If you lived in
My great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, did just that. After attending an 1899 lecture in
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
Boarding my plane for
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
As I retraced my great-grandmother’s path up the stairs from the reception room to the
As if that weren’t enough excitement, part of my reason for coming to
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
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.