BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — For some, it’s a day off, but for the nation, it’s an opportunity to learn more about our nation’s former leaders and past’s path to the present. On President’s Day, we’re reflecting on the history of presidential ties to Western New York.

“Artifacts just remind us that these were ordinary people who were thrust into extraordinary circumstances,” said Brian Hayden, the director of communications and community engagement at the Buffalo History Museum. “I think when you see these artifacts and when you realize these were real people who faced difficult circumstances, tough challenges and hard decisions, I think it’s really worth studying these men, seeing the decisions they made, whether they were right or wrong.”

Hayden joined News 4’s Hope Winter on Wake Up! on Monday, revealing some of the artifacts on display and some that were taken out of their vault to help share the local history and how it impacted our national history.

We heard about how for two presidents, Western New York was their stomping grounds before making their way toward their track to the White House.

13th President Millard Fillmore, who is originally from the Finger Lakes region, built a house for himself and his wife in East Aurora that still stands today. According to Hayden, Fillmore was a young attorney before getting into politics and lived out his remaining years post-presidency back in Western New York.

“After he was president, Fillmore returned to Buffalo, and he helped found, actually, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society that become the History Museum,” said Hayden. The Museum in Buffalo has some of his artifacts, including the buggy he would ride around to Buffalo and his inkwell from his desk.

For the 22nd and 24th President, Grover Cleveland, he served as Buffalo’s mayor and Governor of New York before taking on the big role. He married a WNY girl, Frances Folsom in 1886, with the only presidential wedding in the White House. The Buffalo History Museum showed News 4 a piece of cake from their wedding, which is more than a century old.

“We wouldn’t recommend anyone try eating it, but it’s heavily steeped in alcohol, almost like a fruitcake which has allowed it to be preserved all these years.” said Hayden, “It’s really interesting we have a piece of presidential cake for more than a century later in our collection.”

But some of the museum’s artifacts tell much more than just daily life; some show the transition of power that happened right here in Buffalo.

“It was truly a tremulous time period in our country’s history and it happened all right here in Buffalo,” said Hayden. “In 1901, the eyes of the world turned to Buffalo because our city was both the site of a Presidential assassination of William McKinley and the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt.”

President McKinley was assassinated here in Buffalo while visiting the Pan-American Exhibition, just a few blocks away from where the Buffalo History Museum is now. According to Hayden, McKinley was greeting guests when assassin Leon Czolgosz, concealed a gun under a handkerchief, and shot the president twice.

“When McKinley’s health was failing, they sent for Theodore Roosevelt, who was camping with his family in the Adirondacks,” said Hayden. “He was still in his camping gear at the time, and he needed to look presentable for the day he was going to become the President of the United States.”

According to Hayden, Roosevelt’s friend, Buffalonian Ansley Wilcox, lent his overcoat to Roosevelt for his inauguration. Roosevelt was sworn into office at Wilcox’s home on Delaware Avenue.

Today, the Buffalo History Museum holds the assassin’s gun, the handkerchief, the surgical instruments used to help McKinley and the ball and chain that was placed on his assassin. In the archives, they also hold the coat Roosevelt wore during his swearing-in ceremony.

President Lincoln also had ties to Western New York, but it wasn’t just for political reasons; a Western New Yorker actually helped build the image we recognize as Lincoln.

“Many people don’t know that the reason Lincoln has a beard is actually because of a little girl from Western New York; her name was Grace Bedel,” said Hayden.

Bedel lived in Westfield, and according to Hayden, wrote a letter to Lincoln saying that she thought he would look better if he had a beard.

“So he read the letter, took it to heart, and on a whistle-stop tour, stopped in Westfield where Bedel lived and even asked to meet her,” said Hayden. Today, the museum holds a face mold of President Lincoln, however, you cannot see his historic beard.

The museum also holds much more than just these artifacts, but pieces of the reason why we celebrate President’s Day throughout the nation as well.

According to Hayden, a Buffalo drug store owner, Julius Frances, loved President Lincoln, and started one of the country’s first birthday celebrations for Lincoln that continues to be celebrated at the museum today. Lincoln’s birthday was February 12 and George Washington’s was February 22.

“About 50 years ago, the federal government then merged the two together for an official federal holiday, called Presidents Day,” said Hayden.

So, if you’re enjoying the day off, and wondering why we celebrate President’s Day, Hayden believes reflecting on the nation’s former leaders can help us understand how much they influenced the path of the past.

“Their decisions were so influential in charting the course of our country’s history — so it’s really worth studying these commanders-in-chiefs and seeing how it is that they influenced our country over the years.” said Hayden.

If you would like to visit the Buffalo History Museum, you can find out more information by visiting their website here.

Latest Posts

Hope Winter is a reporter and multimedia journalist who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here.