Giving 'Grace': Celebrating Minnesota's state photograph on its 100th birthday

Kent Nyberg, grandson of Eric Enstrom, talks about
Kent Nyberg, grandson of Eric Enstrom, talks about the famous picture his grandfather captured titled "Grace," April 12, 2018, at his sister's home near Bovey, Minn.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

The day was chaotic, the room crowded.

No one was paying attention to the images on the wall, especially that hard-to-see one in the corner.

That was until Bob Lessard, 87, saw it.

Lessard was partly responsible for the photograph hanging in the Minnesota secretary of state's office in St. Paul.

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Reporters were camped out on June 5 to document the cavalcade of candidates showing up on the last day to file to be on ballots in this year's midterm election.

Among them was Lessard, the former longtime lawmaker making a last-minute bid into a crowded and upended race for attorney general. The photograph on the wall, titled "Grace," depicts an elderly man at a table, bowing his head and giving thanks.

Lessard pointed to "Grace" and started telling its story to Ben Petok, communications director for the secretary of state, who stood nearby.

A large canvas print of "Grace" by photographer Eric Enstrom.
A large canvas print of "Grace" by photographer Eric Enstrom resides in the home of his granddaughter Kris Mayerle near Bovey, Minn.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

"It was a good Minnesota lesson," Petok said later.

Sixteen years before, it was Lessard who sponsored the legislation that made "Grace" Minnesota's official state photograph.

In the roster of state symbols across the nation that mark official state birds, trees, songs and others, Minnesota is believed to be the only state with an official photograph.

The photograph turns 100 years old this year.

'Grace' reprints became wedding gift

Photographer Eric Enstrom in undated photograph.
Photographer Eric Enstrom captured the official photograph of the state of Minnesota in 1918 at his studio in Bovey, Minn.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

In 1918, a peddler named Charles Wilden posed at a table for what would become "Grace" in the studio of photographer Eric Enstrom.

Enstrom, then in his 40s, was a Swedish immigrant who had settled and opened shop in the hardscrabble northern Minnesota mining town of Bovey. The town's 20-plus taverns were on the high end, per capita, according to Lilah Crowe, of the Itasca County Historical Society. But Enstrom found a niche in family portraits for all occasions and also for panoramic photos of scenes and vistas around Bovey and Coleraine.

Crowe is executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids which currently has an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of "Grace."

In the photograph, Wilden is wearing plaid flannel. His full head of hair and beard are a vibrant white, giving off a Santa Claus vibe. His forehead and clasped hands display the wrinkles of age.

He's seated at a table with a loaf of bread, a bowl of gruel, a knife, a book and a pair of glasses. In the original photograph, there's a picture frame in the upper left corner.

But Enstrom manipulated the negatives to change that to a window with rays of light beaming in, a long precursor to Photoshop. That later version with the window is the better-known version.

Enstrom, and later his daughter Rhoda Nyberg, also hand-colored the photos — another pre-Photoshop trick — making them appear to many as a painting.

Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society.
Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society, talks about the exhibit dedicated to photographer Eric Enstrom's "Grace" photograph.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

Crowe said strong sales started almost immediately after Enstrom put the photo in his shop's window.

"People would walk by and say "I love that picture" and it later became that if you got married, you got a picture of 'Grace.' That's what you put in your dining room," she said.

"It was pretty much people spreading by word of mouth, saying 'you've got to get this picture,'" Crowe added.

Sold rights

Enstrom soon couldn't keep up with demand for orders, so he sold the rights to Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis, which allowed for mass production.

That is a key reason why the photograph ended up in so many people's homes.

"I have a friend who said they saw it in Afghanistan and somebody saw in a hut in Africa," Kris Mayerle, Enstrom's granddaughter, said, while sitting outside her house that sits on land Enstrom first bought decades ago and remains in the family. "They've been seen all over the world. Every woman I know says 'my grandparents had that hanging in their kitchen.' It just resonated with many, many people."

Kris Mayerle, granddaughter of Eric Enstrom, who took the "Grace" photo.
Kris Mayerle, granddaughter of Eric Enstrom, listens to her brother Kent Nyberg talk about the famous picture her grandfather captured titled "Grace."
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

Mayerle said the popularity also has led to people contacting Enstrom's descendants to claim it was their grandfather or uncle in the photograph. It's not unless your grandfather or uncle was Charles Wilden.

Pride of Bovey

Today, Enstrom remains the pride of Bovey. The city displays "Grace" on its website, an original copy of the photograph hangs in City Hall although it's currently on loan to the Itasca County Historical Society for its exhibit; and the building that once housed the Enstrom studio still stands, with a mural of "Grace" along the top of the building.

That hometown pride helped spur an effort about 20 years ago to have "Grace" put on a postage stamp. While that effort failed, it spawned a secondary effort to give the photograph an official state designation. Minnesota's official state photograph — with a requirement a copy hang in the secretary of state's office, thus the interaction on candidate filing day with Lessard.

Bovey City Hall includes a monument to Eric Enstrom and "Grace."
A monument to Eric Enstrom and the "Grace" photograph outside Bovey City Hall.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

While the proposal passed with overwhelming support, it wasn't unanimous because of the question of whether it's a religious photo and whether the state is sanctioning any one religion by giving it the designation.

The key to that issue centers around the question: Is the book on the table a Bible?

That question was the focus of the short debate on the Minnesota House floor in March 2002, before the vote. State Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who is Jewish, voted against the bill, noting "I question the religious nature of the photograph," while Rep. Bob Ness, R-Dassel, declared "I'd feel better if it were the Bible."

Dictionary or Bible?

Even today, there's disagreement on whether the book is a Bible.

"You can't change the documented history that when Charles Wilden signed the rights away to that picture and handed it over to Eric Enstrom, he described the picture and wrote 'Bible,'" Crowe said. "You can't now say it's a dictionary. He described the picture and then signed his name at the bottom."

But Loren Solberg, a former DFL lawmaker who also sponsored the legislation to make "Grace" the official state photograph, said he thinks it's a dictionary. He told lawmakers on the floor that day it was because that's what he heard from Enstrom's daughter. Mayerle agrees with the family lore that it was a dictionary.

Regardless, Solberg said that question is moot when explaining why "Grace" should be a state symbol.

The image exudes Minnesota values, he says. "I think it's the simplicity of it," said Loren Solberg, "It really does kind of capture the essence of grace."

Kent Nyberg discussed "Grace" taken by his grandfather in 1918.
A portion of the photograph titled "Grace" resides in the background while Kent Nyberg (right, out of focus) talks about the famous picture his grandfather Eric Enstrom captured.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News

For Wesley Sisson, 19, a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and an intern this summer at the Itasca County Historical Society, the importance of the photo for Minnesota is that "everyone that I have spoken to has had a connection to it."

"I think the reason why this photograph is Minnesota is that of how intrinsically it has become part of the culture," Sisson said. "It has become so common that people just see it like in their everyday life. It's just part of their experience."

Sisson is blind. But he had the photo described to him and in learning about the history of the era during which it was taken, he said he gained a new appreciation.

The year 1918 was a hard one for the country. Americans were dying daily in Europe as World War I raged with no end in sight.

Millions more died worldwide from a Spanish flu outbreak that killed an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. And Minnesota saw its deadliest natural disaster to date — a series of fires in October in Cloquet, Duluth and Moose Lake that killed 450 people.

But you don't have to have lived in 1918 to find importance, he added.

"I connect very well with the idea of serenity in a turbulent time."