Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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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


Chief Sleepy Eye shouldn’t have a mustache June 6, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:19 AM
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In mid-April I photographed this sign featuring Chief Sleepy Eye on the east end of Sleepy Eye, MN.

HIS EYELIDS MAY HAVE DROOPED, but I’m quite certain Chief Sleepy Eye didn’t sport a mustache.

However, on this sign welcoming visitors to Sleepy Eye, in Brown County, Minnesota, the town’s namesake clearly has facial hair.

I didn’t notice the apparent defacing of Chief Sleepy Eye until now, while sorting through on-the-road photos I shot in April.

I expect that’s exactly the problem. Locals and travelers pass by the welcome sign along U.S. Highway 14 and don’t even notice. We get so accustomed to something that we overlook the details.

Scratching a mustache onto a person’s photo in a newspaper (haven’t we all done that?) is one thing. But marring a Sisseton Dakota chief’s image on a public welcoming sign is quite another.

So who, exactly, was Chief Sleepy Eye?

Born in 1780, this leader of the Swan Lake or Little Rock band of hunters was considered a friend of explorers, traders, settlers, missionaries and others. He was among those signing, albeit reluctantly, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. In that historic treaty, the Dakota ceded land in exchange for promises of cash, goods, education and a reservation.

From 1857-1859, Ishtakhaba’s (Sleepy Eye’s) main village sat along Sleepy Eye Lake. He died in 1860 while hunting in South Dakota. His remains were eventually buried beneath a granite obelisk monument that stands near the historic railroad depot in Sleepy Eye.

Even though I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye briefly in the early 1980s, I don’t recall ever taking time to view this monument or to appreciate the Dakota chief it honors. Perhaps it’s time to detour a block off highway 14 and educate myself.

FYI: To view Chief Sleepy Eye without a mustache, click here to an image on the City of Sleepy Eye website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling