The Sad Visit of Millard Fillmore

Born in Summerhill, just south of Moravia, Millard Fillmore fished and bathed in Skaneateles Lake’s waters. He visited the village again shortly after his Presidency, in August of 1854, in the company of his son.

Fillmore’s wife had died in March of 1853, just a few weeks after he left office, and his daughter Abby had stepped into the role of housekeeper and hostess. But in July of 1854, Abby was stricken with cholera and died within 12 hours of its onset; she was just 22 years old. Fillmore sought to escape from Buffalo and his grief, and left by train on July 29th with his son.

When he arrived in Auburn, N.Y., a waiting telegram informed him that his 36-year-old brother, Charles DeWitt Fillmore, had died in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 27th, also of cholera.

On August 1st, Fillmore went from Auburn to Moravia and New Hope, to revisit the scenes of his boyhood. One account notes that he stayed with longtime friend Mrs. Olive Fuller in Niles, and there it was decided that Rhoda Fuller, her daughter, should keep house for Fillmore in Buffalo (which she did until he remarried in 1858).

From August 7th to 11th, Fillmore stayed in Skaneateles at the Lake House hotel; William Beauchamp later wrote that Dorastus Kellogg “showed him around” the village; on at least one day took a carriage to travel down to Glen Haven. On his last day in Skaneateles, he received a letter of sympathy at the Lake House from the new U.S. President, Franklin Pierce, and wrote in reply:

“Your kind letter of condolence of the 3d inst has just reached me here. That you should have remembered me in my sorrows amid the anxieties incident to the closing of a long session of Congress shews the deep sympathy of your breast and can not be otherwise than grateful to my bleeding heart. That Heaven may prosper you and your administration is the sincere prayer of Your friend & obt Servt, Millard Fillmore”

Fillmore returned to Buffalo, and in late August wrote to friend, writer and reformer Dorothea Dix:

“I feel life has little left for me. My good son, only of all my little family remains. I have none other now to sympathize with me in grief or rejoice with me in prosperity; and my dwelling, once so cheerfully and happy, is now dark and desolate.”

Fillmore spent time in Europe, and ran for President again in 1856, as the nominee of the third-party Whigs; he finished third among three candidates, with 22% of the popular vote. In Buffalo, he served as Chancellor of the University of Buffalo and was a founder and first president of the Buffalo Historical Society. He died in 1874 and his grave is in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Closer to home, Moravia celebrates Fillmore’s January 7th birthday each year; the Moravia elementary school is named for him; Fillmore Glen State Park is a mile south of Moravia, and Millard Fillmore Replica Birthplace Cabin is on State Route 38. There also is a picnic area overlooking Skaneateles Lake that Fillmore used to frequent as a boy.

* * *

The details of Fillmore’s 1854 visit to Skaneateles come from Robert J. Scarry’s excellent Millard Fillmore, first published in 2001. Scarry was a history teacher in the Moravia schools, and the town and village historian there. His biography showed that previous histories had been unkind and unfair to Fillmore, blaming him for things he did not do, and failing to give credit for things he did do. I am happy to refer readers to Scarry’s book, but must admit a vested interest in Fillmore’s reputation, as I was brought into this world at Buffalo’s Millard Fillmore Hospital.

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