Most of the streets in Buffalo are named after prominent men. But what’s the story behind the ones named for women? For Women’s History Month, WBFO’s Kyle Mackie consulted an expert who’s been researching Buffalo street names for almost a decade.
Angela Keppel is an urban planner and self-described history enthusiast and Buffalo booster. She’s also the woman behind the blog and Facebook page “Buffalo Streets,” which she said was sparked in 2011 by a simple curiosity.
“It all started because there's a Keppel Street in South Buffalo,” Keppel said. “Selfishly, it’s my last name. I wanted to know who it was named after.”
That led to researching other street names, and now, Keppel estimates that she’s written about somewhere around 170 in total. Of those, only eight or nine have been named after women.
“Most streets in Buffalo are named after men, but there are several that are named after women,” Keppel said. “A lot of the streets that are named after women tend to be the first names, like you hear Edith and Millicent and Martha and Faye and May, and that was often the children or the wives of a developer.”
But there are some that broke out of that mold.
“A pretty major one is Lovejoy Street, which is also, you know, the Lovejoy [Common] Council district [and] the Lovejoy neighborhood,” Keppel said.
Sarah Lovejoy lived with her husband, Joshua, and their 12-year-old son Henry in a house at 465 Main Street (near the present-day Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Buffalo), and she has the sad distinction of being remembered as one of the only civilian women killed during the War of 1812 and the Battle of Buffalo. Lovejoy was also one of the few Buffalo residents who did not flee when British and Native American troops came to pillage and burn the village on Dec. 30, 1813.
“Most of the people had left and evacuated the town and she stayed behind,” Keppel said. “She was very proud of her belongings and she wouldn't let them in the house to take her curtains and her rugs and her clothing, and while she was defending her home, they scalped her.”
Neighbors carried Lovejoy’s body into her home, which was later burned to the ground. One of those survivors could have been Margaret St. John, who lived nearby with her family at the corner of Main and Court streets.
“They moved to Buffalo in 1810,” Keppel said of the St. Johns. “Mr. St. John had a tavern and they had a bunch of kids, and their children wrote recollections of the city and the village in the early days of Buffalo, and so those are some of the best primary sources for learning about what Buffalo was like during the War of 1812 and before the War of 1812.”
With her husband and sons off fighting in Black Rock and along the Niagara River, Margaret St. John and two daughters were left alone in the house when the British came—and the house was spared. Today, a historic plaque on Main Street near the Lafayette Square metro rail stop marks its former site.
“It was her house, the jail and a blacksmith shop that were spared,” Keppel said, “and her husband had passed away, so after the war she was left a single woman. In some cases, women would often become destitute in that situation.”
But by selling needlework and taking in boarders, the St. John women managed to make a living. Margaret lived until 1847, and her great-grandson later developed and named St. Johns Place in Allentown after the family.
Similarly, the Lovejoy’s son Henry became a well-known surveyor who laid out the street grid in many parts of Buffalo, including the East Side, where he named a street after his mother. The former Lovejoy Street used to run all the way to Fillmore Avenue, past the Central Terminal, but the section in a Polish neighborhood was renamed Paderewski Drive.
Two of Keppel’s other favorite stories about Buffalo streets named after women concern Ripley Place, a one-block street on the West Side between Vermont and Connecticut streets, and Gill Alley, which runs between Breckenridge Street and Auburn Avenue in the Elmwood Village.
Mary Ripley was a teacher at Central High School in the 1880s who helped tame out-of-control boys’ study halls, and Helen Gill was a woman of the same period who refused to abandon plans to build a house in the then less-congested part of the city simply because her husband died, as was expected. Ripley had such a great impact on some of her students that they formed the Mary Ripley Society and gave out awards for strong character, which she emphasized in her teaching. Gill purchased property herself and sketched the original plans for a house at 482 Ashland Avenue, which still stands today.
Unfortunately, Keppel said it’s harder to research these stories about women than those of men. For one thing, women are often only referred to in historical accounts as “Mrs. [husband’s name].” Keppel’s also found at least one example of a husband getting credit for a remodeling project his wife did after his death. But Keppel’s found a useful guide in the work of another woman: a reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express named H. Katherine Smith.
“In the late 1930s, she wrote a series where she would interview the next of kin of people who had streets named after them, so maybe a nephew or a grandson, maybe a niece.”
And Smith was a remarkable woman in her own right. As a blind journalist, she took notes and sometimes wrote her articles on a braille typewriter. Keppel said she can’t help but think about all of this history as she goes about her life in Buffalo.
“I think it's very interesting to look back, and then in my career as an urban planner, we're kind of looking forward, so I feel like I kind of live in this flux between the two, and I really like it.”
As for the street name that launched her passion project, Keppel’s still on the case. She said she knows the date of when Fisher Street was renamed Keppel Street by the city council, but has to “go and dig through council records to actually find out if I can figure out who it was named after.”
“Yeah, I still don’t know. Nine years.”