13. Millard Fillmore
Birthplace (November 21, 2007)
Only true Fillmore afficionados will bother stopping by the Millard Fillmore birthplace in Summerhill, New York (about 50 miles south of Syracuse). The hard part was actually finding the site -- it's not easy to pull a street address and directions off the Internet for this one, probably because the Freemasons have suppressed all Millard Fillmore lore. There's a replica cabin at Fillmore Glen State park, which is 5 miles away from the site, but no one was working in the park office when I arrived. 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.
Once you actually get there (it's way up on a hill), there's nothing to see. The log cabin is long gone. There's a flag pole, a sign, and some picnic tables. The flag is tattered. There aren't any animatronic robots or anything of the sort. So you have to make your own fun:
Home and Gravesite (August 2, 2008)
I can now finally 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 obelisk and the requisite presidential flag pole. It wasn't the fanciest presidential spread, but it DID 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. The more interesting story belongs to first wife Abigail -- according to the volunteers at the Millard Fillmore house in East Aurora (south of Buffalo a bit), she became ill while standing outside during the 1853 inaugural of Franklin Peirce, who spanked her husband in the 1852 election. Nice kick in the teeth, huh? The country tells you ON PAPER that you're unpopular, then your wife dies watching another man take your job. I'm sure she's sharing a laugh with William Henry Harrison in heaven right now.
The East Aurora house is the only surviving residence of Millard, who lived there from 1826-1830 with Abigail right after they got married. 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 mostly it just reinforces the fact that he came from humble origins, because it's tiny (bigger than the log cabin he was born in, though). More than anything, my visit shored 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 they left, it was rented out and fell into disrepair over the years, until it caught the eye of artist Margaret Price. She convince her husband, the mayor of East Aurora, to make the home into her studio, so 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.
BOOOOOOOORING? 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, no Millard Fillmore toys, but still fun to see the beige tape-recorder of my youth.
But back to Forest Lawn! One of the best things about my day trips, which look horrible on paper (if you're a normal human being), is that you stumble on some surprises. Toy Town, for example, was a surprise to me. But Forest Lawn had the one thing that made my day. In that fine cemetery, maybe an eighth of a mile from the 13th president of the United States ...