Carl Ahrens (1862-1936)

Elbert Hubbard by Jerome Connor

From the Appian Way I was a mere fifty feet from the place my great-grandparents met. While they may have been drawn to each other regardless, I wonder if meeting in this place cemented their fate. The bohemian attitudes in the Roycroft community at the turn of the century allowed their relationship to develop in ways that would have been impossible in more conventional environments. Many people fell in love here. Some were married to others at the time. Even Elbert Hubbard fathered a child out of wedlock; the affair that became public knowledge in about 1901. He divorced his wife and married his mistress in 1904.

Janice introduced me to Christine Peters, the Executive Director of the Roycroft Campus Corporation. Christine showed me around the former Copper Shop which now houses a gift shop and education room where a printmaking class was in progress. She took me into several rooms that are not open to the public and are being renovated back to original form. Her organization is trying to acquire all of the original buildings and restore the community to what it had been like in Elbert Hubbard's time.

Christine asked many questions about Carl and about my book, then invited me to write an article for their publication, The Fra, which is a continuation of a magazine published by the original Roycrofters.

Everyone associated with the campus recognized the name Carl Ahrens, but knew little about him other than that he founded a failed pottery. Most never knew he was a painter. Only one had seen his work.

Carl Ahrens in his Roycroft studio - 1900

As I approached Carl's former residence, my feet grew heavy. I couldn't shake the bad vibe, which intensified with every step until I could not force myself to continue.  My one regret about turning around before I reached it related to a vivid dream I’d had shortly before my trip. If someone were home and opened the front door, I could confirm my hunch that the dream took place in the house. The stairway ran parallel to the street rather than perpendicular, which would make the entry unnaturally cramped. Perhaps I’d return with Martha later. It was the domain of her family and she may want to go there.

I walked back to campus and sat on the wall outside the entrance to the Roycroft Inn to wait for her. She showed up fifteen minutes late due to a missed turn and traffic made parking impossible. I recognized her from photos and just jumped into her car. She immediately got teary and gave me a hug. A family reunited. 

September 8th, 2006

Janice McDuffie, the current Roycroft Potter, met me at the Buffalo airport and took the back roads to her house so I could see trees and instead of strip malls. She called the area we drove through "suburbia" but it looked small-town to me.

While driving, she told me that she's not surprised the original Roycroft pottery - the one Carl ran - failed. It takes a good twenty years to learn to "throw" properly, and painters generally make horrible potters. Painters have control over the work they produce. Potters never know how something will turn out until it’s done; there are several steps where all control is taken out of the artist's hands.

The closer we got to East Aurora, the more I sensed that there was something about the place, as well as Carl and Madonna’s natures, that brought them together. This intangible element is what I most want to understand.

September 9th, 2006

The road from Janice’s house to East Aurora wound through rolling hills and forests. The opulence of the older houses indicated significant money in the town's history. Janice took Maple Street into the village and drove a loop before approaching the campus so I could get my bearings. It wasn't necessary. It all felt eerily familiar, yet on a miniature scale. What looked like several blocks on a map seemed compressed to half that in person.

It had poured all night, thunder shaking the house. Storms persisted in the morning. I brought an umbrella and hoped for the best. Janice drove by Carl's old Grove Street residence. I wrote to the owners a few weeks before my trip and never got a response, so I hesitated to approach them. Janice turned around in their driveway to give me a chance to get a good look. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there was something wrong about the house. Never had I felt such a strong desire to flee a place.

Roycroft hosted a horticulture festival the day of my visit, much to my chagrin. The last thing I wanted was to share the campus with crowds, cars, ringing cell phones or any other reminders that I was a LONG way from 1900. 

Carl's walk to work

Inside the Roycroft Chapel

The lounge in the Roycroft Inn

Emerson Hall

Over lunch she told me that while she's fascinated by Carl, she'd never felt any connection to him because she knows she's "outside the circle of all he cherished in life." Once Carl left her great-grandmother, he cut all ties. His children with Emily rarely discussed him with subsequent generations.

After our meal, we visited the Elbert Hubbard Museum on Oakwood Avenue. Earlier in the year, Don Meade, my contact there, kindly copied everything he found about Carl in the museum archives. The museum is inside one of the few houses constructed by Roycrofters. I especially liked the bust of Hubbard by Jerome Connor - a sculptor who worked with Carl. There were even a couple of Hubbard's hats there. He often wore Stetsons to hide his receding hairline.

I recognized work by Connor, Denslow, Dard Hunter, Kipp and Fournier at a glance. Martha also recognized things because her grandparents had some of the more practical Roycroft items in their home when she was growing up. By the end of the tour, my back was killing me, but I didn't think they wanted me to sit in one of their $15,000 Morris chairs.

Carl standing beside his cousin, Eleanor Douglass at Roycroft - circa 1900

Kitty's house was the former home of painter Alex Fournier. (Carl and Fournier were friends and he visited the house often.) The place reminded me of the Hubbard Museum, only lived in. The $15,000 Morris chairs got daily use.

The dining room included four murals by Fournier. Kitty said that one of the former owners of the house had wallpapered over them. It took a great deal of time and energy to restore them but it was worth the effort and expense. Martha wanted see the Inn's lounge, which had been the original reception room, and before that the first print shop. Madonna passed through it every day to get to work, so I was anxious for this as well. As soon as we stepped in the door we said a collective "Oh my God!" I swore I had stepped back in time 100 years, at least until wait staff passed through in present day clothing. When Kitty's family purchased the Inn, they spent a fortune returning it to its former glory. The beams are all original and the furniture is authentic, saved from rubbish heaps and fireplaces back when Roycroft furniture was considered worthless.

Carl and Samuel Warner - 1900 - Sammy was Roycroft's art director. He was also Madonna's former drawing instructor, and the one who hired her to work as an illuminator in the book shop.

The Appian Way

We parked a couple of blocks from campus and walked along Grove, which would have been part of Carl's daily commute to and from work. Many of the houses date from the Roycroft era. Most were kept up beautifully. As I feared, vendors and tourists swarmed over the campus. There was nothing quiet or contemplative there. Taking good pictures, let alone camcorder footage, would be impossible in such chaos. 

Carl and Madonna's bricks on the the Appian Way

Martha McGowan, Kitty Turgeon, Kim Bullock and Janice McDuffie in the Roycroft Inn

About thirty years ago, when Kitty was the Inn's owner, an ancient society called the Rosicrucians approached her. Their records listed Elbert Hubbard as a member, and it’s not a stretch to consider seeing that the rose is the most prevalent Roycroft symbol. The Rosicrucians believe ley lines (or areas of increased energy) cross the earth and that important sites around the world are connected directly by those lines. They contend Hubbard picked Roycroft's location deliberately because it rests where two of these lines intersect. Creative people are drawn to the area as if to a magnet. Kitty was skeptical, but allowed them to perform a dowsing ceremony in the room. Apparently the result was dramatic. She had other people perform the ceremony with the same result. I have no opinion one way or the other as to the truth of ley lines, but I am not as quick to discount anything as I once was.

I felt something in that room, something that left me suspended, at least for a moment, between two centuries. I will never be the same.

Perhaps it was not so different from 1900 after all. Roycroft employed over a hundred workers that year, and tourists constantly poured into town. Add to this all the construction noise, and it was no wonder Carl wouldn’t work in his studio.

Roycroft would always have been a flurry of activity. There is still a palpable energy about the grounds, and I doubted that feeling would dissipate when everyone later cleared out. It was this energy, this strange current in the air, that I came to East Aurora to experience.

I had an hour to kill before meeting my half second cousin, Martha McGowan, on the steps of the Roycroft Inn. It would be the first meeting between descendants of Carl's first family (Martha) and second family (me). She lives in Rochester, so we agreed to meet "at the scene of the crime", the place where Carl and Madonna fell in love, and where Carl left his family to be with her. The irony’s not lost on either of us.

 I went for a walk in search of Emerson Hall. The building housed many single women Roycrofters, including Madonna. The dormitory was a major addition to an already existing home, and it had not yet been built in 1900. Madonna lived on the top floor of the original house. The place is massive and appears to be a series of apartments now.

After Janice arrived and Martha headed for home, we sat in the Larkin Room, which connects to the original dining hall, where Carl and Madonna often took meals. Dinner was on the pricey side, but the Inn's ambiance made up for that. Many famous people have stayed there since it opened in 1905 - authors, painters, musicians, politicians and actors. In Roycroft's heyday they would give lectures or presentations in the salon. Susan B. Anthony came here, as did Clara Barton. B.J. Palmer, the founder of chiropractic medicine, was a close friend of Hubbard's.

After dinner we toured the Inn. The former salon, now the reception room, was significant because Alex Fournier painted murals of the eight wonders of the world on its walls. The eighth wonder was Roycroft. Did I mention that Hubbard had a bit of an ego?

The Roycroft dining hall remains one to this day. The beams are original, as are the placards with inspirational ideas that Hubbard wished for all to see. They say things like "Good Cheer," "Fletcherize," "Fraternity", "Perseverance" etc. I imagined Carl rolled his eyes every time he saw them.

Back in the lounge, Kitty said at one point the original staircase had been torn down and made into a terrible wall display. She had that removed and incorporated as much as possible into the current staircase. There were enough photographs of the original to reproduce it exactly.

We headed upstairs to the Morris Room, which is the room where Madonna had worked. It is now a dining room for private parties, and guests would arrive shortly so we couldn’t linger. The walls are paneled and some art hung. The fireplace is simple brick. I have historical photos showing where the desks were and I am fairly sure that Madonna worked at the window off to the left. All windows are large and there were gas lamps to work by as well. One still hangs in the center of the room. Photographs could never duplicate the feeling of being in the Morris Room. My mind raced the second I walked in the door.

It's magnetic, for lack of a better word. 

Madonna in about 1904

After the museum, we returned to Carl's old house. A truck sat in the driveway, and the front door was open. I saw the angle of the stairway and almost stopped breathing. It was indeed parallel to the street. A TV flickered in a room to the left, which was where I had imagined the front room to be.

The owner was pleasant to us, though I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. He said that the right side of the house was once a porch, which has now been enclosed. The porch explained the angle of the stair, as people had once entered the house on the side rather than in front.

Back on campus we met Kitty Turgeon, a former owner of the Roycroft Inn. I don't think she realized that Martha didn't intend to stay for dinner and she saved the Inn for last part of her tour. She took us into several rooms of the Second Print Shop, which is now owned by Cornell University. One otherwise institutional room featured the most incredible fireplace I've ever seen. Kitty wanted to show us more, but we couldn't go upstairs because one of the workers declared "everything's a mess up there."

His house was about two blocks south, just past Hamlin Park, which was then Roycroft Park. The Roycroft Pavilion is still there, now home to the Aurora Players. The walk to campus would have been nothing to a person in good health, but there is a slight incline on Grove. This is barely noticeable in a car, but the walk would be difficult for anyone requiring a cane.

"The Chapel" would have been a familiar sight for Carl in 1900

Roycroft - Where Carl Met his Madonna

by Kim Bullock