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Indian Chief Featured on Pottery

By Dianne L. Beetler

March 1990

"Old Sleepy Eye" is not the name of a delicate, pastel pottery. But then one would expect an Indian chief's likeness to appear on durable, functional pieces of stoneware and pottery such as the highly-prized "Old Sleepy Eye" made in Illinois.

Old Sleepy Eye is named after a Sisseton Sioux chief who had one eyelid that always remained half-closed. Born in 1780, the chief spent most of his life in Minnesota and was one of a group of Sioux leaders who visited Washington, D.C., and was presented to Presi-dent Monroe in 1824. Subsequently, Chief Sleepy Eye signed several treaties with the U.S. Government.

In 1872, a southern Minnesota town was established and named Sleepy Eye. A decade later, the Sleepy Eye Milling Company began operating there.

For a trademark, the milling company used the profile of an Indian wearing a headband with one feather. Although not a likeness of Chief Sleepy Eye, the trademark was identified with him. In 1904, Sleepy Eye flour won a grand prize at the St. Louis Exposition.

The milling company, which operated in Sleepy Eye until 1921, used premiums to entice customers to buy its flour. The Minnesota Stoneware Co., a predecessor of Red Wing Pottery Co., produced a mug with the trademark head and a verse about the Indian chief.

However, the pottery and stoneware most often associated with Old Sleepy Eye were made in Monmouth, Illinois. In 1903, the Weir Pottery Co. in Monmouth produced the first Sleepy Eye items from local clay. According to newspaper reports of the day, the milling company placed an initial order for 500,000 pieces of stoneware to be followed by production of an additional 500,000 pieces. According to the newspaper, cost was estimated at $80,000.

The first four stoneware pieces included a rose jar or vase, salt crock, butter crock and stein. All had Flemish Blue-embossed designs on a gray background and the words "Old Sleepy Eye."

The cylinder-shaped rose jar features the milling company's trademark and has a dimpled surface. The reverse side shows a frog, cattails and a dragonfly.

The other pieces feature an Indian wearing a war bonnet with many feathers, and these pieces have a smooth surface.

The stein has a small Indian head on the handle, and the reverse side portrays an Indian squatting before a fire with trees and teepees in the background. The reverse side of the butter crock shows the same scene.

The salt crock features the Indian flanked by a peacepipe and a bow and arrow, and on the reverse side, a vine design.

The Weir Pottery Company also made a few pot-tery pitchers that featured the Indian with a war bonnet, and an Indian head on the handle. A round circle with the words "Weir Pottery Co." on the bottom of the pieces identified them.

In 1906, Weir and several other area potteries merged to form Western Stoneware Company. Probably due to the popularity of the Old Sleepy Eye premiums, Western Stoneware produced pottery items with similar designs, which it called the "Indian Head" line. A few stoneware mugs were made, too. Only the pottery steins are marked "Old Sleepy Eye."

Although not used as flour premiums, the Western Stoneware pieces are commonly referred to as Old Sleepy Eye also. The Indian Head items were manufactured only as needed, and production ended in 1937. In more recent years, the company made a few limited edition pieces.

Indian Head production included a set of five pitchers, ranging from a half-pint creamer to a one-gallon size. In addition to the Indian Head, the half-pint and half-gallon pitchers are decorated with trees, and the other three pitchers are decorated with teepees. All have an Indian head on the handle.

Most of the pitchers were cobalt blue on white, and many were stamped by Monmouth Pottery Co., also absorbed by Western Stoneware.

Other Indian Head products include vases, sugar bowls, 22-oz. and 40-oz. steins, and 8-, 12- and 14-oz. mugs. Unusual "noon-hour" pieces such as a mustache cup or more common items in unusual colors some-times turn up.

Mention "Old Sleepy Eye," and most people think of the cobalt blue design on a white background. Al-though this color scheme is the most common, rarer pieces of brown on gold, green on white, brown on white, and even all red, and other color combinations were made.

During World War I, the pottery could not obtain the English ball clay that gave the pieces their white surfaces. The switch to a different clay resulted in gray pieces.

Most of the Western Stoneware Indian Head pottery was not marked. On pieces that were marked, the most common stamp was a diamond surrounding the words "W.S. Co. Monmouth Ill." A less-frequently-used maple leaf stamp with the words "Western Stoneware" sometimes is found on Old Sleepy Eye pieces.

Apparently the Sleepy Eye Milling Company was not the only business to appreciate the popularity of the Indian Head. Some pitchers were stenciled on the bot-tom with "National Wine & Cordial, Peoria, Illinois," and steins were marked "Koehler & Hinrichs Saint Paul."

Sugar bowls and half-pint pitchers once cost 15 cents each, while large pitchers sold for up to 59 cents each. Compare those prices to the recent sales of a stoneware butter crock for $525 and a stoneware vase for $150.

Of course, Western Stoneware produced many other lines of jugs, lamps, bowls, crocks, bottles, candle-sticks, bean pots, butter churns and other items, but the Old Sleepy Eye items attract the most attention from collectors today.

On Jan. 31, 1985, Western Stoneware went out of business. A few months later, DeNovo Ceramics Ltd. bought rights to the Western Stoneware name and logo and re-opened the Monmouth plant. DeNovo also has produced limited edition Sleepy Eye pieces.

The Old Sleepy Eye Collectors of America organized in 1976, and the club now has hundreds of members across the nation. Annual dues are $10 for the first member, plus $1 for spouse and each minor child living at the home address. The dues include a club newsletter published six times a year, and only mem-bers are allowed to attend the annual convention. The club address is: Old Sleepy Eye, Box 12, Monmouth, Illinois 61462.

© 2002 Mountain States Collector

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