Small Town In Iowa Stakes Its Hopes On Art

House pictured in painting "American Gothic" by Grant Wood, Eldon, Iowa, June 21, 2007.

The perfectly arched and cross-paned gothic window is everywhere.

It is among the blue ribbon winners at the Wapello County Fair crafts barn, built out of 16 Popsicle sticks. It's printed on yellow banners that hang from lampposts lining Elm Street. And down American Gothic Street, it sits atop the white cottage.

"It's in everything around here, of course," said 70-year-old Rose Morrison. "It's part of our heritage."

That window inspired Grant Wood's 1930 painting, "American Gothic," and for 77 years, it has been a point of pride for tiny Eldon, a weathered community of 975 people that has struggled since the railroad left town decades ago.

Now townspeople think the American Gothic house could give Eldon a more tangible boost - tourist dollars.

They hope that completion of a $1 million visitors' center, built with money cobbled together from years of bake sales and raffles, coupled with government grants, will draw more visitors to the isolated town and entice them to stick around longer than the time it takes to snap a photo.

"Things are tough down here economically," said Brenda Kremer, a 53-year-old mortician who helped raise money for the center. "So when there was a way to help boost the economy in this area, ... you have to be ready to get on board and get something going."

The stucco visitors center and nearby American Gothic house are surrounded by paint-chipped mobile homes, farmland and rusted silos.

Inside the center, exhibits explore the painting's history - how Wood sketched the house, then separately had his dentist and sister pose, neither in front of the house. And there's the stir it caused when the Art Institute of Chicago awarded Wood a $300 prize for a painting that some believed mocked Midwesterners.

The painting still hangs at the Art Institute, which does not disclose the value of the piece. But Jane C.H. Jacob, president of Jacob Fine Art in Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the Appraisers Association of America, estimates the painting would sell well in the current market.

"This is an iconic piece," said Jacob, who also teaches appraisal studies at New York University. "My estimation would be between $25 (million) and $35 million."

The painting features a tightlipped man and woman with elongated faces. The bald farmer stares straight through circle-rimmed spectacles as he clasps a pitchfork with three slim prongs. He's dressed up his overalls and collarless white shirt with a dark jacket.

To his right, the woman - who people claim is either his wife or unmarried daughter - averts her gaze. Her hair is tightly pulled back, and she's clad in a printed apron over a white-collared dress. Her only adornment is a golden brown broach. Behind them is the house's front porch and unmistakable window above.

The center also is filled with parodies, showing luminaries from Mickey and Minnie Mouse to Bill and Hillary Clinton substituted for the original subjects. Visitors are offered aprons, overalls and black jackets that they can don to walk across a dirt patch and pose for pictures before the American Gothic house.

Like everything in Eldon, building the center didn't come easy.

Eldon has always been a hardscrabble place, but life there became even more difficult in the 1960s when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad began cutting jobs at its turnaround and repair shop in town, where 20 trains once passed through. The tracks were removed entirely in 1980.

"It's gone downhill since the railroad went down," said 79-year-old Helen Glasson, whose grandparents lived in the American Gothic house when Wood made initial sketches.

Area meatpacking plants also cut back, and as the jobs disappeared, a group latched onto the house as a potential savior.

They began an annual festival revolving around the painting, worked to have the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places and began raising money. They lined up state and federal grants. But coming up with local money took creativity. Besides bake sales and soup dinners in the park, supporters dressed their children in overalls and aprons to panhandle at stock car races and requested that residents fill film canisters with quarters.

After so many years of work, residents seem a little surprised that they actually pulled it off.

"I just thought that's an almost impossible goal to reach, but we made it," said fundraiser Linda Durflinger, 63. "I was one of those at the beginning who didn't think it could be done."

Since it opened in June, more than 2,000 people have visited the center. Officials hope to draw as many as 20,000 visitors annually.

Phoebe Johnstone and Shawn Hegstrom drove two hours from central Iowa to Eldon in the southern part of the state to see the house. After browsing in the gift shop, they posed before the house in apron and overalls.

"There's a lot of places I'd like to see and this is definitely one of them," said Hegstrom, 31, as he clutched a pitchfork. "It's right up there with the world's largest ball of whatever."

Why drive so far for a snapshot?

Hegstrom said he was attracted by the painting's iconic stature, and Johnstone, 27, was drawn by the myriad kitschy parodies of the painting.

Steven Biel, a history and literature professor at Harvard University who has written about "American Gothic," credits the painting's appeal to its view of American life. That reputation has only grown over the decades, thanks in part to the never-ending parodies.

"I imagine for a lot of tourists or potential tourists that seeing the real thing is about getting to some quintessential American heartland that the painting represents," he said. "So to get to the essence of something is potentially the draw of going to Eldon."

As she studied a print of Wood's painting, Kremer, the local mortician, said she finds meaning in the image, seeing it as a metaphor for small town America and efforts to complete endeavors such as the American Gothic center.

"The picture has strength and I think it's still applicable to today's times," she said. "It took a lot of strength to bring this to fruition. It takes a lot of strength to live in a small town."