Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II March 9, 2018


WHEN I SEE A COMMUNITY like Sleepy Eye with so many architecturally-pleasing historic buildings, I wish I could wave a financial wand.



If I could, I would sweep away the metal, the wood, the stucco, the fake fronts that hide the bones of these beautiful, mostly-brick, structures. I would restore them to their grandeur, drawing the interest of motorists passing through this southwestern Minnesota community. I would give people a reason to stop, to check out the architecture, the unique small town shops and eateries. Many do. More could.


Details like this curved, ornate railing on city hall add visual interest and charm.


I would also make this busy main street more pedestrian and visually-friendly with bump-out corners graced by public art and lovely flower planters.  I would replace concrete sidewalks with brick, or at least edge them in brick. I’d buy some paint and repair windows and fix unsafe and run-down buildings…if only I held a magical wand of unlimited finances.


This map, from a vintage Orchid Inn promo, shows Sleepy Eye’s location in southwestern Minnesota.


With US Highway 14, a major east-west roadway running right through Sleepy Eye, heavy traffic is already here. And the bonus of this route as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway adds to the potential.


These architecturally detailed buildings hold Sleepy Eye’s history in dates and names.


You have to look upward to see the true beauty of these historic buildings.


A rooster weather vane drew my interest atop city hall, housed in a former bank.


If I had unlimited financial resources, I would do all of these things for this Brown County community west of New Ulm. But magical wishes differ from reality. It takes money to make these improvements. And I expect the merchants here, like those in so many small farming communities, are simply happy they’re still in business given competition from regional shopping centers, Big Box stores and online sources.


In numerous buildings I noted lovely tile, inside and out.


Yet, small towns like Sleepy Eye offer an alternative, a welcome break from the sameness of mass everything. Places like Sleepy Eye Stained Glass draw customers from all over to purchase stained glass supplies or to get stained glass windows and more restored. Three local antique shops, other shops and the friendliness and service of small town proprietors are additional draws. Schweiss Meats is a popular place for those who appreciate small town meat markets.


The old Pix Theatre needs lots of work inside and out. The intention is to save and restore the marquee, according to EDA Coordinator Kurk Kramer.


Within a year or so, two local physicians hope to reopen the abandoned Pix Theatre as a nano-brewery and coffee shop, according to Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority Coordinator Kurk K. Kramer. He also runs K & J Antiques and Collectibles. If all goes as planned, the former Orchid Inn motel and event center will become AGlobal, a STEM-based learning center with a focus on agriculture. Additionally, the Orchid would house a language immersion institute.





Those plans show me people are working hard to keep this community thriving, with businesses that distinguish Sleepy Eye from other small Minnesota towns. EDA Coordinator Kramer noted that Sleepy Eye is also home to a business (Mark Thomas Company) which serves the funeral home industry by producing such products as handcrafted wooden urns. Who knew? Not me.


Sleepy Eye honors its namesake on its water tower.


But I do know that Sleepy Eye is named after Chief Sleepy Eyes, buried at a monument site marking his grave. Everywhere you will see the respected Dakota leader’s portrait. He brings historical interest and identity to Sleepy Eye. Those are existing strengths.



Perhaps some day these historic downtown buildings will all be restored. I appreciate that some already are. Funds are available through the Sleepy Eye Downtown Rehabilitation Incentive Program to make improvements. So perhaps my vision for this small Minnesota town will evolve into more than simply a wish…


FYI: Highway 14 improvements in downtown Sleepy Eye this summer call for sidewalk replacement, pedestrian flashers at ped crossings and more. Click here to read details.

Please check back next week for “The Art of Signs in Sleepy Eye, Part III.”


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Content on this site may not be duplicated, transmitted or otherwise copied without the permission of Audrey Kletscher Helbling.


12 Responses to “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, downtown Sleepy Eye, Part II”

  1. Valerie Says:

    I enjoy reading about your vision of restoring this downtown area in Sleepy Eye. It is fun to think about these fading towns in their “hey day.”

    • I often think how any community can benefit from someone coming in with a fresh set of eyes. When we live in a place, we begin to overlook the things an outsider might see. So I offer this vision from that perspective. Not to be critical. But as a way to present the strengths I see and the possibilities.

  2. Don Says:

    I miss brick buildings we just don’t have many of them here because of shipping costs. I would love to have an upstairs apartment/condominium in one of those buildings. In my home town of Mt Lake a developer turned the old hotel into condominiums and I see more and more towns doing the same thing. The architecture details of these older buildings is far more attractive and pleasing than the cookie-cutter design of buildings theses days and with all the glass and metal junk used they all look the same….sad. I wonder how many years new buildings will last before they are torn down or fall down hummm maybe that’s why new buildings do not have the dates shown anymore, they are not built to last. We have become such a disposable society……………..

    • You appreciate the same things I see in Sleepy Eye in those beautiful brick buildings. I love when I discover a community of aged brick buildings that haven’t been torn down and replaced with, as you say, cookie cutter buildings.

  3. I love older buildings. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities just because of the amazing old buildings. Nice pictures Audrey! 🙂

  4. Jackie Says:

    I so appreciate the old historic buildings, your right about the magic wand, if I had one I’d go with you and we’d have so much fun with some restoration! P.S. I always look up 🙂

  5. Beth Ann Says:

    The architecture is amazing and yes—I hope that someone will have the vision and money to save and preserve some of the places in Sleepy Eye.

  6. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Beautiful architecture thank you for sharing. That would be one expense makeover of a whole business district.

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