Presidents: Millard Fillmore
Birthplace: Summerhill, New York
Visited in 2007.
The humble origins of the greatest American.
The hill of Summerhill, in fall.
High quality signage circa 2007.
American history is filled with inspiring stories, but few are more inspiring that that of ... uh, Millard Fillmore. No, seriously.
His family was dirt poor, literally. Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore had settled in the Finger Lakes area of New York, where they tried their hand at farming. The area was barely more than a wilderness, and the rocky soil wasn't all that great for farming. But Nathaniel was good at seeding Phoebe. They had eight children, Millard being the second.
Life was not fun. Money was tight and schooling was limited. Given the opportunity to unload some responsibility, Nathaniel apprenticed teenage Millard to a clothmaker. It was more like indentured servitude, and Millard reached his breaking point: After one dispute, he threatened his boss with an ax, then walked 100 miles home. He finally started regular schooling at age 19, finally learning to read from local schoolmarm Abigail Powers. Millard apparently went for extra credit, and married Abigail at age 26.
There's much, much more to the story, including a conspiracy theory involving a cult and a president dying from bad milk. Millard Fillmore is insanely interesting. But for now we're sticking to the beginning.
The problem with humble origins is that they sometimes leave little behind. The Millard Fillmore birthplace is in the modern day municipality of Summerhill, about 50 miles south of Syracuse. The log cabin is long gone, but they honor the site with a public park. You can eat at the Millard Fillmore memorial picnic tables, read the Millard Fillmore memorial sign, and salute the Millard Fillmore memorial flag. A few miles away at Fillmore Glen State Park, you can check out a replica of the birth cabin, if you're a true Fillmore afficionado.
Just get your directions straight before you go. I visited in 2007, a few years before navigation apps were ubiquitous, and the parks were not easy to find. I had to go to a gas station and ask the person at the counter about Millard Fillmore. If you ever want to feel like a nerd, that's a good way to do it.
Home: Millard Fillmore Presidential Site, East Aurora, New York
Visited in 2008.
The only surviving home of our greatest president.
The biggest Fisher-Price playset.
If you thought Millard Fillmore's early years were exciting, buckle up: After breaking free from rural bondage, the great man set forth to establish himself in the cosmopolitan paradise of BUFFALO!
This was actually a pretty big deal, in Millard's day. Buffalo has lost its lustre over the last century or so, but for a long time it was a gateway to the west. Exciting people went there and did exciting things, even when lake effect snow made their 19th century lives into a barren hell. The newly married Millard headed there in 1826 with his bride, and with dreams of expanding his law practice. (Once Abigail taught him to read, he took the natural next step and became a self-taught lawyer.) In the suburb of East Aurora, Millard built a modest home -- a small frame dwelling not much larger than the log cabin where he grew up.
It was nice, but not THAT nice, because Millard and Abigail moved in 1830. But he got his political career off the ground while living there, winning election to the state Assembly in the late '20s. The good stuff came later -- getting elected to Congress, and somehow transitioning from an Anti-Masonic Party member into a mid-level functionary in the Whig Party.
And the house does have the virtue of being the only surviving residence of Millard. There are a few neat artifacts -- his desk, his bed, some old prints of campaign posters, and a lock of his hair from which we can undoubtedly clone a new Millard Fillmore once the country is in its hour of greatest need. But more than anything, the home shores up the "salt of the earth" mystique that makes Millard Fillmore one of the most beloved and respected figures in American history.
The house has a bigger history than just Fillmore, though. After he left, it was rented out and fell into disrepair over the years, until it caught the eye of artist Margaret Price. She convinced her husband, the mayor of East Aurora, to make the home into her studio. She had the whole structure moved to its current site, spruced it up a bit, and removed the second-story floorboards to let in more light.
Boring, you say? Not quite! Margaret Price was one of the co-founders of Fisher-Price (her illustrations and children's books helped shape the look of many of the original toys). The company headquarters is in East Aurora, and I went to see their "Toy Town" museum. Sadly, they have no Millard Fillmore toys, but it was still fun to see the beige tape-recorder of my youth.
Grave: Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York
Visited in 2008.
Think pink! The obelisk marking Millard's grave.
The obelisk from another view.
A simple headstone for one bad m.f.
Abigail's marker on the Fillmore plot
And nearby, another great American
I can say I went to Forest Lawn. Hopefully the conversation will end there, because if anyone says, "the one in California with all the movie stars?" I will have to answer, "no, the one in Buffalo. With Millard Fillmore." And after that they'll probably excuse themselves to top-off their already full drink. Please note this entire scenario assumes I was invited to a party, which is unlikely, but go with it.
Our 13th president and his two dead wives have a pretty nice spot on a hill, along with a swank pink obelisk and the requisite presidential flag pole. It isn't the fanciest presidential spread, but it does have a fence, which means people might care enough about Millard Fillmore to one day defile his grave. So that's flattering, right?
It was a stroke that put Fillmore in ground; he died at the relatively old age of 74. His politicial career had flamed out after an unsuccessful run for president (on the disturbing Know-Nothing ticket) in 1856 and he played out the string being a BMOC in Buffalo. His last words, according to legend, were "the nourishment was palatabale." We have to hope he was referring to the soup he had just eaten.
But the more interesting story belongs to first wife Abigail. She served as the first lady from the middle of 1850 through the early months of 1853. The Whigs cast her husband aside as a candidate in the 1852 election, but she and Millard still attended the inauguration of Democrat Franklin Pierce. At the outdoor ceremony, she caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia and killed her within a month. It remains the shortest post-White-House existence of any First Lady. She's probably sharing a laugh with William Henry Harrison in heaven right now. Abigail is buried near her husband, and her husband's second wife, which will make things a little awkward on Judgment Day when the dead rise.
One final note on Forest Lawn: I'd argue that Millard is its most distinguished resident, but there is one very compelling counter-argument. One hillside away, maybe an eighth of a mile from the 13th president, you can find the grave of ... Rick James, bitch. And it's glorious.