EAST AURORA, N.Y. — Whether you call it quaint or charming, East Aurora, a town of a little more than 6,000 residents in Northwestern New York, is certainly all-American with a Norman Rockwell vibe and an artistic air.
Located 428 miles north of Charleston, about a 20 mile drive from Buffalo and 39 miles from Niagara Falls, the centerpiece of its considerable allure is the Roycroft Campus, which got its start as a small printing business by Elbert Hubbard in 1897. Initially a soap salesman, Hubbard realized immediate success with the publication of The Philistine, a self-help style magazine. Later, “A Message to Garcia,” Hubbard’s essay on taking responsibility and self-reliance, skyrocketed his fame across the country and beyond.
Hubbard decided to open his own publishing enterprise after returning home to East Aurora following a visit to England in 1894, where he became enamored with the vision of master craftsman William Morris.
With roots in Morris’ ideology, Hubbard’s ideas soon began attracting influential visitors and skilled craftsmen and artists to East Aurora, which helped ignite the arts and crafts movement in America. With time, Hubbard and the “Roycrofters” built a series of buildings that included a newer print shop, a copper shop, a furniture shop and bindery, a power house and a meeting hall named the chapel, a word derived from medieval times that didn’t have today’s religious connotation.
To house the who’s who of early 20th century America who flocked to visit the community, Hubbard built a large inn filled with Mission-style furniture, beautiful fixtures and a series of lush murals by Roycroft artist Alexis Jean Fournier. Along the front of the inn, he added a peristyle porch where today’s visitors can have lunch or dinner.
On the doors and wooden walls of the inn and even in the bricks of the walkways outdoors, Hubbard inscribed pithy, inspirational quotes. I spotted one — attributed to Hubbard — on a brick walkway outside the Copper Shop. It reads, “Fences are for those who cannot fly,” which I interpreted to mean the only obstacles we have to achieving our goals are those we let stand in our way.
Another quote I discovered that summarizes Hubbard’s approach to work and craftsmanship is the pithy aphorism that “One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
Hubbard oversaw the growth of his community of artisans and craftspeople until he and his wife drowned while traveling to Europe on the ill-fated Lusitania, which was sunk in 1915 by a German torpedo. The campus community continued under the leadership of Hubbard’s son, Bert, but underwent a slow decline. After going bankrupt, Roycroft closed in 1938. A nonprofit organization took over the campus in the 1980s with the goal of preserving and restoring the historic buildings.
Now hailed as the nation’s best-preserved and most-complete complex of buildings remaining in guilds that evolved as centers of craftsmanship in the late 19th century, the Roycroft campus earned a National Historic landmark status in 1986.
Today, nine of the original buildings remain, five of which are accessible to the public. A variety of different tours of the beautifully landscaped grounds and some of the buildings are offered almost daily for a fee, but advance reservations are required by phoning 716-655-0261.
The tours include a look inside the print shop and chapel, and the remaining buildings are accessible on your own. The tours end at the museum, a repository of historic documents books, furniture, photos and artworks highlighting Roycroft’s history and the Hubbard legacy.
Visitors who spend the night in the historic inn can enjoy leisure time in the lobby, a cocktail in the Craftsmen’s Lounge, and lunch or dinner in the dining room or Peristyle Porch, then spend a cozy evening sitting around the outdoor fire pit. In 1995, the inn completed an $8 million restoration that returned it to its original luster. The result is a fresh, but authentic look to an honored tradition.
The inn’s cuisine is definitely upscale and eclectic as typified by my appetizer of stuffed poblano pepper, gooseberry and shallot salad, pan seared halibut entrée served with lemon blueberry cream sauce, sautéed veggies and brown and wild rice, and a seasonal pumpkin spice cake dessert.
East Aurora was also home to U.S. President Millard Fillmore, the nation’s 13th president. Fillmore lived here with his wife, Abigail, in his young adult era between 1819 to 1830. Now a National Historic Landmark, the house, located at 24 Shearer Ave., is a small-frame structure furnished with several Fillmore pieces (his bed and toy collection). The grounds include a summer kitchen with a scrub table believed to have been made by Fillmore, and the carriage barn, home to Fillmore’s sleigh and a period tool collection owned by the Aurora Historical Society.
East Aurora is full of mom and pop style businesses and boasts three bakeries. One of the main tourist draws located in the center of Main Street across from the vintage 1925 Aurora Theater, Vidler‘s 5 & 10 is the largest of its kind in the world. Dating back to 1930, the store is now in the hands of the third generation of the family. With original floors, this sprawling two-story enterprise has 12 rooms in four separate, interconnecting 19th century buildings.
Some of the items in the 75,000 inventory include retro candies and soda pop, electronic yodeling pickles, seasonal décor, you name it.
Don Vidler, the grandson of the founder, said one of the best selling items is a bamboo back scratcher. As you explore the vast expanse of merchandise, make sure the kiddies ride Sandy, the mechanical horse, for a dime and weigh yourself on the old-fashion scale that even tells your fortune for a penny.