Elbert Hubbard was on a mission of peace in the spring of 1915. Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft movement and a man of big ideas, boarded a ship headed for Europe, where he intended to see the Kaiser of Germany and persuade him to enter talks to end World War I.
Hubbard never reached Europe, of course, because the vessel he took was the Lusitania. A torpedo from a German U boat sank the ship off the coast of Ireland, taking at least 1,197 lives, including Hubbard’s, on May 7, 1915.
“The whole incident caused so much grief,” said Mary Hubbard, the great-granddaughter of Hubbard and his first wife, Bertha.
“No matter what his intentions were, he followed his heart, and that was something to stand by,” said Hubbard, a member of the Aurora Historical Society. “He felt the good that he could do was worth the risk.”
The deaths of so many people was a tragedy that shook the nation, and many historians believe that the boat’s sinking is one of the main reasons the United States entered World War I.
A century later, the Aurora Historical Society is commemorating that tragedy with a series of events.
Linda Ulrich-Hagner, vice president of the society, and an historical society team have been planning the Lusitania commemorations for the last year.
Events, posted at rmslusitania.info, include a procession through East Aurora at 3 p.m. May 23, complete with riderless horse, which will mimic the funeral procession residents held for Hubbard and his wife, Alice.
Ulrich-Hagner also helped plan a ship-style, second class dinner with plum tart dessert, modeled on vintage Cunard-line menus, set at the Roycroft Inn Thursday. . That’s 100 years to the day when the Lusitania sank.
To plan all this, Ulrich-Hagner has been driving her car with 20 books marked with Post-Its about the torpedoed ship.
Details that fascinate her are now part of a slide show she designed to play at the Elbert Hubbard Museum and for the pre-dinner first-class cocktail hour with an ensemble playing popular music of the time.
The ocean liner, known for its elegance in every class, was also famous for its superb medical care. Ulrich-Hagner was intrigued to discover that pregnant women booked trips from Europe so they could deliver babies on board.
Provisions included 217,000 pounds of cheese. 342,000 pounds of beef. 43,614 pounds of lard, 185,000 pounds of bacon and 205 barrels of Connecticut oysters.
“Third class, second class people were probably in accommodations that were better than anything they ever had in their life,” said Ulrich-Hagner. “It was the fastest ship of its time. ... It was called ‘The Greyhound of the Sea.’ ”
While the 1912 sinking of Titanic is more famous – 1,500 drowned and 700 survived – the loss of the Lusitania at the beginning of World War I was its own big story two years before the United States entered the war.
On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania left a pier in Manhattan for England for its 202nd voyage. Of the 1,960 crew and passengers on board, 767 survived.
It went down at 2 p.m. May 7 when it was a day away from arriving in Liverpool, moving slower than usual to save coal. Captain William Turner’s course aligned with a German submarine. The torpedo exploded and the ship tilted into the sea, making it hard to launch more than six of the 22 lifeboats.
Hubbard and his wife were never found.
“They were gone in 20 minutes,” said Ulrich-Hagner. “I think about that a lot.”
The war prompted Hubbard to make the doomed journey. He planned to tour Europe and eventually stop in Germany. He hoped to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm and talk him into peace.
“He thought he was going to make a difference in World War I,” Ulrich-Hagner said. “He had really convinced people he was going to meet the Kaiser. Whether that would have happened or not, I don’t know.”
Hubbard was a controversial and popular man of the time.
Fans, like Henry Ford, made the trip to East Aurora to meet him. The Roycroft community Hubbard founded emphasized finding happiness through diligent work. He employed hundreds in the manufacture of arts and crafts furniture, magazines and books sold nationwide.
To go to Europe, Hubbard won a presidential pardon to get back the passport he lost. He had pleaded guilty to felony charges relating to, among other things, mailing an issue of his magazine with a mild joke about the taboo topic of contraception.
To explain his need to leave the country, Hubbard told authorities about his peace mission. Hubbard was worried enough about the dangers that he warned his eldest son and staff that there was a chance he wouldn’t return. And he didn’t.
For Merrill Trefzer, the May commemorations are an educational opportunity.
The retired Orchard Park High School history teacher has donated memorabilia for a small Lusitania exhibit now going up.
Trefzer, who comes to the Inn once a week for lunch with his wife, always thought there should be an explanation somewhere on the Roycroft grounds about the infamous ocean tragedy that led to Hubbard’s death.
Visuals help. In his history class, he used to show students a poster of the sinking ship and laminated copies of the 1915 New York Times with the banner headline, “Lusitania Sunk By a Submarine ...”
Now he hopes this small collection will educate people about the war and its local connection as they wander through the old Roycroft grounds and buildings Hubbard left behind.
Before a recent lunch, he stopped in the Power House office building, where boilers once supplied energy to the campus. There, by the front, was the beginning of the display. The plastic model of the Lusitania Trefzer bought online was near the door. Lights twinkled in the hull. He looked on with pride.
“And here it is,” he said. “It’s in its rightful place.”