Did Elbert Hubbard, the "sage of East Aurora," foresee his own death on the doomed Lusitania -- or was he simply a master salesman, concerned about the fate of his business while he was away?
A newly revealed cache of letters from the founder of the Roycrofters offers hints but no answers, while adding more than a few pages of history to the Hubbard saga.
"Keep close to Butch and brace him up," Hubbard wrote in a last letter to his general manager, postmarked on the day the Lusitania sailed from New York on a voyage that would help plunge the United States into World War I.
Addressed to Edward J. "Felix" Shay, who would work with Elbert "Butch" Hubbard II while the master himself was away, the hastily written note was purchased two years ago by a Toronto-area businessman from a grandson of the former Roycroft general manager.
It could be the last surviving work by a man who was one of the most influential authors of the century's early years, a promoter of initiative, dedication and loyalty in the workplace.
"There are two letters Elbert posted, dropped in the mail, on April 30 -- the day the Lusitania sailed," noted Ron Sakuta, who bought the packet of about 150 letters as an "add-on" to a deal involving about half a dozen pieces of original Roycroft furniture kept in a barn near Hamilton, Ont.
Both letters appear to have been written a day or two after the last previously known Hubbard letter, sent to a Buffalo businessman and now part of the Rare Book Room collection at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
In that letter, Hubbard mused about a possible rendezvous with a German mine or submarine -- a reverie that came true on May 7, 1915, when a German torpedo triggered an explosion that took the Lusitania to the bottom of the Atlantic, off Ireland. Hubbard
and his second wife, Alice, were among the victims.
The letters, and a previously unknown photograph of Hubbard and his family, have lingered in Sakuta's safe since the purchase. A potential trade for furniture with the Roycroft campus fell through, he added.
"I've enjoyed having these letters for two years, but I wish someone could find a way to get them down to this part of the world," Sakuta said this week in Buffalo.
The packet was kept by Shay, apparently given his pen name of Felix by Hubbard himself. A marketing and advertising man who also wrote for Hubbard's magazines, the Philistine and the Fra, Shay joined the Roycrofters in 1909, left in 1912 but returned two years later. He eventually resigned gracefully, following differences with Hubbard's son.
Both letters were jotted on the stationery of a Georgia hotel, and apparently posted during a train ride to the Lusitania. Hubbard headed one posted in Columbus, Ohio, as "on the wing, en route to New York."
"I have a new plan that I hope will work out, which we will organize when I get back," Hubbard wrote to the Roycroft general manager. "The whole outfit, however, will have to be reorganized."
In the other, Hubbard indulged the flair for drama that he used to bolster his business prospects: "I will get some Hot War Dope in Europe, that we can feature in FRA and Philistine, and that will help boom subs (subscriptions)," he wrote.
"Most of the letters deal with business matters, along with a little 'let's go horseback riding,' 'bring the wife over,' that sort of thing," said Sakuta, a Michigan native who now lives in Milton, Ont.
Also included in the packet were letters written to Shay by the businessmen and admirers with whom he and Hubbard dealt -- men like George S. Parker of the pen company, seed supplier W. Atlee Burpee, Hugh Chalmers of the Chalmers Motor Car Co., and Navy secretary Josephus Daniels.