The ceramic tile mosaic “The Land of Plenty” – 14 feet in diameter and made from more than 48,000 hand-cut and hand-placed pieces – is probably the most fantastic art installation in the whole county. “It’s symbolic of your community, your history, your culture, your economy,” says one of America’s leading ceramic artists of today. But who was the artist or the art team that created it? We don’t know. Yet.
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Oct. 25, 2017 — After seven years of occasional research and more than a dozen interviews about “The Land of Plenty” ceramic tile mosaic that is in the center of the rotunda floor in our 100-year-old Greene County Courthouse, we can report this: It is almost certainly the most valuable work of art in the county.
“Priceless!” said leading American ceramic artist and sculptor David Dahlquist, of Des Moines, after he saw our mosaic for the first time last January. “It’s symbolic of your community, your history, your culture, your economy. There’s no way you can put a monetary value on that.”
Dahlquist, who heads the Dahlquist Studio for RDG Planning & Design in Des Moines, said if an art team were designing and building our mosaic today, “it’d take $75,000 to $100,000 easily. Easily!” Just for the material and labor. “Actually, it’d probably be much more than that, as I think about it,” he continued. “The thing is, it’s a really well-done piece, and you know, it’s fun. ‘Corn as the Cornucopia!’ You can’t help but like it.”
Now, if only we knew who the actual artist, artists or crafts-persons were!
I “discovered” the mosaic the first evening my wife Carla Offenburger and I lived in Greene County in June, 2004. I walked across it during the Bell Tower Festival reception for that year’s Tower of Fame winner, my pal David Yepsen. I was instantly impressed, and began to like it more every time I saw it over the next half-dozen years.
In about 2010, I was standing in the rotunda one day, again looking at the mosaic, when Don Van Gilder, assistant county engineer and unofficial courthouse historian, walked out of his office. We both stood there, admiring the size, color, intricacy and artistry of it.
The view from above of the amazing mosaic in the rotunda of the Greene County Courthouse.
ONE MORE QUESTION. “But who’s the artist?” I finally asked.
Van Gilder winced and said, “We don’t know.”
He and other county officials have been through the original blueprints, the architects’ notes, board of supervisors meeting minutes, and stacks of 100-year-old stories from the Jefferson Bee and the Jefferson Herald. They’ve come across a lot of names of people involved in the design, construction and finishing work on the courthouse. They know the names of the artists who did the murals on the sidewalls at the top of the rotunda and then re-did two of them about 50 years later. They at least know what company made two beautiful stained-glass domes.
But they’ve struck out on finding the name of the mosaic’s artist or artists.
So has Steve Stimmel. He’s the recently-retired partner and historian for Brooks, Borg and Skiles Architecture Engineering. That’s the Des Moines firm that is the successor of Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson, the architects who designed and oversaw the building of our courthouse from 1915 to 1917. Brooks, Borg and Skiles have continued to consult and work on the courthouse in recent decades.
I’ve struck out, too. So has Dianne Piepel, a skilled volunteer researcher for the Greene County Historical Society and, like Van Gilder and me, a member of the “Courthouse 100” committee, which has planned the courthouse’s centennial celebration happening this week.
But no way have any of us given up, and we invite everybody else in Greene County and beyond to help us crack this artistic mystery.
A lot has come from the digging we’ve all done thus far.
On that day in 2010 when Van Gilder and I first talked about the mosaic, I told him I thought we should at least figure out just how big it is. He retreated to his office, grabbed a tape measure, and we noted that it’s 14 feet in diameter. We then measured several of the small ceramic tiles in different places on the mosaic. All were about one square inch, or just smaller. “O.K., it’s 14 feet in diameter, made up of lots of tile pieces that probably average one square inch each,” I told him. “You’re the engineer. You handle the math.”
His figuring – about 48,000 pieces.
Check the detailed work in the top part of the mosaic.
That’s where the tall corn grows.
Depictions of another crop important in west central Iowa in the 1917 era. Most people say it’s wheat. The author thinks it’s oats. Remember, it was 1917, most people were farming with horses, and horses eat a lot of oats. In fact, oats was the second largest crop in Greene County then, behind corn.
BIG MOSAIC TELLS A BIG STORY. We’ve also learned much more about the story that inspired “The Land of Plenty.” You’ve probably heard part of it, or read the account of it in the framed document on the northeast side wall of the ground floor of the rotunda.
In 1915, a “Panama-Pacific International Exposition” – like a world’s fair – was held in San Francisco between late February and early December. It was a showcase of all the advances that industries, cities, states and nations had made by that point early in the 20th century.
Among many exhibitions and contests held in San Francisco was one for “best seed corn,” which at that time was a crop still rather new in its commercialization. Everybody in west central Iowa knew who was developing the best seed corn in these parts – Willard Zeller of Franklin Township in southern Greene County. He’d refined his stock of “Reid’s Yellow Dent Corn,” which he’d originally purchased in Illinois, so well that his eared corn entries had been consistent winners for three years in major corn shows in Columbus, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; in Omaha, and at the Iowa State Corn Shows in Des Moines in 1913 and 1914.
By 1915, he had formed Zeller Seed Company, and he and his son Earle Zeller took their best 80 ears of 1914 corn to San Francisco, where it indeed won the “world championship.”
People back home were ecstatic.
The Jefferson Commercial Club immediately began wooing the Zellers to move their new company off the farm and into Jefferson, in a new two-story building at 100 McKinley Street along the east-west railroad mainline.
And the state’s “Iowa Commission for the San Francisco Exposition” saw an opportunity to do a dramatic first promotion of Iowa as “The Corn State.” They sent representatives to Zeller’s farm and bought all the eared corn that was available – 400 bushels of it. Those ears were wrapped individually in newspapers, placed in barrels, hauled to Bagley and placed in a box car destined for San Francisco.
On the exposition grounds, the Iowa Commission had a huge cornucopia display built – about 30 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Huge signs with “Iowa” on them were on both sides of the actual horn of plenty, which on its mouth had the words, “The Land of Plenty.” Spilling out from the horn of plenty were those 400 bushels of eared Zeller seed corn.
The cover of the 1920 Zeller Seed Co. catalog was still celebrating the triumph in San Francisco.
COMMEMORATING THAT BIG EVENT IN THE NEW COURTHOUSE. At that same time, county officials in Jefferson were studying the proposed designs for the new courthouse. Newspaper stories from then report that county auditor B.S. McCully suggested to the board of supervisors that the cornucopia display in San Francisco be designed right into the floor of the rotunda – and it was.
The Bee of March 14, 1917, reported that “the work of laying the tile floors in the new courthouse, which has been in progress the past month, has been of a most interesting character, as this is a highly specialized line of work and good workmen in this line are not over plentiful.
“Last week the crowning feature of the floor decorations was installed, in the center of the rotunda on the ground floor, the design (from) the famous Iowa Horn of Plenty at the San Francisco Fair,” the Bee story continued. “(That design) especially ‘belongs’ to Greene County, for the reason that Mr. Willard Zeller furnished all the corn which made up the big pile flowing from the mouth of the horn. In the reproduction of this intricate design with pieces of tile, varying in size from three-fourths inch square to very tiny and irregular shaped pieces, a great deal of skill and ingenuity has been displayed. In the circular frame enclosing the design are the words ‘Greene County, the Land of Plenty.’ ”
That was nice praise for the “highly specialized” efforts of the “good workmen.” Alas, none of them was named. They’re also anonymous in the documents that were used for the dedication of the courthouse on Oct. 27, 1917.
Willard and Earle Zeller were popular fellows in Greene County and beyond for the next five years. Willard was even appointed to serve an unexpired term on the board of supervisors. They grew their company in Jefferson to offer a full line of farm and garden seeds, with their annual catalog continuing to celebrate their “world corn championship” in San Francisco.
Alas, by 1922, they were bankrupt. Their company went broke, and so did their families, in the devastating farm recession that swept the heartland.
“From about 1918 to the late 1920s, a lot of families lost their farms – including their land,” said Bob Burnell, 92, of Jefferson, who grew up near the Zeller farms. “The old families that had made their wealth in earlier times, lost it then. The old timers would always talk about just how hard the ’20s were. It was much worse here then than it was in the 1930s, when the nation had the Great Depression.”
Sheriff’s sales were held for Zeller family properties, the contents of their seed house and their homes, even the few farm animals they had remaining.
By 1927, Willard and Viva Zeller, and their sons Earle and Ivan, moved to Glendale, Calif. Both parents died out there, Viva in 1937 and Willard in 1944.
Historical marker celebrates the farm where “world championship seed corn” was developed by Willard Zeller, in Franklin Township in southern Greene County, on a farm that today belongs to Judy Larson.
A closer look at the Zeller historical marker.
THE STORY AND THE ARTWORK ARE BIGGER THAN JUST THE ZELLERS. The collapse of their business in no way diminishes the importance or artistic quality of our cornucopia mosaic on the floor of the courthouse rotunda. Actually, it should remind us not only of the tremendous productivity of agriculture all around us here in “The Land of Plenty,” but also of ag’s economic volatility.
So, what of this work of art?
“What you have there,” said ceramic artist Dahlquist, “is representative of a precedent that goes back thousands of years, especially for public buildings, of including high-quality artwork in them. Mosaics were a popular choice. In buildings of 100 or so years ago, there was a public expectation that there’d be meaningful art like that. It was a rich tradition that we frankly don’t uphold quite as well today.”
The mosaic we have “certainly would have required an artist or a very good craftsperson. It would’ve started with a drawing, maybe as large a drawing as the design wound up being. The people installing it would have kept parts of that drawing right in front of them, or they possibly might have chalked it out on the concrete floor.
“They would have been on their knees on that floor, using a fine-toothed handsaw to cut the pieces of tile and a pair of pliers to clip the tile after it had been scored.”
After an area of the pieces were in place, secured in mortar or some other kind of adhesion, they would have been grouted. It’s likely some kind of sealer coat was applied.
Dahlquist said if the old Bee story is accurate, that the mosaic was completed on the floor in about a week’s time, “then those pieces of tile were almost certainly cut somewhere else and brought to the courthouse floor.” Sawing and cutting 48,000 pieces of tile – many of them of irregular shape – would have required more than a week.
“I can see a piece like that taking a month to lay out, cut and set into a mortar bed,” he said. “That would mean about five or six square feet a day, and that is certainly doable, maybe even faster for the areas that are less complex. So, I can easily see a couple people working on it, maybe one cutting and the other fitting into place – and a month would not be unrealistic.”
The classic, but rather plain, exterior of the Greene County Courthouse in Jefferson IA. One friend describes it “as kind of like a geode,” being plain and gray on the outside, but when you open it up you find all kinds of art, style and craftsmanship.
PUSHING ON, TRYING TO SOLVE THIS WHODUNNIT. Now, where do we the curious go in our continuing search to try to find the identity of the artist or art team that should belatedly and posthumously be acclaimed for this grand artwork?
–We should look closely at the records and correspondence of the county auditor McCully from mid 1915 to March of 1917, to see if he named artists when he recommended the design to the board of supervisors and architects.
–We should learn more about N.A. Price, who was the superintendent for construction of the courthouse for the Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson firm, and who had a real warm spot in his heart for Jefferson and Greene County. The Jefferson Herald reported in April, 1918, that leaders of the community gave Price a “farewell smoker” in the courthouse’s Assembly Room, as he was getting ready to move on to a new construction assignment in Corwith in north central Iowa. (That event, the Herald reported, featured “a bountiful supply of good cigars, then a light lunch consisting of doughnuts and coffee.”) In his remarks at the party, Price talked about how he’d fallen in love with Jefferson in 1889 when, as a young mason, he’d come to the community to work on a new high school building. And he’d been back a few years later to work on a new county jail. He said his superintendency of the courthouse construction was a career highlight for him.
–We should try to find the records of the “Wm. S. Andrews Decorating Company,” of Clinton, Iowa, which had the contract for the murals in our courthouse and hired the original artist, William Peaco. That company did art projects, mostly murals, in state capitols and other public buildings all over the Midwest. We do not know if they ever did mosaics.
–We should ask the architects at Brooks, Borg and Skiles in Des Moines to look deeper in their records about whether Herbert E. Rich, who joined the firm from 1911-1920 and became its lead designer, did any work on the Greene County Courthouse. We know from his granddaughter that he was a fine artist in his own right, but so far we have no confirmation that he worked on our courthouse.
Dahlquist raises one other possibility.
“It wouldn’t be at all surprising that this artwork was actually done by a recent immigrant back then,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in the public buildings of Chicago, admiring the artwork in them. I know a lot of the terracotta work in those buildings was done by Italians. Many immigrants back then had been skilled in stonework and other construction trades in Europe. Often they went to work for stone companies in America. So a mosaic artist could’ve come out to Jefferson from a company that was supplying the stone.”
Finally, what we’re puzzling over here is public art in a public building. So, if any of you in the public know more about our long-ago artist or art team – or if you find out more – please let us all know.
One more look at our mysterious mosaic.
Chuck Offenburger, the author of this story, is an Iowa writer who serves on the Courthouse 100 committee that has planned the centennial celebration of the Greene County Courthouse. You can write him by email at chuck@Offenburger.com. Invaluable research for this story was provided by Dianne Piepel, another member of the Courthouse 100 committee, and you can write her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.