Thursday, February 18, 2010

Buffalo and Moravia duke it out

Buffalo and Moravia, N.Y., are vying for a piece of the Millard Fillmore action. The two communities both claim this mostly forgotten president, whose very name is associated with mediocrity, and whose oft-cited greatest achievement—installing a bathtub in the White House—was a hoax perpetrated by the writer H.L. Mencken . The U.S. Mint this week is releasing the Millard Fillmore presidential dollar coin, with an official launch ceremony on Thursday in Moravia (pop. 4,000), near his birthplace. Some people in Buffalo are miffed.

Fillmore, you see, is buried in Buffalo, where he made his mark as the first chancellor of the University at Buffalo, founding member and first president of the Buffalo Club, and founder of the Buffalo Historical society.

Members of Moravia's historical society say there's more than enough Millard Fillmore to go around. Buffalo can claim Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president, who began his career there. "As a small town, we just have a few moments of history that are ours—and Fillmore is one of them," says Roger Phillips, president of the Cayuga-Owasco Lakes Historical Society.

This has to prove that there is a website for nearly everything.

Joyce Hackett Smith, former president of the historical society and a distant cousin of Fillmore's, notes that the 13th president is more apt to be overlooked in a big city like Buffalo, which has a population of about 272,600, while every child at Millard Fillmore Elementary School in Moravia learns a lot about Fillmore

A quarter of a million a big city? What does that make NYC?

"We spent quite a lot of time in history class going over the things that Fillmore did," says 57-year-old Lee Conklin, a lifelong Moravian and owner of an auto-parts store there. The late Robert Scarry, a Moravia history teacher, wrote a book detailing the president's life.

Long Beach Library owns the book.

Millard Fillmore was born on Jan. 7, 1800, several miles outside Moravia in what is now Summerhill and became president following the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. Fillmore's presidency is marked by his signing and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act providing for the return of runaway slaves. History has punished him for that, but supporters say it was his way of trying to keep the country united. Fillmore made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1856 as a member of the American party, derisively known as the Know-Nothing party, after his former party, the Whigs, fell apart over the issue of slavery.

Not a great record.

His name is attached to cartoonist Bruce Tinsley's "Mallard Fillmore" comic strip, which features a right-leaning duck reporter who goes after the media, not to mention liberal politicians. And Fillmore's reputation for being ignored takes center stage in George Pendle's fictional and tongue-in-cheek account of Fillmore's life in "The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President," published in 2007.


Fillmore did get a burst of recognition in 2008 from auto maker Kia Motors and its "Unheard of Presidents' Day" sale. The commercial made reference to the bathtub "legacy," and featured a Millard Fillmore soap-on-a-rope. The historical society in Moravia got its hands on a box of soaps-on-a-rope for its collection, says Mr. Phillips.

One self-proclaimed Fillmorephile, Jeff Amdur of Baltimore, has been anticipating the launch of the Fillmore dollar, even though he won't be able to make it to either of the two ceremonies.

"After I got a Zachary Taylor dollar in change last year, I knew Millard's time was coming up," he says.

No comments:

Post a Comment