Buffalo in the ’20s: Elbert Hubbard’s Ali Baba, East Aurora’s village philosopher

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Anson Blackman was a farmer and horseman, born in Marilla and later working the East Aurora stables of CJ Hamlin. He was a heavily bearded gentle old man who was a friend to small children and animals.

Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard hired the unlettered farmhand him to take care of the horses and do handiwork for his burgeoning Arts & Crafts community in East Aurora. Blackman’s job grew to include picking up visitors at the train station, sometimes in an ox cart. It was all a part of “the buildup” for what people might expect at Roycroft, and what would pass as marketing today.

Blackman also helped care for Hubbard’s kids—who when small called him Baba. After filling his pipe with another man’s tobacco, Blackman earned the nickname “Ali” Baba, as taken from the Forty Thieves story. Hubbard began writing about Ali Baba as a sage and salty philosopher, and Blackman’s responsibilities grew from taking care of the animals to being a personal valet and travel companion for Hubbard, who mixed Blackman’s earthy image with plenty of his own thoughts making the character a sort of Hubbard alter ego. Ali Baba appeared on Roycroft postcards, and was a constant presence on the campus for more than three decades.

The tales of Ali Baba first started appearing in print in the 1890s. By the time this photo appeared in The News in 1922, Blackman was world-renown, and throwback to an earlier halcyon time at the East Aurora campus.

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Well into his 80s, Blackman was a familiar face in East Aurora, and sought out by visitors. In 1924, The News said he “exemplified the Roycroft spirit.”

Ali does all the talking, you merely listen. He takes you info his den and shows you pictures of the early Roycrofters, the Hubbard family, letters and pictures that men and women famous in art and literature have given him.

One minute he tells you Elbert Hubbard in writing that book has made a burlesque of his life. The next he readily admits he actually said all the quaint bits of philosophy Fra Albertus attributed to him.

Another News article described him this way:

Ali Baba is a great man. There is some reason to believe he regards himself, and not without reason perhaps, as the only sane man associated with the Roycrofters. He was Hubbard’s hired man in the early days of the stock farm. He is a hard headed, broad shouldered, grizzled farmer on whom has grown a great sense of responsibility as he has pondered on the seeming irresponsibility with which he is surrounded.

It’s difficult to parse the Hubbard created anecdotes and the actual item as far as Ali Baba is concerned, a look one story in particular, shared at the time of his death, offers a look at the rough-hewn charm of the real man.

“One day as he was busy around the plant a nice elderly lady came up to him and adjusting her eyeglasses looked “Ali Baba” over and asked: “My good man, will you please tell me what denomination this church is?”

“Baba” whirled around, nettled at such crass ignorance, and exclaimed, “Holy smoke, misses! This ain’t no church. This place does more good than all the dam churches in town—this is the Roycroft Shop!”

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.