Local History: Was local artist Adam Rohe a forgotten Stan Herd?

photo by: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

The corn palace in Mitchell, S.D., is decorated with designs made of corn. Lawrence artist Adam Rohe was involved in the creation of the original version of the Corn Palace, which was built in 1892 and was replaced in the 20th century with the current building.

One of Lawrence’s most famous artists is Stan Herd. Originally born in Protection, he’s done crop and earthwork art around the world, and his ingenious use of nature has delighted viewers.

It has always seemed appropriate to me that he is following in the footsteps of Adam Rohe, an artist who worked during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was also from Lawrence.

John M. Peterson (1921-2009), a Lawrence historian, wrote an article about Rohe in 1994 in Kansas History, titled “Forgotten Kansas Artist: Adam Rohe (1844-1923).”

“Today the name of Adam Rohe, a Lawrence resident for more than fifty years, is completely unknown to Kansans, even to Lawrence residents, although copies of three of his large posters (Bismarck Grove 1882, Kansas Regatta 1882, Semi-Centennial Celebration 1904) appear in several places in the city,” Peterson wrote. “… He was also a pioneer, or at least an early practitioner of using agricultural products as the chief decorative element in designing exhibits and ornamenting buildings for fairs and expositions.”

By 1873, Rohe “had a shop on the south side of Henry (now Eighth) Street, likely 17 East 8th Street,” Peterson wrote. “He is listed most often as a ‘sign painter,’ but occasionally as an ‘artist and sign painter’ or as a ‘sign painter and artistic painter.'”

In December 1874, Rohe married Alice Park. They first set up housekeeping on Rhode Island Street but later moved to the 700 block of New Jersey Street, Peterson wrote.

Rohe soon did other art work beyond routine business signs and window decorations. Among his notable works were some shaving mugs and New Year’s Day cards. I have asked Lawrence’s most famous barber, state Rep. Mike Amyx, if he has ever seen or heard of Rohe’s shaving mugs. He said he had some ideas of where to look, but that he wasn’t aware of any of Rohe’s mugs.

Rohe also began to do posters of Lawrence views and stage scenery. In the 1880s, he designed exhibits and decorated exhibit spaces and buildings for fairs and expositions, such as a New Orleans event in 1884. Rohe “began using farm produce to decorate the outside of fair or exhibition buildings,” and he was involved with the Mitchell Corn Palace from 1892 to 1908.

The 1892 Corn Palace building, Peterson wrote, “evoked traditional concepts of a castle or palace with numerous engaged circular towers topped by sharp-pointed cupolas … Rohe had to limit his exterior design to a variety of geometrical forms such as alternating bands of dark and light ears of corn spiraling around the towers and patterns of squares and triangles surrounding central emblems on the flat areas.

“Cut or whole corn ears of different sizes, several colors, and many shades had to be selected and blended to provide the desired visual effects, as did the stalks, seed heads, and leaves of grass, cane, flax, and other materials,” Peterson continued.

The Corn Palace that Rohe worked on has since been replaced with a new one, but the attraction in its current form still follows Rohe’s pattern in its use of corn.

“Much of (Rohe’s) work was ephemeral in nature,” Peterson wrote, adding that “Ironically, his name can be found in current publications in Mitchell, South Dakota, not so in Kansas.”

But even if Rohe isn’t widely known today, crop art is alive and well in Lawrence. Herd’s work is reminiscent of what Rohe did — and, with their more thorough documentation, Herd’s pieces will likely stand the test of time better.

— Local History is a monthly column in the Journal-World. Steve Jansen has been a resident of Lawrence since 1974. He was an employee of the Watkins Museum of History from 1977 to 2002 and served as the director from 1979 to 2001. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Kansas in 1985.


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