Friday, September 4, 2009

My Little Journey to East Aurora

By Kim

If you lived in America at the turn of the last century, chances are you knew of an arts and crafts community called Roycroft. Perhaps you subscribed to The Philistine, a magazine featuring Roycroft’s founder, Elbert Hubbard. A slim leather volume, A Message to Garcia may rest on your bedside table. (It sold 40 million copies and was translated into 37 languages). You may have attended one of Hubbard’s lectures and found yourself inexplicably mesmerized by a cleverly crafted commercial. You may even have taken Hubbard’s advice and made your own ‘little journey’ to East Aurora, New York.

My great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, did just that. After attending an 1899 lecture in Toronto, Carl introduced himself to Hubbard. Hubbard, it turned out, was familiar with Carl’s paintings and expressed admiration. As the men spoke Carl learned that Hubbard was interested in starting a potter-shop. He had experience and offered his services. Soon Carl moved to East Aurora with wife, children, and cousin (and fellow painter) Eleanor Douglas in tow.

I owe my existence to Elbert Hubbard.

If Carl had not spent five miserable months locked in a battle of wills with the Sage of East Aurora, a young artist named Martha Niles would never have walked into his studio. Had my great-grandparents met in any other location, it would have proved scandalous for a thirty-eight-year-old married man to so openly befriend a seventeen-year-old girl.

Hubbard is now often regarded as the ‘original hippie.’ He believed men and women should work and play together on equal terms. The result: people fell in love. Some, like Carl and even Hubbard himself, were married to others at the time. Hubbard fathered a child out of wedlock, his wife divorced him and he married his mistress in 1904. Carl worshipped his ‘Madonna’ without seduction (according to her memoirs) until after he left his wife in 1905. (Emily refused to divorce him). It’s possible he never secured a legal divorce, but he married Madonna anyway. Twice.

Before I started writing The Oak Lovers, I knew nothing about Roycroft or, for that matter, the arts and crafts movement. I scoured eBay listings trying without success to find Carl’s pottery or any books into which Madonna had hand-painted designs. Over the next year my research garnered me the ability to easily recognize art by Jerome Connor, Alexis Fournier, Dard Hunter, Karl Kipp and W.W. Denslow. Still, I felt I was missing something vital to the quality of my work and felt compelled to see the place for myself. In September of 2006 I booked a ticket and set off on my own ‘little journey’ to East Aurora.

Boarding my plane for Buffalo, I imagined a quiet, contemplative place, with whispers of creative energy from the past. Instead I found a horticulture festival sprawled across every inch of the campus lawn. Grove Street was all but a parking lot, there was no room at The Inn (thankfully I had other arrangements), and soon I was swallowed into the swarm of tourists and vendors. I stood there, a bit peeved, wondering how in the hell I was going to get decent pictures, let alone video footage, when I realized I’d been handed a gift.

So many tourists flocked to Roycroft in 1900 that, in a moment of entrepreneurial genius, Hubbard decided to build the Roycroft Inn for them. Even without tourists, the campus bustled with over a hundred workers. Adding to the confusion, boulders littered the campus lawn and the construction of the Second Print Shop caused a constant racket. Conditions were, in other words, a fair echo of the past.

As for creative energy, I can honestly say there’s no place I’ve ever been that boasted such abundance. I wanted to write, to paint, to try my hand at the potter’s wheel, and I wanted to do these things at the same time. Oh, the things I could accomplish were I to set up an office in the Morris Room of the Inn, the very room in which Madonna once worked.

As I retraced my great-grandmother’s path up the stairs from the reception room to the Morris Room, I felt a chill against the back of my neck. Once inside the room, images and voices from the past flashed through my mind with such speed and force, I had to grip a table to keep from falling over. My tour guide, Kitty Turgeon, a former owner of the Inn and one of the founding members of the Roycrofters-at-Large Association, gave me a knowing smile. She assured me many people had such reactions to the room, some just more intensely than others. She then told me the story of how a society of mystics called the Rosicrucians (of which Hubbard was a member) believe there are energy lines called ley lines on the Earth. They say two of those lines intersect over the Morris Room, making Roycroft a place that draws creative and spiritual people like a magnet. Two recent dousing ceremonies, which Kitty witnessed, confirmed their beliefs. I wanted to be skeptical, but I was a bit too shaken for that.

As if that weren’t enough excitement, part of my reason for coming to East Aurora was to change the course of my family history. For the first time in the 101 years since Carl walked out on Emily and into Madonna’s arms, descendants of the two women would meet. I had recently found my half second cousin, Martha McGowan, who lives in Rochester. When I mentioned coming to New York, there was no question we had to get together. The fact that we were doing so ‘at the scene of the crime’ only made the adventure more fun. And yes, we do laugh that she shares a name with the woman for whom Carl left her great-grandmother. (Emily and her family, it turned out, believed her name really was Madonna!)

As often happens when traveling for research, luck was with me, people were incredibly generous, and I got to share wonderful experiences with my cousin. Within an hour of my arrival, Christine Peters of the Roycroft Campus Corporation invited me to submit an article on Carl for their yearly magazine The Fra. Don Meade gave us a private and detailed tour of the Elbert Hubbard Museum. Eleanor Douglas’ old studio, now the West End Gallery, was open, and we explored rooms that our great-grandfather knew well. The owner was also home at Carl’s former residence. When the day was over, I bid Martha goodbye and went home with my friend, Janice McDuffie of Roycroft Pottery, who was at the time the only artisan actually working on the campus.

I left East Aurora with a new sense of purpose, due in part to an acceptance that I must embrace that spiritually sensitive part of my own nature in order to clearly hear Carl’s voice. Some may call it channeling. Some may call it madness. I choose to call it ‘touched by the muse.’ That muse, I believe, is smiling somewhere in heaven, content that the fences he once ripped down have been lovingly mended by his descendants. Martha, it was an honor to work beside you.

The group photo above is from the collection of Robert Rust and Pam McClary. Carl is the tall man in shadow to the far left. Eleanor Douglas is beside him. If you can identify anyone else with certainty, please comment and let me know. I believe Jerome Connor and Lyle Hawthorne are in the photo, but I am uncertain.

If you would like to learn more about Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters tune into the PBS documentary Elbert Hubbard: An American Original on November 23, 2009. The preview is posted here.

To read a more detailed and informal journal of my time at Roycroft, click here.

To read my 2007 article in The Fra, click here.


  1. What an exciting adventure! When you are lucky enough to make the connection and experience those inexplicable feelings, it is truly special. You clearly deserve to be published. Best of luck in finding a good publisher. Before I published my book, I talked with three different publishers who were interested and hope that you will be as fortunate.

  2. Kim --
    Having had many wonderful "little journeys to East Aurora" myself, I loved reading the account of your own. It is indeed a magical place, where art and history combine to create something more than the sum of its parts. And thanks for posting the link to the preview of the upcoming PBS special on Hubbard and the Roycroft! The film crew came to my home last year to interview me for it, but I hadn't seen this "teaser." I am lucky enough to own one of your great-grandfather's paintings, as well as work by several other of the Roycroft artists, so I am reminded every day of that spirit of beauty that is so well captured in East Aurora itself. Very best of luck with your continuing research -- I look forward to reading your book as THE definitive exploration of Ahrens' life and work.

    Marie Via
    Curator, "Head, Heart & Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters"

  3. Kim --
    By the way, the most recent information the PBS people gave me was that the air date for the Roycroft special had been changed to November 23.


  4. To anonymous (who I now now is Joyce Bischoff),

    Thank you so much for your comment. I didn't realize you had a book out! Title, please? You can post that here - free advertising!

  5. To Marie,

    I will certainly check the date again and fix if need be. I got my date of November 5th this past Monday on the Roycroft Campus Corporation's link on Facebook. Maybe that was the original air date? I can't wait to see it, and I'm thrilled to know that you were involved in the making of it. Anyone else I may know involved?

  6. To Marie (again),

    Just got your e-mail after I posted the response to your comment. I believe you! Changing the date now! Thank you.

  7. I'm picturing your three muses applauding over this beautifully written story of your Roycroft adventure. Really hoping that one day I can go to Roycroft with you. I'm certain my response to the Morris Room would be similar to yours. As your first reader, I can't wait to read the next chapter of The Oak Lovers. This book so deserves to be published. Not only will it strongly appeal to the art world but all those who love a great adventure love story.

  8. To "First Reader,"

    Yep, you need to go with me next time. Walking into the reception room of the Inn is like entering a whole other reality. You would swear it was 100 years ago until someone who works there happens to come into the room. The modern day clothes were disconcerting, to say the least.

  9. Kim, You write so well and vividly, as one does when addressing a subject that is familiar, means something in your very soul, and gives you and your readers such pleasure.

    Are you a descendant of Madonna or Carl's first wife? Just struck me that I don't know.

    I hope you do find a publisher since your work is wonderful to read and so well researched.

    Maxine Graham

  10. Kim,You can definitely feel the magic of the place called Roycroft in this blog that has inspired so many of us over the last 100+ years. That spirit is alive in your writing and I think it will act as a catalyst for many future readers of your book to visit Roycroft and dig deeper into its history,as you and I continue to do! As someone who has been researching Roycroft and Elbert Hubbard since 1972 it truly amazes me that so much history is still to be discovered.I can not wait to read your finished product . We too have works by both Carl Ahrens and Eleanor Douglass hanging in our home so that magical conection between The Roycroft, their art and the Arts and Crafts Movement remains with us today. Your great-grandparents should and will be proud of your accomplishment in bringing their story to us in the 21st century.
    Robert Rust
    RALA Life Member
    Roycroft Historian

  11. Hi Kim,

    Your writing just flows and I enjoyed the insertion of photographs. Your Web-site is spectacular. Placing Carl's paintings into three different periods was a great idea as it shows his variety of subject matter, although trees do dominate, and how his work developed over the years. Great to see you again in July.

    Paula Roschman Niall, Owen Sound, Ontario and second cousin once removed to Carl Ahrens.

  12. Maxine - thanks for your comment and question. I am a descendant of Carl and Madonna (his second wife.) This means I may technically be an illegitimate great-grandchild (since I can't prove the divorce occurred) but I think he'll claim me!

    Paula - thank you for commenting and for visiting my website on Carl Ahrens. It was great to see you, too! I'm letting out a big sigh at the thought of the view of Georgian Bay from your upstairs window. How I miss that place!

  13. Robert,

    Thank you so much for your comment and the use of that group photo at the bottom of my post. I remember the day you sent that to me and called my attention to the tall man with the cane over to the far left.

    Would that be? Could that be? Yep, that's most definitely Carl. And to have a photo of both him AND Eleanor Douglas was even more special. As you know, she lived with the family for many years, even on the Ojibwa reservation.

    Oh, and you modestly forgot to mention that you are the co-author (with Kitty Turgeon) of a little book called The Roycroft Campus, which is available at and probably through the Roycrofters-at-Large Association. The book is filled with all sorts of fabulous historical photos and I've referred to it often while writing the Roycroft sections of The Oak Lovers.

  14. Kim,

    It was great to hear from you and to know that your book on this fascinating time period and group of artists is proceeding. I look forward to reading it, hopefully with lots of illustrations. As you know, I really enjoy studying groups of artists with free-thinking attitudes. You've obviously done a lot of great research, and the book will be meaningful to you and to many other readers as well, I'm sure.

    Kathy Hickok, Iowa State Univ.

  15. Hi Kathy,

    The book is really centered on one artist - my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens. He certainly qualified as a 'free thinker' as I imagine any of my early readers will attest! That being said, his social circle was wide. In the US he studied with George Inness and William Merritt Chase. He associated/butted heads with members of the art circles in Toronto (which were conservative), but preferred the company at art colonies such as Roycroft and Woodstock. The time period is mainly from 1900-1936, with a few flashbacks to his youth in the 1870's and early career in the 1890's. Thanks for taking the time to comment and I hope all is well in Ames!

  16. Hi Kim,
    Well written, and interesting as always! I am always surprised by how many new details I learn as I read your stories. Looking forward to the day your book is finally finished! I'm sure you will have to squeeze in another "research" trip up north before that happens though....looking forward to it!

  17. Wendy,

    I long ago stopped coming to Ontario simply for "research." It is a place of great personal inspiration to me and I don't ever intend to stop visiting there! Besides, my next book will be on Eleanor Douglas, so I'll just have more places to go. If I ever make enough money from my work, I'll buy a writing retreat in your neck of the woods. Be prepared - the Americans are invading!

  18. Jeanette Ahrens04 September, 2009

    Well, that was quite a "Little Journey," Kim. An adventure filled meeting of past and present. It's quite a tribute to you that your readers aren't sure whether your great grandmother was Carl's first or second wife. You have done an amazing job of presenting the facts and details of Carl's life, the poignant as well as the scandalous. Hmmm, adventures in the wild west, living among the Ojibwa Indians, hanging out with the original hippies who started a cultural revolution, painting landscapes which influenced the Group of Seven, a forbidden love affair which lasted a lifetime... I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for your next installment.

  19. I am Martha, Kim's recently found cousin who shared in her day of discovery in East Aurora. For me, that day was an overwhelming swirl of place and people as time softened against a greater force, an amazing experience of moving through reverberations of our ancestors' lives.

    As Kim has shared some of her book passages with me, I have seen the inspiration that guides her. Clearly she is meant to do this work. Creativity and connectedness shine in what I have read. Best of luck as you continue with your journey, Kim.

  20. Jeanette - your comments brought tears to my eyes.

    Martha - yours made them fall.

  21. A really lovely post, Kim. It is so easy to tell when things are heartfelt with you. With the kiddos back in school you can have a little more time to work on the book now. Won't that be nice?

    Fred Downes

  22. Morning Kim,

    Jeanette's comments would make a great "fish" to place on the back cover of your book! We're all waiting anxiously to get a copy! I should introduce you to our great bookstore in Owen Sound when you next come! I am sure they would be interested in carrying it!


  23. Paula - I agree - Jeanette's phrasing would work quite well with some minor tweaks. I'm always for hanging out in bookstores - you may never get me out again, though. The next time you are there, see if they have a book called The Day the Falls Stood Still (currently a bestseller in the US). This is how I want my book to look and feel. Several historic pictures are inserted throughout, even though it is a novel. The cover is stunning - looks like something out a a dream.

    The Oak Lovers will have at least one, possibly two chapters, that take place at Leith, near you. Those aren't written yet. Can't resist the story of my grandmother having wandered off at age 2 for a whole day.

  24. You inspire in the readers of your article a similar lusting to find our roots and shadow our forefathers. We think it is hard before one step is taken, but you prove it doesn't have to be. I wonder how many of us will take up our own journey?
    Nancy S.

  25. Jeanette Ahrens06 September, 2009

    Your "whispering ghosts" piqued my interest in the creative process of reaching into the past to pull the heart of the artist and his family into the present and future. I read the posts on this blog about Roycroft and the published pamphlets and books I've never read. A search took me to Roycroft, Successor to "the Fra," published 1926 and to an article therein by Winifed Sackville Stoner regarding the education of children and the educators who espouse "Banishment of the Fairies." She says "There are faires in the hearts of all good and great people. Fairies whisper to us to do good deeds and fairies are the creative power which has caused the painting of great pictures, composing of great music, building of great structures, etc."

    I wondered as I read this whether the same fairies who once whispered to Carl and Madonna have been whispering to you in the Morris Room.

  26. Kim,

    I could feel the passion and experiences you describe in your visit. There IS something about Roycroft that captures ones soul. As Executive Director of the Roycroft Campus Corporation, I love hearing other people's stories and experiences - I generally try to incorporate them into tours when I am able to give them. These stories bring the Campus alive.

    Thank you for visiting, restepping the shadows of your relatives, and for sharing this very heart-warming, and in places, chilly, goose-bumpy stories.

    We are very excited about the WNED Hubbard documentary that will air on November 23rd at 10pm on PBS. Earlier in the month we are planning a premiere event in East Aurora.

    Christine Peters, RCC

  27. Nancy - thank you for your comment. I believe it helps that I was raised surrounded by photographs of and artwork by my ancestors. Having a part of them always there certainly added to my desire to learn more.

    Jeanette - I must read that article! Do you have a link? I assume this was in the magazine called The Roycrofter? I believe that Roycroft stopped publishing The Fra when Hubbard died aboard the Luisitania. I think The Roycrofter took it's place. The Roycroft Campus Corporation brought back The Fra a few years ago.

  28. Christine,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. I, too, am excited about the documentary. I imagine you were among those interviewed?

    I'm sure you hear a lot of goose-bumpy stories. As more of the campus returns to its original state, I'm sure there will be even more! It is a truly unforgettable place.

  29. Jeanette Ahrens06 September, 2009

    I found the article in Roycroft, Volumes 1-2, which is apparently a complilation of published articles. They do mention that the pen of Hubbard has been "stilled." I will send you the link; I haven't been able to paste it in this frame. So far, it has been an interesting read.

  30. Hello Kim. I am enjoying very much, your postings on your research and writing of the story of your great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens. Your writing draws the reader in. I have posted an article on my blog pointing to your articles and web site.

  31. Hello Janet,

    I just visited your blog and was honored to see a whole article inspired by my post. Hopefully more genealogists who love to write will use all those wonderful characters in their own family trees. The most compelling stories are often those which are based on fact.

  32. Kim: WOW. That blog really started my week off with energy and passion for the Roycroft. Thanks for the boost
    Dan Frontera
    Director of Development
    The Roycroft Campus Corporation

  33. I have pasted a link to your blog on our Face Book and Twitter pages. Your blog will be on the RCC site tomorrow.

    I cannot agree with your more about the energy here, the feeling that you want to try every thing, that just by being here you can create something of beauty, something that has the feel of the Roycrofters

  34. Kim,

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story and leading more visitors to us ... we are thrilled to have on-going communications and will plan to find other ways to best use your well written summary of past, present and future campus activities.

    Do you plan another visit anytime soon? Love, Laughter and Friends ALWAYS Welcomed Here.

    Watch for a Roycroft Campus Corporation blog this week ... the conversation will continue!

    Warmest regards,


  35. Hi Dan and Clare,

    Wow! Thanks so much. The RCC website is at in case anyone wants to check this out.

    This RCC's mission is to “preserve and promote the ideals, traditions, architectural legacy and business skills of Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters through the acquisition and restoration of the Roycroft Campus buildings and grounds, in a manner consistent with their National Historic Landmark status. RCC will manage a financially sustainable, not-for-profit organization to foster educational programs, encourage and support artisans, develop a compelling tourism plan, and provide economic benefits to the community.”

  36. Kim,

    What a fascinating place with equally enthralling people. Your writing drew me in and inspired a desire to see this for myself. Great job!



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