well. But I didn’t really notice. I didn’t take time to personally value sense of place.

A passing shot shows Chief Sleepy Eye's image painted on the water tower.

A passing shot shows Chief Sleepy Eye’s image painted on the water tower.

Like most small towns, Sleepy Eye possesses unique characteristics, most notably its name. The community is named after Sleepy Eye, a long ago chief of the Lower Sisseton Dakota. You’ll spot his image on the water tower, on the town’s welcome sign, on the public school website (the school mascot remains the Indians) and probably additional places.

Sleepy Eye seems to take positive historical pride in its name. And it should.

Painted on the sign, under the image of Chief Sleepy Eye, are these words: "Made possible by OSE member Willie of Kansas."

Painted on the sign, under the image of Chief Sleepy Eye, are these words: “Made possible by OSE member Willie of Kansas.”

On my last pass through Sleepy Eye en route to my hometown area further to the west, I noticed a painting of Chief Sleepy Eye on the side of a downtown building. The sign was strategically placed by a stoplight. So I snapped a quick frame while waiting for the light to turn green.

Later, studying the details of that image and after some Googling, I learned that Ish Tak Ha Ba is Chief Sleepy Eye’s name in his native Dakota tongue. And I discovered that an Old Sleepy Eye Collectors Club exists, focused on preserving Sleepy Eye antiques, memorabilia and collectibles.

One of these times traveling through Sleepy Eye, I am going to stop and explore. And this time I will really see the place I once called home. See and appreciate.

IF YOU KNOW SLEEPY EYE well, what are some must-sees there? Remember, I’m always seeking out the lesser-known, the unusual, the treasures.

Wherever you live, tell me what you would like visitors to see in your community.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling