Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I March 8, 2018

A painting of a Dakota chief on the city water tower gives travelers a hint at the history of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town is named after noted and respected Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes. He settled with his band along Sleepy Eye Lake and is buried here with a monument and park dedicated to him.


YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a community by simply walking through the central business district. Many times I’ve done just that with camera in hand. I’ve found that, through photography, I focus on details in addition to the overall scene. That gives me insight into a place.


I photographed this stained glass hanging in the front window of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass during a May 2016 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Most recently I walked along several blocks of downtown Sleepy Eye with my Canon DSLR while my husband shopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for supplies for a church window he’s refurbishing. US Highway 14 (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) runs right through the heart of this small town in south central Brown County. That’s in southern Minnesota next to my native county of Redwood.



More than 30 years ago I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye for six months as a newspaper reporter and photographer. Thus I hold a certain familiarity of place. On this stop, I wanted to grab a sweet treat from the bakery next door to the newspaper office.


Sleepy Eye has many architecturally-pleasing aged buildings such as city hall.


I found, though, in the remembered location not a bakery, but rather K & J Antiques and Collectibles run by the welcoming Kurk K. Kramer. He happens also to work as the city’s Economic Development Authority coordinator. Given his friendly personality and clear love for Sleepy Eye, Kramer seems an ideal fit for the job. He laughed when I walked into his shop and asked for a doughnut from the long-closed bakery. He was a wealth of information about the town. I’ll share more in future posts and also show you a sampling of goods from Kramer’s shop.


A snippet of the downtown, situated along Highway 14, a major east-west roadway across southern Minnesota.


Despite my disappointment at the absence of the bakery, I still delighted in revisiting this town I called home for a short while. Whenever I explore a community, I look for fliers and notes posted in downtown businesses. Such finds often amuse me and present a snapshot of a place and its people. I love the small townishness of these public postings, these postscripts.


I saw lots of these stickers in many businesses, indicating a strong Chamber of Commerce and a sense of community pride.


Take a look at what I found in storefront windows. And then check back for more posts from Sleepy Eye. See what caught my eye as I wandered—and drew some curious looks—while the husband shopped.







So what do my photos tell you about Sleepy Eye? Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents. Heritage is important. Note the homemade sauerkraut and Landjaeger (a type of sausage) dinner and the Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club signs. Politeness, humor and community pride are givens.

These are my assessments based on my quick walk-through of peering into downtown storefront windows.

TELL ME: Have you ever done the same to learn more about the personality of a community?


Check back tomorrow for Part II in my series titled “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, Sleepy Eye.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


30 Responses to “Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I”

  1. Ken Huiras Says:

    Great small town. I grew up in Sleepy Eye, graduated from St Mary’s. My mother was receptionist at Herald Dispatch at one time. Thanks for the pictures, brings back memories.

  2. Almost Iowa Says:

    Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents.

    You haven’t lived until you have spent an afternoon scrubbing potatoes and breading filets for the semi-annual fish fry.

    You always know it is time for the next fry when you can no longer smell fish on your favorite sweatshirt.

    • And you know this from experience. Thank you for volunteering, Greg.

      I attended my first KC Fish Fry last year and returned last Friday. That’s some mighty tasty fish they bake and deep fat fry at the Faribault Knights of Columbus Hall.

  3. If you take the time to look and explore a community it will reveal itself to you. I enjoy being a local tourist in my community 🙂 Thanks so much sharing – Happy Day – Enjoy!

  4. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    One of our favorite things to do in a place we are visiting is to walk the neighborhoods – not just the business district, but stroll through the residential areas, too. I love looking at houses and what people have around their front doors or on their patios. Of course, I don’t carry my camera in those neighborhoods because it might seem a little creepy to those who live there, but on our recent trip to San Diego, looking at the beach houses in the neighborhood where we stayed was one of my favorite things. I can imagine myself living in all sorts of other houses.

    • You’re right that walking neighborhoods also offers much insight into a community. And you’re right about the camera thing. Several years ago I noticed a guy photographing our house. I went outside to ask why. Turns out he grew up in our house. I asked if he wanted a tour of his childhood home. Yes, I recognized his name, so I wasn’t just letting “some guy” into our home. He was so happy to see the house again and offered many compliments on the updates we’d made, including removing all of the paneling and removing/replacing carpet.

      • Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

        That’s a good story! That was nice of you to let him in to see the house again.

      • It was a gift I could give him. I’d like to see the house my parents built in the late 1960s and where I lived during my middle school through high school years. That house replaced the original aged and small farmhouse where I spent the first 10 years or so of my life. All I have now of that house are memories and a few photos. I helped tear down that house board-by-board.

      • Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

        That must have been excruciating to tear down the house that held so many memories.

      • I was just a kid. At that time in my life I wasn’t thinking such thoughts. Rather, I thought how happy I was to be in a new house with a bathroom. No more trips to the outhouse or to the pot on the porch. And bonus, I eventfully got my own bedroom in the basement, away from my five siblings.

  5. Valerie Says:

    I love that stained glass piece. I’ve not been to Sleep Eye, although I’ve heard of it. I look forward to seeing photos from the antique store. I so enjoy browsing antique stores.

  6. Jackie Says:

    I guess I had forgotten that Sleepy Eye was the town that you worked in. I don’t believe I have ever been there, but you know that I would like it. I also like to walk around small towns with my camera, looking for the same kinds of thing you do. It’s all so very interesting to me. I’m always scoping out the flyers in the windows too. Small town bakeries are my absolute favorite, I bet you were really looking forward to a delicious treat….oh darn!

    • I worked in Sleepy Eye for only six months before moving to the Mankato Free Press, working out of the paper’s St. James News Bureau (my apartment). You may be thinking of Gaylord, where I worked as a reporter and photographer for two years right out of college.

      Yes, I was disappointed that the bakery had long ago closed.

  7. Beth Ann Says:

    We love to walk though towns and discover the off the beaten track scenes just like some of the ones you capture. Sometimes the pictures I take which i think will be unremarkable turn out to have the most interesting details. I can see a lot of great texture in your photos today as well as whimsy. We all need some whimsy in our lives, right?

  8. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    It looks like a cute town. I’d love to travel farther East on highway 14. I was going to ask what Landjaeger was but you answered my question before I had a chance.

  9. Tom Christensen & Colleen (Maxwell) Christensen Says:

    My wife and I enjoyed surfing through your 2018 photo tours of Sleepy Eye. We both graduated from SEHS (She in ’55 and me in ’52). She lived in Sleepy Eye and worked at the City Café (owned by Leo Fritz) which is now apparently a fitness center. I lived in Evan from 1934 til 1953. The photo tour shown in Part I & Part II is well done and very descriptive. We are happy to know that there are folks who are interested in keeping Sleepy Eye alive and well. It was a wonderful place to spend our early years.

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