Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, Mike’s passion May 17, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A customer leaves Sleepy Eye Stained Glass with a refurbished window.

A customer leaves Sleepy Eye Stained Glass with a refurbished window.

FROM THE EXTERIOR, the brick building along Sleepy Eye’s main drag, US Highway 14, doesn’t make much of an impression. Weathered windows need replacing. Facade needs updating. Vines creep tendrils into a corner of the structure. And over the front door, a simple sign marks this as the home of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

My initial view once inside the retail portion of the business.

My initial view once inside the retail portion of the business.

Many times my husband and I have passed this business on our way to visit family in southwestern Minnesota. Last Saturday, we finally had time to stop. And we met proprietor Mike Mason and his sole employee, Linda.

Mike cuts salvaged stained glass to sell.

Mike cuts salvaged stained glass to sell.

As I roamed the store packed with stained glass supplies, sheets of glass, how-to books, finished stained glass art, lamps and more, Mike salvaged pieces of stained glass. He measured and cut with the precision of 35 years of experience. He’s a self-taught artist. Stained glass art began as a hobby for him “that got out of control,” he says.

Row upon row of stained glass fill the business.

Row upon row of stained glass fills the business in a stained glass lover’s paradise.

Sleepy Eye Stained Glass is known for repair and restoration work, for custom stained glass art and as one of the largest suppliers of stained glass and related products in the Upper Midwest.

A corner in the workshop section of the business.

A corner in the workshop section of the business.

Mike’s love for stained glass is obvious. Although he didn’t tell me how often he’s here working, I expect a lot. He lives only a few doors down, above an antique shop. It’s clear his life’s work (at least for the past 30-plus years) is his passion.

A commissioned work in progress.

A custom work in progress.

When I ask what he’s most proud of, Mike leads me to a television and starts a video showing an interview with Jason Davis of KSTP-TV and his “On the Road” segment. Much to my delight, the story includes images of refurbished stained glass windows at Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Courtland. It is my mother’s home church. Now I have a personal connection to Mike and his restoration work.

In his workshop, Mike talks to customers who've stopped by to pick up their restored light shade.

In his workshop, Mike talks to customers who’ve stopped by to pick up their restored light shade.

Giddy with excitement, I rush over to tell Mike. He is back cutting glass, drawing blood this time, an occupational hazard.

Daisy the shop cat.

Daisy the shop cat sits below glass sheets sorted by color.

We talk a bit more and I ask about the shop cat, Daisy. She was a stray, well-loved now by this artist who brings her to work daily, feline riding on his shoulder as he walks from his apartment to the shop. Mike instructs me to watch as he throws a tin foil ball for Daisy to chase.

Tools of the trade in the workshop.

Tools of the trade in the workshop.

This place is so unpretentious. Nothing fancy. It’s a working studio with a jumble of tools and glass bits on the floor. Projects in the works. Projects finished. Yet, there’s a certain orderliness to everything, to the sheets and sheets and sheets of glass slid into compartments and the organized displays of how-to books.

Finished stained glass art hangs in a front window.

Finished stained glass art hangs in a front window.

I met a man who holds a piece of stained glass to the light and is struck by its beauty. It’s that simple for Mike. A pane of salvaged stained glass makes him happy. If we could all only experience such simple joy in a day’s work.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Mike also collects and sells lamps like these showcased next to his photo.

Mike also collects and sells lamps like these showcased next to his photo.

I loved this stained glass art on display.

I loved this stained glass art on display.

Salvaged glass.

Salvaged glass.

A sign in a window offers a creative option in stained glass.

A sign in a window offers a creative option in stained glass.

More beautiful stained glass, spotted on a table in the workshop.

More beautiful stained glass, spotted on a table in the workshop.

I also spotted some gorgeous tabletop clocks.

I also saw some gorgeous tabletop clocks.

Hanging in the front window, sunlight really showcases the stained glass art.

Hanging in the front window, this stained glass art shines in natural light.

More beautiful art...

More beautiful art…

 

Stained glass, 75 signs on door

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling