Monmouth Pottery's Old Indian

by Terry Hogan

''They don't call it stoneware for nothing.'' When we were first married, over 33 years ago, we had two types of dishes. One type was a form of plastic that was sold as ''unbreakable;'' the other type was ''seconds'' from the Monmouth pottery. Today, the ''unbreakables'' are broken and gone. The Monmouth Pottery stoneware, with a few imperfections, is still seeing daily use. It deserves its name as ''stoneware.'' It has survived numerous household goods moves around the eastern half of the U.S. It has survived two children. It has survived me. It is, I guess, a survivor.

I try to get back to the pottery from time to time. It is worth the trip, worth the time.

As a result of these more recent visits to the pottery outlet in Monmouth, our casual table is set with a mix of stoneware that reflects the Western Stoneware and Maple Leaf logo. Sometimes the logo is on the bottom, out of sight. Other times the logo is the decoration on the coffee cup, declaring ''Western Stoneware, Monmouth, Illinois'', surrounded by the Maple Leaf design. I like that. It gives me a sense of pride of product and of tradition. In my view, too many products are made by subcontractors, with the name added almost as an afterthought-- ''If this is Tuesday, we must be making widgets for ''Midwest Widgets Inc.,'' tomorrow we use the ''Excellent Widget Company'' stickers.

I frankly enjoy the stoneware, particularly the coffee cups. They keep the coffee warm. The cups have weight, substance, a sense of endurance. I generally use cups that have a broad bottom, minimizing full spills by turning over, but allowing for the occasional miniature tsunami caused by a hand or elbow. Stoneware must be the Timex of the pottery industry. I can even romanticize that my great, great, grandchildren will cherish the remaining pair of genuine Western Stoneware coffee mugs, handed down from their great, great, grandfather, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his ''Backtracking'' column.

My mother is a big fan of the Monmouth Pottery. But her interest started a long time ago. The roots of her interest lie in an old flour company, located in a small town in Minnesota. This little town was named for an Indian chief who had a notable physical oddity for which he was named. His name, in turn, became the name of the little town, which, in turn, became the name of the flour mill in the little Minnesota town. When this flour mill company decided to put '' a premium'' in the flour sacks, it thought of its namesake. Thus, was the birth of the ''Sleepy Eye'' pottery, produced for the Sleepy Eye Milling Company, located in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

But to start at the beginning. Sleepy Eye, the Indian, was known by various names since there was no written language. His name, written in English, was shown variously as ''Ish Tak Ha Ba,'' ''Ishtaba,'' ''Ishtahumba,'' ''Eshtahenba,'' ''Esh ta hum leah'' Šwell you get the idea. He was reported to be tall, looked like an Indian, but had either one or two drooping eyelids, depending upon the account you read. He was actually taken to Washington, D. C. to meet President James Monroe. Monroe made him an Indian chief. (No, I'm a little vague myself on the legal basis for this action). Later, as chief, Sleepy Eye gave away most of the remaining Indian lands of Minnesota. Sleepy Eye lived in Minnesota near, oddly enough, what is now known as Sleepy Eye Lake. Chief Sleepy Eye died in 1860. His remains are now underneath the Sleepy Eye Monument, located in Sleepy Eye, Minn., probably not far from the site of the old Sleepy Eye flour mill.

From about 1883 to about 1921, the Sleepy Eye Milling Company, at Sleepy Eye, placed premiums of pottery decorated with a profile of Sleepy Eye (the Indian, as opposed to the lake or the town) in its sacks of flour. You can guess who made the premiums. The early premiums were heavy stoneware butter crocks, salt bowls, steins and vases. They were ''Flemish-gray'' in color with cobalt blue decoration, showing the profile of old Sleepy Eye, teepees, etc. Sleepy Eye mugs were also produced, in five different sizes. Some were produced with other than the cobalt blue trim.

Today, you can find copies (''fakes''?) of early Sleepy Eye stoneware. Some Sleepy Eye items have been and still are produced as annual items by the Monmouth pottery and are well made and marked. Others are made elsewhere and are sometimes mistaken or even misrepresented to be originals. Some of these new Sleepy Eye items are items that were never originally made as premiums for the Sleepy Eye Milling Company. The true old premiums can bring several hundred dollars each.

Of course, we are in a period of our culture when everybody collects something. It may be matchboxes, lunch pails, or it may be automobiles. Sleepy Eye stoneware is no different. From its humble origin as a free gift in a flour sack, Sleepy Eye now has its own incorporated, nonprofit ''Collectors' Club of America,'' based not in Sleepy Eye, Minn., as was my guess, but in our own neighboring town, the ''Maple City'' itself -- Monmouth, Ill. For those who may be interested in the stoneware and/or the club, they have a homepage at http://www.maplecity. com/~oseclub.

In doing research on the association of Old Sleepy Eye and the Monmouth Pottery, I came upon an Internet genealogy file on Albert J. Veiock. According to this file, Albert had learned his pottery business in Ohio and then moved to Monmouth in about 1898 and stayed there until about 1913 when he moved to Whitehall, Ill. During the time in Monmouth, Albert Veiock is reported to have worked for the ''Monmouth Mining & Manufacturing Co.'' as a ceramist. It is attributed in the genealogy article that Mr. Veiock ''Šduring this time developed the blue glaze used in making the famous Sleepy Eye Pottery.'' The story continues that the formula for making the blue glaze was held by the widow of Mr. Veiock, but that it was ultimately lost in a house fire near Raritan.

The existence of these original Old Sleepy Eye stoneware premiums attests to the durability of the pottery. Their price in today's antique market attests to their perceived value. If you are interested in becoming a collector, or just an owner of a single piece of Old Sleepy Eye stoneware, it is important to do a little research. Copies are made and sold. Not all Sleepy Eye is old. The uninformed may pay dearly for a near-worthless copy.

Don't get scalped by an Old Sleepy Eye imposter. Watch out for his younger look-alike, ''Sleazy Eye.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 7, 2001

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