Monday, July 08, 2013

Writing on the wall: Old Sleepy Eye

How many do you suppose, while walking or driving by the North Grand Street side of the Piper's buiding, have noticed the ghostly image of Old Sleepy Eye high above them, looking off to the south? He's badly faded and hard to see, but then that's to be expected. My guess is that the old guy's been there for about 100 years.

I'm more likely than many to notice Sleepy Eye because of this old blue stoneware vase bearing his image that I've been carting around since the 1960s. Old Sleepy Eye's image is on one side, looking in the other direction, and a panel of reeds with dragonfly on the other.

They're related because the faded sign on Piper's wall was put there to advertise a hugely popular brand of flour (Old Sleepy Eye) and my maternal grandmother pulled the stoneware vase from a sack of that flour, purchased in Chariton at about the same time the sign was painted. I talked my granddad out of it when I was in high school and found it stuck away in a cupboard in his upstairs bathroom. He thought it was ugly. I think it's beautiful.

Sleepy Eye is an alternate name for Ishtakhaba, chief of a Sisseton Sioux band from ca. 1822 until his death during 1860, and popular among EuroAmericans during the romantically inclined late 19th and early 20th century because of his reputation as a friend to white settlers. He was chosen, for example, to travel to Washington, D.C., during 1824 to meet President James Monroe. On the other hand, he facilitated a variety of treaties that ended up costing the Sioux much territory and ended his life ca. 1860 on a South Dakota reservation because of that.

Both Sleepy Eye Lake and the little town of Sleepy Eye, in southwestern Minnesota's Brown County, are named for Ishtakhaba --- and his relocated bones are buried beneath a monument in the town.

The Old Sleepy Eye Milling Co., which took its name from the town and operated there from 1883 to 1921, was a major supplier of flour across the Midwest and elsewhere --- and was very effective at self-promotion, using the chief's image. Hence, the sign on Piper's wall --- and my blue vase.

During 1903, the milling company signed a contract with the Weir Pottery Co. of Monmouth, Illinois, to manufacture a million stoneware pieces to be inserted as premiums into sacks of its flour. The vase apparently is the most numerous survivor, but steins, salt bowls and butter crocks also were manufactured and distributed. Each of the four products bears a slightly different version of Ishtakhaba's visage.

Ishtakhaba's image also was used on a variety of other stoneware pieces not related to the milling company, but these old blue pieces seem to be the most popular with collectors. I don't collect, but it makes me happy to be able to make the link between something I enjoy having around and that writing uptown on the wall.


Brad Egeland said...

Thanks Frank. I lived in Chariton the first 18 years of my life and never noticed it. How did you do the research to link the image to the stoneware and the flour company? And i wonder how well did a million pieces of stoneware survive in bags of flour originally. Thanks for sharing...
Brad Egeland

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Brad --- My grandfather made the connection between the Sleepy Eye vase and the flour company for me. Google filled in details. Remember that 5- and 10-pound paper bags of flour are fairly recent. At the turn of the 20th century, flour was sold in larger amounts in cloth bags. That volume of flour provided a lot of cushion. Frank

Anonymous said...

Frank: The picture of the rose is great and Dr. Buck would be most proud. The hail did not damage the plant much, but it is not shooting new sprouts that would eventually be more roses. Would like to see another series of blooms before the late fall