Photo: Jeff Silker
Nationally known entrepreneur manufactures stained glass and is largest distributor of industry supplies in Upper Midwest.
Despite declaring himself “shade blind,” Mike Mason, the 71-year-old founder and owner of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, has spent the last 30 years working with architects, interior designers and individual customers on churches, commercial buildings and private homes. He has produced stained glass for wall hangings, cabinet panels, doors, skylights, etc.
“I’m not color blind,” he said, “but I cannot tell browns from greens, and grays from some shades of green. I have to see the light through the glass to see the colors I see. I also have no color sense; I don’t know what colors go with other colors and which ones don’t. But early in my teaching career, when one of my community education students made two lamps in orange and bright green checkerboard, even I knew that wasn’t a good combination. But he loved it.”
Soon after entering Mason’s workshop in his century-old building on Sleepy Eye’s East Main Street, a visitor learns one reason for Mason’s success. He knows how to spot and hire talent. As he checks on a project here and talks with a customer there, his employees are eager to talk about their work. They all have come to be there in what can only be described as Mason’s “grow-your-own” process.
One such “grow-your-own” employee was Linda Green. “She was a community education student of mine 18 years ago and then did stained glass in her home as a hobby,” began Mason in a Connect Business Magazine interview. “When I moved my shop from my home, I needed more help. She walked in one day to buy supplies, and I offered her a job.”
Green herself took up the tale, saying, “And I started working here the following Monday. I’ve always been ‘artsy’ but in college I was told to take business classes because I wouldn’t make it in art. I became Mike’s student a year later, when I had a stained glass duck with a broken neck. Mike wouldn’t fix it for me (“How else do you get students?” Mason interjected), so in 1992 I took his class and was mesmerized by stained glass. After working here, I can read Mike’s mind and his hand-writing.”
Mason’s wife, Katelyn, is another former student. She took her first community education class from him three decades ago and has made and sold stained glass items since. Both had various life experiences before they married three years ago.
“I realized then (30 years ago) that Katelyn had a very good color sense,” Mason said. “She makes the molds for the pieces I make to replace the broken curved panels in lamps. That takes a certain knack and color sense. She also designs and makes jewelry, and makes items for churches, historical societies and businesses from preformed porcelain or ceramic tiles, using special inks and transfer paper. She heat presses them on a machine. Her daughter, Elizabeth Kolbe, often works with her.”
Retired electrician Ron Ubl, who rounds out the staff, also arrived via community education classes. He explained, “One winter my wife said, ‘Why don’t you get out of the house?’ so I took a class from Mike and it kind of grew from there. I’ve been here part-time, off and on, for 30 years, repairing tools and doing general building maintenance.”
Then there’s the non-employee, Mike Thatcher, a self-described “volunteer apprentice.” He drives from his southeastern Minnesota shop and brings projects to work on under Mason’s tutelage.
Not a former student, Thatcher found out about Mason on the Internet. “Our relationship started when I had a project too large to handle, a 100-year-old church window to repair,” Thatcher said. “Mike coached me and worked with me. It was a huge success. I learned the right way to handle a project and the quick ins and outs.”
Mason, a retired food plant production superintendent, explains his stained glass business matter-of-factly. “It was my hobby, it is my hobby. In 1995 I retired from Del Monte, where I had fun, too. Now I get up every morning, go to work and do my hobby. When I began this business, my goal was to have fun and make enough money to feed my hobby. Now I want to continue to enjoy my hobby as long as I can get up and down the stairs to the basement.” (More about the basement later.)
Mason set the tone for his first career when he picked tomatoes for a canning company as a sixth grader. While attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he married his first wife and worked at a variety of jobs, including being a seasonal field hand for Green Giant. After earning an agriculture degree in 1964, he worked for Del Monte as a field man in Mendota, Illinois. He climbed the Del Monte corporate ladder in Indiana, New Jersey and Illinois before his 1976 transfer to Sleepy Eye as plant production superintendent. Stained glass had not yet entered the picture.
“At that time, I spent my time refinishing furniture and antiques as a hobby,” Mason said. “Then I saw an ad in Popular Mechanics for a booklet on how to do stained glass. I was curious, so I sent away for it. When getting the booklet, I used tools I already had (not the right ones) and found I liked doing it. My first piece was a mirror frame, somewhat primitive I think now, but I was proud of it. I gave it to my mother. Since her passing, I have it displayed here in the shop.”
Mason bought the right tools, perfected his skills at the Glass Galleria in Mankato and began helping out with classes there.
“The owner talked me into teaching community education classes,” Mason said. “I’ve taught in Redwood Falls, New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Fairfax, Morgan and St. James. When I started in 1978, I taught Monday night in Redwood, Tuesday night in Morgan, Thursday night in New Ulm and Friday night in St. James. I loaded all the equipment and glass in my pickup truck, unloaded it for the class, taught, reloaded, then came home and unloaded the tools for my shop use, all while working full time days for Del Monte.”
Mason bought an older home in Sleepy Eye on Second Avenue in 1980, housed his workshop in the basement and transformed the parlor into a shop. He had his first supply sale that year, advertising it through his students.
“I thought I had made it big time when I sold $330 worth of glass that weekend,” he said. (Now his semi-annual supply sales gross up to $8,000 each.) “It’s a toss-up, sales of supplies versus projects. The supply side is what keeps us going well. We send out 750-800 sales flyers to a list of students and previous customers. Stained glass crafters come here primarily from Minnesota, but also from all over the Midwest. The majority are former students, some from the late 1970s. And there’s a new facet. I supply the art department of two schools, Windom and Mountain Lake. A shop in Henderson buys bulk supplies from us, and the owner does glass painting for me. I have an ad in the phone book, and there’s word-of-mouth.”
Business increased in 2000, following the move to the Main Street location. Mason explained, “I can see people drive down Main Street (also Highways 14 and 68), see the shop, stop, turn around and come in. We just didn’t have that kind of exposure at the house.”
When teaching community education four nights a week became too much, Mason began offering classes in his shop, 7-10 p.m., five nights a week. Now the students do the driving, coming from as far away as Winona, the Twin Cities and eastern South Dakota. With the shop open 9-5 weekdays and 9-4 Saturdays, Mason often leaves an hour before closing and returns at 7 p.m. to teach classes. He offers training in several levels of stained glass making, fusing, bead making, decorative soldering, etching, kiln work and the making of mosaic steppingstones.
“I typically have three to seven students each night,” he said. “I charge $45 for a total of 10 sessions. It pays for the electricity. It’s like fishing. You get ’em hooked and they might come and buy glass for the rest of their lives.”
And glass there is. While most glass shops have one or two racks of glass cut into squares, Mason’s shop offers nearly endless options—about 20,000 square feet of glass, some stocked in the shop for 15 years. (A recent shipment of 1,000 feet of glass weighed about 2,000 pounds.)
“We have the largest selection of stained glass between Lake Michigan and Montana,” Mason said. “I haven’t personally been to all of those places, but my customers come from all over and tell me no one has the selection I have. We have about 12 different stained glass manufacturers from the United States, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, China, England and South America. We carry Kokomo glass (from Kokomo, Indiana) and Wissmach (from West Virginia). These two companies made glass for Tiffany.
“Linda usually waits on stained glass hobbyists who come in to buy supplies,” Mason said. “We both work with clients who want a custom-stained glass piece made.”
Mason or Green talk with each client, visualizing what the client thinks should go in their window, sometimes making use of design books, more often working from photos or simple sketches the client brings in. The two artists brainstorm about the design, then the one doing the project makes a full-size sketch, re-drawing as necessary until the client approves. They help the client pick out the glass, a process that can exhaust people because there are so many choices. Using the traditional stained glass method, each artist works on his or her individual project over three or four months, cutting the glass and putting the leading between the pieces. They use the foil method used extensively by Tiffany, which involves wrapping the glass edges with copper foil, then soldering the two wrapped pieces together. The last step is to install the finished work in the client’s home or office.
Sandblasting the stained glass produces a look that usually adorns gun cabinets or makes business logos stand out. Another current industry trend is hot glass or fused glass, a small percentage of the business’s work. Mason explained, “I’ve manufactured modern windows, but they have to be designed by someone else. We prefer the traditional jobs. I personally take the more difficult projects, such as church window repairs.”
When a 1998 tornado struck Comfrey, Mason and staff were hired to restore one church’s windows to their original beauty. In a similar situation, Mason was hired to duplicate windows for a church near Litchfield destroyed by fire. Parishioners sent photos of weddings, receptions and gatherings with the windows in the background. Mason’s results were so like the original glass, one worshipper at the dedication was convinced the windows had survived the fire.
Mason also specializes in the restoration and repair of antique lamps, an interest that has expanded into an eclectic lamp collection in the shop basement. It has become somewhat of a local tourist attraction, hyped by the owners of the W.W. Smith Inn, a local B&B.
“They send their guests over,” Mason explained. One item of interest is the large kiln, used for “cooking” bottles at 1,350 degrees Fahrenheit. People use the flattened bottles for spoon rests or simply as decorations.
There are belt sanders, used for smoothing edges of glass. The X-ray display light boxes that Mason salvaged from hospitals provide background light for patternmaking. There’s also a cutting table, and nearby, there’s woodworking equipment Mason uses for building stands for positioning lampshades when soldering their stained glass. He markets the stands to other stained glass companies through a wholesaler.
The underground tour takes on more interest when the “tourist” wanders through several rooms of various collections, or “old junk that I can sell,” as Mason describes it. A couple of themes quickly emerge. There are lampshades, metal floor lamps, Alladin lamps, various flat-wick lamps and a vaporizer lamp, circa 1900, for use with a product such as Vicks Vapo-Rub. Neatly stacked here and there are stained glass windows that Mason salvaged from various churches—Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist.
“I fix the windows and sell them,” Mason said. “I’ve sold some to antique shops, to people for their homes and for display in stores such as floral shops. The windows could also be used in funeral homes.
“I’m very proud of my accomplishments, both at the Del Monte plant and what we’ve done with this shop and classes. I cannot name a favorite stained glass project. There are some I’m proud of, but I like everything I’ve made.”
Where did you grow up? In Illinois, the oldest in a second family. I had siblings 11 and 13 years older, and a sister 11 years younger.
Current family? My wife Katelyn and four stepchildren. I have a daughter, Deanna, from my first marriage.
Favorite subject in school? Horticulture, because the classes were interesting. I was “color blind,” so I couldn’t take art classes.
Least favorite subjects? Chemistry, because I couldn’t see the chemical reaction color changes.
Hobbies? I go to auctions to collect more junk and to buy more stained glass.
Most valued possession? I just love it all, he said, while gesturing around the shop at the cutting tables, small kilns, grinders, diamond saws, cutters, and light tables.
Most valued intangible? My wife Katelyn.
What three words describe Mike Mason? Generous, knowledgeable, and a character.