Ralph “Doc” Hubbard was a colorful figure in western North Dakota; he was born into a unique family on this date in 1886. Hubbard’s great grandmother was Mohawk, and his paternal grandfather, Silas, was a medical doctor who practiced among the Senecas in upstate New York. Silas moved his family to Illinois in 1855, and a year later, Ralph’s father, Elbert, was born.
Elbert was expected to be a doctor like his father, but instead he quit school to farm. Then, he moved to NY and start a soap business with his brother-in-law. Elbert turned out to be a natural salesman and the venture was an overwhelming success. Still, Elbert couldn’t stop dreaming of farming and moved his growing family to East Aurora, NY, on the Seneca Reservation.
Two years later, Ralph, or “Doc” was born on Elbert’s dream farm, which had a large 3-story house, barn, orchards, gardens, chickens, cows and racehorses. Soon, Elbert sold out his share of the soap company and began traveling the world. In England, he visited the Hammersmith printing and publishing house, which made small editions of fine handmade books. Inspired by what he saw, he and his wife, Bertha, started their own fine-art print shop in the Hubbard’s barn back in New York. Elbert did the printing, and Bertha hand illumined the books. Their business, called Roycroft, counted among its many discerning customers Victoria, Queen of England.
The Roycroft line expanded to include fine furniture, sculpture, pottery, and stained glass, as well as iron and copper works. These pieces fetched very handsome prices, and soon the plant grew to five acres with 20 buildings housing more than 350 employees. Most of the workers were sons and daughters of local farmers, but the Hubbards also brought in artisans from Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Germany. All were free to take classes in piano, voice, languages, and literature.
Guests and tourists became so frequent that the Roycroft Inn had to added to the grounds. People eating at the Hubbard’s dinner table soon included such luminaries as Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mrs. William Jennings Bryan. As for young Ralph, one of the more influential guests was Ernest Thompson Seton, the founder of the Boy Scouts – an organization that was to become one of Ralph’s many passions.
Ralph was immersed in the culture and traditions of the Seneca Indians as he grew up. “I was only hip high to a dustpan when I learned the basic steps of Indian dancing,” he later said. “Almost as far back as I can remember, I could watch a dance and then dance it.”
When Hubbard’s parents divorced in 1902, the 16-year-old moved with his mother to Buffalo, and that summer he went with his grandmother to his Uncle Elmer’s ranch in Montana. It was on this trip that Doc first saw the Badlands – his grandmother wanted to spend the night in Medora because it was Roosevelt’s town. They stayed at the Rough Rider Hotel, and the next day, in Billings, they witnessed a shootout at a saloon.
“That was my introduction to the West,” Doc said, “and I was wildly excited by it all. It was that trip and that summer on Elmer’s ranch that made a dedicated westerner out of me.”
Ralph became “Doc” when he decided to go to college for medical training. His father was against it, saying he’d done perfectly fine as a grade-school dropout and that college tuition wouldn’t come from his pockets.
Tune in next Monday to learn more about Ralph “Doc” Hubbard, who later lived and worked in Medora, where his unique gravesite can be found.
Source: A Man as Big as the West: The Story of Ralph Hubbard. Pruett Publishing, 1979.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm