An article about Sleepy Eye Stained Glass that appeared in our regional Made in Minnesota issue.
Mike Mason has been messing around with glass for 40 years. He got in innocently with a hobby, kept going until it was a business and now, he says,
“They’ll have to carry me out of here.”
Mason, the owner of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, said he started working with glass in 1975 –– cutting clear glass to fit openings in the tops of wooden boxes he was making. Then he happened to buy a box of glass at an auction. He was working for Del Monte at that time and was transferred to Sleepy Eye.
“That box moved with me,” he said. And after looking at it for a couple years, he said he finally decided to learn how to make something with it. He bought a how-to booklet and started making stained glass pieces. He was hooked.
“I worked with a studio in Mankato for awhile,” Mason said. “Then got started teaching Community Education classes around 1980.” Mason, who was still working full-time for Del Monte, traveled around to several area towns conducting stained glass classes in the evenings. “I learned a lot and taught a lot, for about 15 years,” he said.
Mason added a workshop to his home and eventually held the classes there. In addition to teaching classes he found himself doing stained glass work for others and a business was born.
Since 2000, Sleepy Eye Stained Glass has occupied a prime location, right on Main Street (Highway 14) in downtown Sleepy Eye. The packed store windows draw the eye of anyone traveling on the busy road, and add a touch of sparkle to the business district.
It’s hard to describe the exact nature of Mason’s business. Is it a workshop and classroom? Is it a retail store featuring stained glass art, lamps and jewelry? Is it like a warehouse full of colorful art glass?
Yes, yes, yes and even more.
“We have the largest selection of glass in a six to seven state area,” said Mason. He was reluctant to guess how much he has, “Several thousand pieces,” he settled on. He buys glass from a wholesaler in Chicago. “We get it in about three times a year,” he said. “A thousand pieces at a time.” And just days before our interview he brought in a load of glass he bought from a lady in Owatonna who was emptying out her shop.
Certainly, the aisles in the store are filled with racks and racks of glass in all the colors and effects imaginable. Mason said the store draws customers from all over the mid-west who purchase glass for their own projects. “Let’s see,” he said, as he picked his brain to list a few, “they come from International Falls, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Canada and all over Minnesota.”
The colored glass that Mason sells, and works with, is not really stained glass. It is called art glass. “Stained glass is color painted on glass and then fired,” he explained. And, yes, he does also have some “stained glass” on hand.
In addition to selling glass and glass art items, Sleepy Eye Stained Glass does a lot of stained glass repair and restoration work, and also creates and builds custom items. Mason’s employee, Linda Green, didn’t want to call herself “the designer,” but Mason said she really does most of the custom design work.
Green said she got started in stained glass work the same way Mason did. She took a class, and asked Mason if she could come in during the day to work on her pieces so she’d be home with her kids in the evening. He agreed.
“Before I knew it Mike was telling me to answer the phone, and asking me to do a little bookwork,” Green said. Apparently it all worked out, as Green has been working at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for 16 years.
She works with customers to discuss and design their custom pieces – then builds the beautiful artwork. Asked about a favorite, she struggled, saying they are all favorites. “Right now, my favorite is the backyard garden scene we just completed for a customer in Wisconsin,” said Green.
Another favorite Green remembers fondly was designed to look like a special prize-winning quilt. It was a gift to the woman who made the quilt, from her husband and daughter. “She came to the shop later and told me she loved it so much she cried,” said Green. “You know they’re happy with the work when they cry.”
Just like the glass sold, the special custom-made pieces end up far and wide. The customer who came the farthest was a man from England who was staying in the area for awhile. “He visited the shop and liked it so much he ordered a special piece for himself,” said Mason. The man carried it along on his flight home to England.
Custom stained glass art and restorations from Sleepy Eye Stained Glass end up all over. In Minnesota of course, but Mason also listed as many locations as he could think of –– Canada, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey.
And those classes? Still going strong. “We have classes five nights a week,” said Mason. For their first project he said every student makes an “ugly” clear glass angel to learn the basics. Student dedication varies from those who try one class to those are still coming after ten years!