‘Grace,’ Minnesota’s iconic state photograph, celebrates a century

August 25, 2018

In the Iron Range town of Bovey 100 years ago, a traveling salesman stepped into photographer Eric Enstroms studio hoping to make a sale.

His visit that day instead landed him in an iconic photograph, a simple image of a man seated at a meager supper, one thats been reproduced millions of times and hung in homes around the world.

The Grace photo will get a centennial celebration in its honor on Labor Day weekend in Bovey, population 702, with a display at City Hall, the release of a video about the photos influence, and even a red carpet to-do on Friday night.

I had no idea that it would be such a big deal, said Kris Nyberg Mayerle, Enstroms granddaughter. Mayerles mother, Rhoda, who hand-tinted the original black-and-white photo using techniques Enstrom taught her.

The photos commercial success helped Enstrom buy lakeshore lots 9 miles from town that he divided among his six children. The family compound today includes year-round homes for some of his grandchildren, including Mayerle. To the family, its meant everything, she said of the photo.

Enstrom was a 15-year-old Swedish immigrant when he arrived in Minnesota, eventually settling in Bovey with his new wife, Esther Peterson, in 1907. The new town was bustling with mining activity and hopes for the future as Enstrom, a recent graduate of the Minnesota School of Photography on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, opened shop.

As local legend has it, salesman Charles Wilden walked in one day and Enstrom took a liking to his face. Enstrom put a loaf of bread, a bowl of food, a book and a knife on the table and asked Wilden to hold his hands together in prayer.

It was not a viral hit. For years afterward, a black-and-white or sepia-toned version of the photo was displayed in Enstroms front window, slowly picking up sales. Enstrom carried on with photography, but also took side jobs along the way, serving at one time as the towns volunteer fire chief.

Sales of Grace grew, and by the 1950s, with orders coming in from around the world, Enstrom sold his copyright to Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis for $1,000 plus royalties and the right to continue to sell his own versions, according to retired history professor Don Boese, who wrote a booklet about Grace.

Amid the shock and tragedy of World War I, much of the art world began to reflect the anxieties of the age, said Boese. The Grace photo instead offered calm assurances. Interviewed years after he took the photo, Enstrom said he wanted to make an image showing humility and thankfulness, drawing a connection to the food rationing that took place during the war.

It was named Minnesotas official photograph in 2002, and a version of it was hung in the State Capitol.

Boese, in his research, found reason to suspect that the picture was taken in 1920, not 1918 as is commonly believed. Enstrom himself said the photo was first published in 1920 when he applied for a copyright. Theres also a dispute about the book in the photo: Some believe its a dictionary, others say its a Bible.

Perhaps the most enduring mystery is Wildens fate. Though he was known to live in Bovey in the 1920s, he seems to disappear from the public record. Attempts to find him have turned up some leads, including that he may have lived out his final years in Kansas.

We know so very, very little about him. Hes such a mysterious figure, and yet heres this face thats known the world over, said Boese.

Matt McKinney 612-673-7329 Twitter: @_mattmckinney

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