An organization which for years has hosted presentations on presidential history, and local connections to it, is getting a permanent home within the Central Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library System. WBFO was invited to have a sneak peek at the Buffalo Presidential Center's space.
Located on the second floor, the Buffalo Presidential Center will open to the public Saturday, Nov. 14. The space was still a work in progress when WBFO was invited to meet with Bren T. Price, Sr., a board trustee for the Center.
Outside the door to the exhibit room are five large images of what Price called the "five big boys," the most popular presidents in terms of local interest. They include Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Fillmore practiced law in Western New York and, following his presidency, returned to Buffalo and is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Cleveland was Erie County Sheriff and Mayor of Buffalo before serving two non-consecutive terms in the White House. McKinley was assassinated in 1901 while visiting Buffalo during the Pan-American Exposition, followed by then Vice President Roosevelt traveling to Buffalo to be sworn in as McKinley's successor.
Lincoln's connections to Western New York? He traveled to the region five times, first visiting Niagara Falls and, finally, was brought to Buffalo to lie in repose following his assassination. In between, it was a young Westfield girl, Grace Bedell, who famously wrote to Lincoln, urging the then presidential candidate to grow facial hair to make his face look fuller.
Price says they later met when Lincoln returned to the region following his election.
"When the train stopped in Westfield, New York, he said to the crowd, 'not too long ago, a young lady here in Westfield asked me to grow whiskers. And I did, and I was elected. Is that young lade here right now?' Her father carried her up, and he hugged her and kissed her on the back end of that train that he was on," Price said. "It's another Western New York story that I think people like to hear about, and to learn about in some cases."
Along with the stories, there are vintage relics from the respective presidencies. Many were produced in Buffalo. They include a pitcher marking Teddy Roosevelt's legendary encounter with a bear that he refused to shoot, later inspiring the iconic teddy bear.
There's a letter from Cleveland to the mother of his child born out of wedlock, discussing a Christmas present. Fillmore relics include authentic 1850s campaign ribbons, a hand-carved wooden pipe featuring his sculpted face and a seashell with his face carved into it.
There is also a vintage book, published in Buffalo by Thomas and Lathrop, on Fillmore's life. Displayed in one of the glass cases, it is turned to pages of a chapter discussing the Fugitive Slave Act. Fillmore supported it, and that legacy has resulted more recently in actions including the University at Buffalo removing his name from its Academic Center.
"We're here to tell their stories. And sometimes, the stories aren't what we want to hear today. We're here to give it an independent look, a neutral look, and to show both sides," Price said. "We're not here to take sides on anyone in particular president, because they're all stained in some way. We're here to share the information and the facts."
There will also be some fun exhibits in the future. When the Center opens next week, there will be a case featuring assorted donkeys and elephants, the mascots of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Examples of lighter themes for the future, according to Price, include White House pets and presidential bobbleheads.
Following its November 14 opening, the Buffalo Presidential Center will be open Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Price says they will consider whether to offer more hours after the start of the new year.