Millard Fillmore’s Influence on Buffalo
President Fillmore's gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery
The story of Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth president of the United States, is both interesting and controversial, and his influence can be found all around Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs.
While many say his generous nature was a boon to Buffalo’s cultural development, others classify him as one of the nation’s worst presidents. His low ranking by presidential historians is due to the Compromise of 1850, which strengthened slavery and ultimately failed to prevent the Civil War.
Born into extreme poverty in Locke Township, New York, on January 7, 1800, Fillmore rose from hardship through study, even when it meant having to steal books. He attended New Hope Academy in 1819, where he met Abigail Powers, who was teaching the class.
That same year, he clerked and studied law under Judge Walter Wood of Montville, New York. Fillmore moved to Buffalo, where he continued his studies in the law office of Asa Rice and Joseph Clary. Fillmore was admitted to the bar in 1823 and began practicing law in East Aurora.
He formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall, in 1834. It became one of Western New York’s most prestigious law firms and exists today as Hodgson Russ LLP.
Fillmore wed Powers in 1826, the same year he built their home, which is a National Historic Landmark. The house, which originally stood on Main Street near the Aurora Theatre building, eventually fell into disrepair. Margaret Evans Price (Mrs. Irving Price of Fisher-Price Toys) purchased the house in 1930. An artist in her own right, she had it moved to its present location at 24 Shearer Avenue, and turned it into a studio.
The house was acquired by the Aurora Historical Society, which returned it to a home circa 1826. Typifying a small frame dwelling of the Federal Period, the house is furnished with pieces that once belonged to the Fillmores.
The house features period pieces from the time that the president lived there, including his bed, antique toys, a restored fireplace and pantry with tin ware and pottery. Visitors to this historic house museum can also view a carriage barn and Presidential Rose Garden with pre-1840 varieties.
Fillmore moved to Buffalo in 1832, the year Buffalo became a city, and helped write the charter. He was elected to Congress, state comptroller, and eventually vice president while living in a home on Franklin Street between Huron and Mohawk. Even after leaving the White House in 1853, he and his wife continued to live in that home.
The house was razed in 1929, and, in 1952, the Franklin Street YWCA Headquarters was built on that spot.
Fillmore moved to a mansion in 1858, a block south on Niagara Square. The residence became the Castle Inn Hotel after his death. It was demolished in 1921 when the Statler Hotel was built. At the time, it was the largest hotel in the country.
In 1846, Fillmore became one of the principal founders of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He became the first chancellor and continued to serve in the honorary position until his death.
Fillmore’s name appeared on the continuing education school, Millard Fillmore College, which was located on the South Campus. The Millard Fillmore Academic Center, an academic and administrative services building, was established on the North Campus.
In 1848, Fillmore was elected vice president of the United States alongside Zachary Taylor, who was the Whig Party candidate. When Taylor died in 1850, Fillmore became the thirteenth president.
He was the last Whig US president and the last president not to be affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties.
During his tenure, the Compromise of 1850, which averted the dissolution of the Union for another decade, was passed.
He also signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it difficult for slaves to escape to freedom. Personally, Fillmore was against slavery, but he felt the federal government had no jurisdiction in eliminating it.
Fillmore returned to Buffalo after his presidency ended on March 3, 1853. He then began working with cultural organizations and on civic endeavors that would greatly benefit the city.
During this time, Fillmore provided financial assistance to the Sisters of Charity, the result being the construction of Buffalo General Hospital.
He also founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where he became vice president.
Fillmore founded and presided over the Buffalo Club, which was the city’s first exclusive social group. He was also both a financial contributor and board member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.
Today it is the governing body of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
As the president of the board of trustees, he laid the groundwork for the Grosvenor Library, one of the nation’s most comprehensive reference collections, now at the downtown branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
He helped raise money for Buffalo’s Society of the Natural Sciences while helping launch the Buffalo Historical Society, where he served for five years as its first president.
In 1923, Buffalo’s Homeopathic Hospital was renamed Millard Fillmore Hospital.
Fillmore died of a stroke on March 8, 1874. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. A statue in his honor stands outside of City Hall in Buffalo.
Judith A. Rucki is a public relations consultant and freelance writer.