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.


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


A peek at Pepin, Wisconsin November 12, 2014

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Closed on an early October weekday afternoon...

Closed on an early October weekday afternoon…

A MONTH AGO, on a weekday afternoon, Pepin, Wisconsin, already appeared battened up for the long winter.

The scene outside of an eatery.

The scene outside of an eatery.

Lovely business signage.

Lovely business signage.

A banner advertised a forthcoming film festival.

A banner advertised a forthcoming film festival.

Lawn chairs stacked. Doors locked. Streets mostly vacant.

Pepin's grocery store.

Pepin’s grocery store.

A general sense of abandonment prevailed in the downtown area along Lake Pepin, although the blacksmith shop happened to be open (watch for a story on that) as was the next door grocery.

Street signage indicates lots of places to stop in Pepin.

Street signage indicates lots of places to stop in Pepin.

I expect had it been a summer weekend, more businesses would have been open and the town bustling.

Across the railroad tracks lies Lake Pepin.

Across the railroad tracks lies Lake Pepin.

But, like many lake communities, life slows when the temperature drops and autumn edges toward winter.

Unlike the museum, which closes in October, A Summer Place Bed and Breakfast

Signage advertises A Summer Place Inn.

In this, the birthplace of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, even her museum has closed for the season.

This is reality in the north land, in a river town that relies significantly on warm weather tourism.


AND NOW FOR TWO PLACES on the edge of Pepin that were open:

The Country Stop.

The Country Stop of Pepin Country Store.

Villa Bellezza winery.

Villa Bellezza winery.

Beautiful potted flowers outside the winery.

Beautiful potted flowers and plants outside the winery.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating the architecture of historic downtown Winona September 5, 2014

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IT’S BAD ENOUGH when a community experiences a devastating fire in its historic downtown. But then again, less than a year later.

Those were my thoughts, as I’m sure that of many others, upon learning the Mississippi River town of Winona lost a 1912 former YMCA building, now housing KidSport Gymnastics, to a Thursday morning fire.

I believe I'm correct in stating the site of last year's fire was in the building to the right of Blooming Grounds Coffee House on the corner.

Last September’s fire occurred to the right of the corner building housing Blooming Grounds Coffee House. The coffee house reopened this summer.

A year ago, on September 13, fire destroyed the downtown Islamic Center and another building and damaged several other historic buildings.

A portion of downtown Winona with the General Store anchoring a corner.

A portion of downtown Winona with the General Store anchoring a corner.

Just last week my husband I were in Winona, staying there upon our return home from a brief vacation to Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. We parked our van downtown Wednesday evening and started walking, pausing often to study the beautiful, historic architecture which graces this community. As you would expect, I snapped photos, but, unfortunately, not one of KidSport.

Heart's Desire Gift Shop is housed in this mammoth building.

Heart’s Desire Gift Shop is housed in this mammoth building. Take note of the fabulous fourth floor balconies.

Eleven entire downtown blocks are on the National Register of Historic Districts. According to visitwinona.com:

The Winona Downtown Commercial Historic District contains over one hundred sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This area represents Minnesota’s largest collection of Victorian commercial architecture on the Mississippi. Most of the buildings are Italianate or Queen Anne in style and date from between the years 1857 and 1916.

Crank your head up and notice the architectural details.

Crank your head up and notice the architectural details.

If you appreciate architecture and the history of a river town, I’d highly recommend a visit to Winona. Late autumn with tree-covered bluffs, and not buildings, ablaze would be the perfect time to tour.


Everywhere you look, over-sized building and interesting architecture.

Everywhere you look, over-sized buildings and interesting architecture.

We're talking old and historic in Winona.

We’re talking old and historic in Winona.

The Garden Chinese Restaurant occupies an historic downtown space.

The Garden Chinese Restaurant occupies an historic downtown space. It would be great to see the store fronts returned to the original architecture.

The impressive Merchants National Bank.

The impressive Merchants National Bank designed in the Prairie School architectural style by architects George Grant Elmslie and William Gray Purcell and built in 1912. It looks similar in style to National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna.

More downtown buildings.

More downtown buildings.

The Legendary Tavern fills a space in this stunning corner building.

The Legendary Tavern fills a space in this stunning corner building.

This building seems out of place among all of the historic structures.

This storefront appears out of place among all of the historic structures. Is a gem hidden behind this updated front?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling