When it comes to presidential history, Buffalo trails only the nation’s capital
Washington, D.C. is the American city with the most presidential connections. Aside from George Washington, each of the 44 men who served as President have lived and worked there.
Many believe Buffalo is a worthy second place.
Although neither were born here, two presidents — Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland — cemented their reputations in Buffalo in the 19th century before being elected to the White House. William McKinley was assassinated here in 1901, and his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, took the oath of office at the Wilcox Mansion on Delaware Avenue.
Add to that the frequent visits from past, sitting, and future presidents (beginning when William Henry Harrison traveled to Buffalo to inspect troops as a major general in 1812, twenty-eight years before he was elected as the ninth president), and many consider Buffalo as the capital’s runner-up.
“For presidential fans like me, Buffalo is the place to go other than Washington D.C.,” said Brady Carlson, a public radio host in Wisconsin and author of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. “Buffalo has the most connections to the most presidents. When you look at the places where people became president, where they lived or died or called ‘home,’ it’s as good as it gets.”
For nearly four decades, a group of volunteers have made it their mission to bring these stories to light. The Buffalo Presidential Center continues to raise awareness of Western New York’s contributions to both the presidency and national affairs.
“We want to share and promote the fact that Buffalo’s presidential history is incredibly significant,” said Bren T. Price, a board member and collector of presidential memorabilia. “It’s something to be proud of, but most people don’t have a clue.”
According to Price, James Monroe was the first sitting president to visit the Black Rock area during a tour of what was then the Northwest in 1817. He stayed at the “Buffalo Hotel” at the corner of Main and Swan streets. John Quincy Adams toured Buffalo after his presidency, attending church with Millard Fillmore at 110 Franklin Street. Theodore Roosevelt visited 19 times; Franklin Roosevelt came 15 times. Since 2000, George W. Bush was here three times.
“Virtually every president has been here since Grover Cleveland,” Price said, including Niagara Falls and the Chautauqua Institution as regional visits.
Although it has no physical home, the Buffalo Presidential Center has been around for more than four decades.
“We began talking about this way, way back, in the 1970s,” said Joan Bozer, a former county legislator who helped found the organization with noted Buffalo lawyer Maryann Saccomando Freedman. “We’ve been working on this a long time. We realized that two Buffalo lawyers who rose to be president were getting short shrift in their hometown. We wanted to show that niche on a national level.”
Fillmore, the 13th president (pictured below), was born in the Finger Lakes region in 1800. He first came to East Aurora around 1821, and moved to Buffalo the following year. The house he built in East Aurora is open to the public seasonally.
“Fillmore helped establish the University at Buffalo and the county library,” Bozer said. “He presided over the first meeting to bring Frederick Law Olmsted to Buffalo to talk about creating a park. He put his prestige behind that effort. You see his name on the hospital and at the college. Everywhere you turn, he’s got a footprint in Western New York.”
Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president, was born in Caldwell, N.J. in 1837. He came to Buffalo in 1855 to work for an uncle, and eventually served as Erie County District Attorney, Erie County Sheriff, mayor of Buffalo, and governor of New York before being elevated to the White House for the first time in 1884. He won the popular vote three times, but lost the election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison. Four years later, he reclaimed the office. Cleveland, therefore, remains the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Before his presidency, there were allegations he fathered a child out of wedlock. No one could prove it, but Cleveland helped support the boy financially. While he was president, at age 49, he married 21-year-old Buffalo native Frances Folsom in the White House.
Cleveland’s grandson, George Cleveland, 67, is a frequent visitor to Buffalo from his home in New Hampshire. He loves the region, and not just because of his ancestors’ ties here.
“City Hall is one of the coolest buildings in the world,” Cleveland said. “I originally came to Buffalo for historical reasons. Rich Pyszczek was a social studies teacher at Grover Cleveland High School. His kids were doing a project about Grover Cleveland and Hawaii for New York History Day. His students interviewed me on the phone and Rich and I became friends. We went all around Western New York looking for stuff. We both get a huge charge out of standing someplace where something happened.”
The son of Richard Cleveland, the president’s fourth child, George was born years after his famous grandparents died. He is often told he resembles his grandfather.
“As long as you see me from the neck up,” he quipped. (Grover was heavy, while George is rail thin.). “I didn’t grow a mustache to look like him. It’s just there.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Cleveland has worked in rural New Hampshire for the past 19 years as executive director of a senior service center, providing meals, transportation, and other programs for the elderly. In June 2019, the Buffalo Presidential Center invited him to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, where he spoke about his grandfather, whom he simply calls “Grover.”
“I do that to be specific,” he noted. “I have to remind people that I had another set of grandparents too, from whom I draw a great deal.”
He is frequently asked what it’s like to be the descendant of a president. (This is not unique to him; there is an annual gathering of presidential offspring in Missouri; plans to begin an official club are underway.) Cleveland acknowledges that’s just his life.
“I don’t know anything else,” he said. “There are times it’s good for interesting dinner party conversations. There are times when it’s ultimately fascinating to me. There are times when it’s a pain in the butt. Sometimes people expect things that you are not able to deliver. They think you’re incredibly wise or rich, and that just isn’t the case.”
Still, his family name provides unique opportunities. He’s been to Hawaii three times to learn about his grandfather’s historical ties there, and in 2018, he visited the White House as part of a biannual summit about national presidential sites. He’s proud to visit Buffalo regularly.
“Could you ever eat at all the restaurants there?” he wondered. “Buffalo got its act together for historic preservations. The last time I was there, I visited Larkinville, and one of my favorite places is Forest Lawn Cemetery. The city just exudes history.”
The President’s grandson is not the only outsider to admire Buffalo’s presidential connections.
“As a kid, I was fascinated with presidents in the way my friends were fascinated with baseball lineups or characters on cartoon shows,” said Brady Carlson. “I would check out as many books as I could from the public library and absorb details about where they came from and who they were.”
Carlson, 42, has worked in radio almost as long as he’s been researching presidents. After being on-air in New Hampshire, he is currently the host of “All Things Considered,” a public radio show in Wisconsin. He is the author of Dead Presidents, which melds history with his years-long journey to visit each presidential gravesite.
“In 2013, visiting Buffalo was one of the first trips I made while doing research for the book,” he explained. “I was only in town for three days, but there was so much to see. I loved everything about Buffalo. It is a city that appreciates its history and looks for ways to incorporate that history going forward.”
William McKinley’s assassination at the Pan American Exposition in 1901 is a big part of Buffalo’s presidential story.
“Unfortunately, Buffalo is a city where a president died,” Carlson said. “And that’s where his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, took the oath of office. The courthouse near City Hall is the place where people paid their respects to McKinley. The trial where the assassin was convicted happened in the same courthouse. Presidential transitions don’t happen everywhere, but one happened in Buffalo.”
Considering the roots of Fillmore and Cleveland, Carlson pointed out that there aren’t many cities to lay claims of home to more than one president.
“Quincy, Mass. does, but the presidents were related,” Carlson said, referencing John Adams, and his son, John Quincy. “The Adams’ have that family compound in common.”
Seeing the sites is a completely different experience than simply reading about it, Carlson believes.
“When you stand in a spot, you understand it in a different way,” he said. “I came to appreciate how all these spots fit together in the story of presidents who came through Buffalo. You start to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might have been there at the time. What would it be like to wait in the line to see the president’s body?”
Since his initial visit to Western New York, Carlson has returned several times for research and speaking engagements. He looks forward to each trip.
“I’m not a Buffalonian, but I’m the city’s biggest fan,” he said. “I’d come back every day if I could.”
As a collector of presidential memorabilia, it’s important for Bren Price that artifacts he buys have a Western New York connection.
“‘Unique’ is one of those words that people throw around, but I have an item that is unique,” he said. “When Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as Vice President in 1848, there was an inaugural ball. I have Mrs. Fillmore’s invitation to that event. That’s one of a kind. That will be one of the last things I sell.”
An East Amherst resident, Price, 74, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Hobart College. He began his collection in 1972, buying a “George McGovern for President” poster. By then, he was already a member of a national hobby group.
As a young history teacher, he always kept display items in his classroom.
“Collecting memorabilia has been a big part of my life,” he reflected.
After retiring as Pembroke Central Schools Superintendent in 2002, he read a newspaper article about the Buffalo Presidential Center and joined the board around 2007.
“My collection isn’t large within the hobby,” he noted. “It’s been narrowed in the last few years. Now it’s mostly Buffalo presidents and other Buffalo-related historical stuff.”
Knowing that he couldn’t keep everything — there isn’t enough storage space in his basement — Price has sold items and added new ones over the years. Although he admits to making a few mistakes, he’s also made a profit more often than not.
“It’s paid for many cruises I’ve taken with my wife,” he said. “I started buying small collections, keeping what I wanted, and selling the rest. It was the best way to advance my collection. With my second wife — we’re married 24 years— she knew from the beginning this was an obsession of mine. I warned her that if we go across the country to a memorabilia show, ‘the Bren Price that you know and love right here is not that same guy once we get out there.’”
During warm seasons, Price travels to Lafayette Square, where he leads a presidential tour with Explore Buffalo Walking Tours several times per month. He has researched local connections, written the tour, and has since trained others to be guides. Despite his passion, he has not met any presidents, nor is he eager to discuss the current state of American politics.
“I avoid it if I can,” he said. “I’m more interested in the historical side, about artifacts that validate presidential visits to Buffalo.”
Fitting into the cultural landscape
Although the Buffalo Presidential Center had existed for years, it wasn’t until 2010 when the group was chartered by the New York State Education Department as a not-for-profit museum entity. This allowed them to apply for grants and receive tax-deductible contributions.
“We’ve been trying to increase programming and build our organization in recent years,” Bozer said.
The core members consist of roughly a dozen unpaid volunteers. Approximately 15 times each year, they present public events, including guest speakers like Cleveland, Carlson, or an Abraham Lincoln reenactor. They have also hosted forums, including a topical panel at the Buffalo History Museum about freedom of the press.
In 2015, the Buffalo Presidential Center acquired a collection of presidential books and memorabilia from Elwin Richardson’s family. Richardson, of Syracuse, was a longtime collector whom Price had befriended at hobby shows. Knowing the collection would be difficult to sell when Richardson passed away, his family donated it to the organization. The ensuing years have been spent cataloging, storing, and planning when and where to display the materials. Talks are underway with the downtown Central library about leasing a long-term space for a rotating display. Erie County is expected to dedicate more than 2000 square feet on an upstairs floor for the Buffalo Presidential Center to design and develop an interactive museum space that will be open to the public, possibly by the end of 2020.
“Right now, it’s unrealistic to get a place of our own,” Price said. “We can’t afford a lease. What is realistic is to partner with other not-for-profits. It’s our vision to be one of the digits in the historical and cultural scene here in Buffalo. We have a different mission than the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. Their focus is broader. We’re more narrow than the Buffalo History Museum.”
“We need volunteers and donations to help build the Buffalo Presidential Center into what we envision, which is a place where all Americans can learn about the presidents from here and raise Buffalo’s image,” Bozer said.
© 2020 by Jeff Schober
For further reading:
Buffalo and the Presidents, written by Martin S. Nowak and published in 2017, is extensively researched, detailing
presidential ties to Western New York.
Visit the Buffalo Presidential Center website: