Millard Fillmore is hardly remembered as one of America’s most prominent presidents, but the nation’s 13th leader is on the verge of gaining greater fame in East Aurora.
At the house Fillmore built by hand – which was relocated to its current location on Shearer Avenue and is now a museum dedicated to the president – the Aurora Historical Society plans to help the village secure a more significant presence on the map of Fillmore’s history.
Plans call for replicating Fillmore’s law office and commissioning a bronze statue of him, sitting on a bench, possibly overlooking Main Street on a strip of land adjacent to his home. The society recently purchased the land from the village for $1.
“We’re kind of looking at this as a presidential park. We’re not going to just be a house museum, but a site dedicated to Fillmore and Abigail,” said Aurora Town Historian Robert Lowell Goller, the society’s director. “We’re trying to enhance the educational experience of Millard’s story, that he was poor and started his own law career, and went on, in a very weird way, to become president.”
The bronze statue and replicated law office may be the big items on the society’s radar screen, but other historic items will help tell the story of Fillmore and his wife as well.
The J.F. Browne “Gothic” pedal harp played by Fillmore’s daughter, Mary Abigail, has just been restrung for $700 and remains in the museum next to a portrait of her. The harp is described as a rare example of one of the most elaborate models ever produced by the first major American harp maker and is believed to have been played by Mary Abigail in the White House.
Additionally, the society recently acquired two sets of books from Fillmore’s collection through an online auction. The books will be displayed in his home within a library book case believed to have been in the White House at one time.
Fillmore – known for his local contributions to law, education and history – was one of the community’s earliest settlers in the early 1820s. He opened Aurora’s first law practice, helped found what became the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society and was the first chancellor of the University of Buffalo.
He built his own house for his future wife, Abigail, where the Aurora Theatre now exists.
The house has since been relocated twice and now sits at 24 Shearer Ave., just off Main Street.
It was moved there in 1930 by Margaret Evans Price, wife of one of the co-founders of the Fisher-Price toy company, who used it as her art studio.
In 1975, the Aurora Historical Society acquired the home and opened it as a museum. The Millard Fillmore House is believed to be the only site in the United States dedicated to Fillmore’s life and work, and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Youngstown sculptor Susan Geissler, who works on historical pieces, is excited about the prospect of sculpting a bronze Fillmore. She has begun researching him and has already made a clay “concept” sculpture as a model.
Goller pictures an older Fillmore on the bench, a Fillmore who has come back to East Aurora after his presidency, which ran from 1850 to 1853.
“He will be holding a dictionary because he liked to read and liked words,” said Geissler, a former East Aurora resident. “It’s fun to do the research because you start to live the piece. It becomes a part of you. It’ll be there for thousands of years, and I like that it is public art. I get to visit [my sculptures] when they are nearby.”
The society also plans to replicate Fillmore’s law office, which was located where Vidler’s 5 & 10 store is today. It later evolved into the downtown law firm of Hodgson Russ.
The office will be on the same grounds as the Fillmore House and is being designed by East Aurora architect Donald Aubrecht.
A master plan for the historical site will be done, and a capital campaign will be launched this year to start fundraising for the two projects, which Goller said could take up to five years.
The total cost of the law office and statue is unknown, though the sculpture is estimated to run around $50,000 and take about nine months to craft.
Fast facts about Millard Fillmore
1. Co-founder and first chancellor of the University of Buffalo
2. Helped found the Buffalo Historical Society and served as its first president
3. Founded law firm of Fillmore and Hall in 1834, which currently exists as Hodgson Russ LLP
4. First New York State comptroller elected by popular ballot, made reforms in 1848-49 that were the model for the future National Banking System
5. As president, sent the first Western trade mission to Japan
6. Did not install the first bathtub in the White House – that is a popular myth started by H.L. Mencken