The word “Sisseton” means “swamp dwellers” and the people of Chief Sleepy Eye spent their lives in or near sloughy places. This could be probably one of many reasons why Chief Sleepy Eye chose our town to live after he and his band were told to move from Swan Lake in 1857. Few sloughs are left in Brown County today due to the eagerness for drainage. Nowadays, we have to learn to remake sloughs when and where needed.
The railroad tracks in Sleepy Eye had to be laid on the highest ridge of land. This sloped northward to Sleepy Eye Lake and its widely twisting surroundings. A slough lay along Fifth Street (now First Avenue) between the tracks and St. Mary’s Church. A large arm of Sleepy Eye Lake spread behind the low hill at the end of Fifth Street (First Avenue) and was known as Geschwind’s Slough.
The main part of Sleepy Eye Lake has been dry twice in known history. The first reported time was in 1802. The second time was in the early 1930s, and there are pictures showing this. Then the lake bed was so dry that several people planted gardens in it. One man missed his small dog and found it barking for help from a crack into which it had fallen.
Moving toward the south part of town, the land sloped into innumerable sloughs, some of which became arms of what was known as Ross Lake during the rainy seasons. Ross Lake was located for those who are unfamiliar, at the southeast edge of town. People on Ross Lake tied boats to their steps as the only way to get in and out of their homes.
Ross Lake took its name from a trader who had had a cabin near it. Warned of the Uprising in 1862, the Ross family fled eastward toward Mankato, following the Cottonwood River. Along the way, Mrs. Ross gave birth to a child. This was one of the few families who did not return after the region was pacified. Ross Lake was always small, brushy and weedy, and it was made smaller and smaller by being filled in until final drainage and filling removed it entirely, but not before it flooded several blocks in 1965.
Hotel owner Carl Berg, who came to Sleepy Eye in 1873 to build the second hotel in Sleepy Eye, chose a site at the southeast corner of Main Street and Sixth (now Second Avenue SW). He was accustomed to shooting wild fowl from the hotel’s back door. As late as 1890, the Berg children skated from the back of the hotel southeastward for two blocks.
Ice boating was an occasional winter sport on Sleepy Eye Lake. In summer, many rowboats could be seen, and a boathouse stood below the park. Ice skating was popular on Sleepy Eye Lake, the Geschwind Slough, Ross Lake, the Dumke Slough south of Ross Lake (about the place on which the Orchid Inn stands), and even occasionally on the Hillesheim Slough, which was in the southwest part of town and is now a portion of the Hillesheim Addition. Oftentimes, Main Street would even be considered a mass of mud.