The Buffalo You Should Know: Grover Cleveland was here

By Steve Cichon

Many Buffalonians know that Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo before moving on to become governor of New York and president of the United States. Other than that, we don’t have much to say about the man who lived here for 27 years practicing law and serving as sheriff and mayor.

There are a few statues at City Hall, a high school named in his honor on the West Side, and then there’s the tail end of Route 263—commonly known as the Millersport Expressway—which actually turns into “The Grover Cleveland Highway” between Eggert and Main.

But as far as actual, tangible, still-in-existence places that Grover Cleveland would have known, there are very few. Like most of Buffalo’s 1860s and 1870s landmarks, just about every known place Grover Cleveland lived or frequented is gone.

Notable exceptions include Old County Hall. Mayor Cleveland would have conducted business there during his eight months as Buffalo’s chief executive in 1882. An institution which survives is Phillips Lytle. The law firm, founded in Buffalo in 1834, was known as Cleveland and Bissell during the 1870s and up until the time Cleveland became governor in 1883.

Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon Collection

Many of the other “Grover Cleveland slept/ate/drank here” stories about modern-day places simply aren’t true. Several of the more recent popular myths were debunked by Cynthia Van Ness, the Buffalo History Museum’s librarian and Director of Archives,  in a recent talk called The Top Five Urban Legends About Grover Cleveland.

While some stories appear to be made of nothing but imagination or hope for profit, others might be based in truth with misplaced details.

One oft-told story involves Ulrich’s Tavern, potato pancakes and Grover Cleveland. In retelling the story, it often becomes “Grover Cleveland ate potato pancakes at Ulrich’s.”

Taking a step back, the story which has been told often by former Ulrich’s owner Jim Daly, is this:  When Ulrich’s namesake, Michael Ulrich, was a young German immigrant working as a busboy in a Buffalo hotel in the 1890s, Grover Cleveland smelled the potato pancakes that Ulrich was cooking for his friends, and asked that some be sent over to his table.

The story sounds plausible because Grover Cleveland was known for spending time in taverns and for his fondness for the fare of the German immigrants in Buffalo. The story is easy to remember, because potato pancakes have been a specialty at Ulrich’s for more than a century.

Daly’s story jibes with the one that Michael Ulrich told Buffalo newspapers in 1946 and 1952, so this story goes back at least 70 years. The only problem is, Ulrich gave conflicting details and mentioned two different hotels in the separate newspaper accounts.

In 1946, Ulrich said Cleveland visited the Niagara Hotel on his way to Niagara Falls in 1895. In the later version of the story, it was the Iroquois Hotel, but there was no mention of the Falls. Both stories mention on his next trip to Buffalo, Cleveland wanted the same potato pancakes he had the time before. The 1952 version says when Cleveland returned, Ulrich was working as a beer wagon driver, but went back to the hotel to make his specialty for the president.

The biggest problem with the story is that Cleveland only visited Buffalo twice after Ulrich immigrated to Buffalo from Germany in 1890. And Cleveland’s last visit to Buffalo is a well-documented, half-day visit for a funeral, with no mention of potato pancakes. The story is not true of Grover Cleveland, but it is plausible that Ulrich may have remembered the wrong president.

President William McKinley came to Buffalo in 1897, making several speeches before moving on to Niagara Falls. At the time when McKinley made his fateful last trip to Buffalo in 1901, there is an “M. Ulrich” listed in the Buffalo Directory as a driver. Ulrich’s details fit the “McKinley in Buffalo” timeline, but not “Cleveland in Buffalo.” By the time Cleveland returned to Buffalo for the last time in 1903, Ulrich was in the tavern business and was no longer driving a beer wagon.

And it is with documentation like this that most of the Grover Cleveland stories we know can be explained away.

The question still remains, however, where did our nation’s 22nd and 24th president live, work, eat and spend his leisure hours when he lived in Buffalo? And where do those places fall on a modern map?

Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon Collection

Grover Cleveland had lived in Buffalo for about nine years when this photo was taken around 1864 when he was 27 years old.

Even toward the end of his time here, Buffalo was still a place with horse-drawn trolley cars and gas-powered street lights. The tallest building in town was old County Hall. Again, since Cleveland lived in Buffalo so long ago, from 1855 to 1881, nearly every building in which he lived, worked, or dined has been torn down and replaced at least two or three times. From contemporary accounts and city directories, we know the names and approximate location of many of the places he frequented, but finding the exact spot can be a challenge.

For example, Louis Goetz’s Restaurant was one of Cleveland’s favorites. From his earliest days here until he left Buffalo, Cleveland had a special secluded table where he and his friends would play “pea-knuckle” and wash down pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut with beer most evenings.

From the 1870s through the 1910s, Goetz’s was at Pearl and Eagle—which was then right in the middle of all that was happening downtown. Today, standing at Pearl and Eagle you see the back of the Main Place Mall, the back and side of the Rath Building and a parking ramp.

A 1940s history written by Roy Nagle says that the spot where Goetz’s stood is “now the site of a Laube’s Cafeteria.” Others who remember say it was a bit north of Laube’s, but for years, that seemed to be the identifying marker.

Buffalo News archives

Looking at a 1960s photo of Laube’s (left in photo) might help the modern Buffalonian visualize the spot—the gaping hole between Pearl and Main Streets was about to be filled with the Main Place Mall. Stepping back in time, Goetz’s at 194 & 200 Pearl was next door to the often-photographed Miller’s Stables. You can see the front door of President Cleveland’s old haunt to the left in the old photograph.

210 Pearl then. Goetz’s was next door.

To visit the site today, you’ll be looking at the Fernbach Parking Ramp.

The Fernbach Parking Ramp on Pearl Street, Monday, March 23, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The list of bars and restaurants which claimed Cleveland as a regular is a long one, but his visits to taverns weren’t merely about drinking and carousing.

A 1937 article in the Courier-Express, commemorating the centennial of Cleveland’s birth, says as the Civil War dawned, Cleveland also spent time in many Buffalo taverns advocating the abolition of slavery. Gin mills made great spots for stump speeches as well, and there’s at least one account of Cleveland standing on a table in a First Ward establishment with glasses of beer at his feet—the idea being that you could help yourself if you stopped and listened to the oratory and pledged a vote for Cleveland.

In fact, in 1870, when Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, Buffalo was still a place with a frontier feel. There were about 150,000 residents and 673 “groggeries and disorderly houses”—a bar for every 200 people. Crime was rampant; so was graft. Buying one’s way out of prison was a simple fix, until Cleveland cleaned up both the bars and the jails.

Long before he was president or mayor, Cleveland’s first brush with wide notice came in 1872 and 1873 when Sheriff Cleveland assumed the role of executioner when his undersheriffs blanched at the notion.

Recent parolee Patrick Morrissey had killed his mother, calling her a “damned bitch” as he plunged a bread knife into her chest. John Gaffney had slain a man with a revolver in a whiskey-fueled rage at a Canal Street saloon. Each was executed within six months of the other on a gallows constructed in the yard outside the Erie County Jail. In both cases, Sheriff Grover Cleveland, it was reported in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, “press(ed) the iron lever which drew out an iron pin upon which one side of the trap rested, causing the latter to drop.”

The nature of the crimes and the fact that it was the sheriff himself who acted as hangman caught the attention of  newspapers across New York State and as far away as Chicago and Boston.

The Commercial-Advertiser account of the Morrissey execution describes the gallows as having been built up against Batavia Street on the north side of the prison yard. In the years since Sheriff Cleveland ended two lives there, Batavia Street has been renamed Broadway. The Erie County Jail was located where the downtown branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library is now located.

When walking on the sidewalk north of the library, you’re walking along the spot where Grover Cleveland executed two men about 144 years ago.

Cleveland came to Buffalo as a teenager following the death of his father. He was looking for a place to study the practice of law, while making enough money to support his mother and younger siblings. His plan was to stop in Buffalo to visit with his uncle, Lewis Allen, as he moved out west. He never got further than Buffalo.

Allen was one of the area’s leading land speculators and cattlemen. Allen Street was named in his honor in 1888, 50 years after his cattle trod the road into existence as a route to their pasture. When Cleveland first arrived in Buffalo, he lived with Allen in a sprawling estate once owned by General Peter Porter on Niagara Street.

That home, near Ferry Street, had other presidential history besides being Cleveland’s first Buffalo home. John Quincy Adams had visited the home and Millard Fillmore was a frequent guest. When the mansion was built, the lawn extended to the banks of the Niagara River.

By the time it was torn down in 1911 to make way for the plant of the Thomas Motor Car Company, railroad tracks cut the house off from the water, and the once rural Niagara Street was definitively more industrial. To visit the site of Cleveland’s first home in Buffalo, you’d stand on the sidewalk in front of Rich Products on Niagara between Ferry and Breckenridge. The brick building erected as a car factory more than 100 years ago is now part of the sprawling Rich’s complex.

Over nearly three decades in Buffalo, Cleveland never owned a home. He lived in a succession of six or seven boarding houses and hotel rooms—each nicer than the last. Only having to maintain a few rooms played into Cleveland’s bachelor lifestyle, and also allowed him to continue to support his family. In fact, he supported his mother the entire time he lived in Buffalo. She died in 1882—Cleveland’s year as Buffalo mayor and his last year in Buffalo before moving on to Albany as New York’s governor.

Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon Collection

In 1873, Cleveland lived in the Weed Block building at the corner of Main and Swan. The following year, his law office also moved into the Weed Block. For most of the 1870s, the future president lived and worked in the building that would be torn down in 1901.

Cleveland’s office in the Weed Block.

Cleveland was known as a gentleman with a quiet dignity and integrity about him. That’s perhaps proven in the fact that the only two out-of-character stories about him during his time in Buffalo became campaign issues through the years.

For one, there was the time he slugged a guy.

History has forgotten the political argument which lead up to the fisticuffs, but when Mike Falvey—a politically active furniture maker—called Cleveland a liar as they walked along Washington Street, the future president struck the tradesman with such force that Falvey wound up in the gutter on Seneca Street. The ensuing melee took the two up Washington Street from Seneca to Swan before it was broken up.

The story first written more than a century ago says the two men brushed off and made amends at nearby Gillick’s Tavern. In 1873, there was no tavern with a name anywhere close to Gillick’s anywhere close to Seneca and Washington. Only a few steps from that intersection, however, stood the building of Gillig & Sons Wine & Spirit merchants.

Cleveland’s fist and the make-up cocktails were both served on the block of Washington Street now occupied by Coca-Cola Field, very close to where the statue of Mayor James D. Griffin now stands.

The fight story made minor waves, but the story of a child out of wedlock and an institutionalized mistress almost cost Cleveland the presidency.

Maria Halpin was a young, beautiful widow in Buffalo in the 1870s. While each side had a different version of events on what exactly led up to it, the fact is that Halpin gave birth to a baby boy with the last name Cleveland. She was then placed in the care of the Providence Lunatic Asylum at Flint Hill in the northern countryside of the City of Buffalo.

Providence Lunatic Asylum

Halpin claimed she was vigorously pursued by Cleveland and after her baby was taken from her, she was forcibly institutionalized to keep her quiet.

Others claimed that the baby’s first name might offer a clue to his actual father. Oscar Folsom Cleveland was named after one of Cleveland’s law partners (and was the father of the woman Cleveland would marry in a White House ceremony). It was said that as a bachelor, Cleveland took responsibility for the child to help the married Folsom avoid scandal. That camp also claimed that Halpin did in fact need mental health treatment.

Her testimony was refuted by a contract which showed that in exchange for $500, she would put the baby up for adoption and never bother Cleveland again.

Whatever the truth, the chant among those opposing Cleveland’s first presidential bid was “Ma Ma, where’s my Pa?” The thought of a philandering president—especially one who sends his mistress to a place called “The Providence Lunatic Asylum” was too much for many to bear.

The Providence Lunatic Asylum—at least the bones of it, still stand in Buffalo to this day, although it has been enveloped by a hospital with a slightly less provocative name. The Sisters of Charity opened the place in 1848 near the corner of Main and Steele Streets. Eventually, the sisters merged the work they were doing at other hospitals into the single campus at what was by then Main Street and Humboldt Parkway. The guts of the Providence Lunatic Asylum still lie within what has been Sisters of Charity Hospital for more than a century.

The Providence Lunatic Asylum is now Sisters Hospital.

Despite the scandal, Cleveland won the White House—but the fact that so many Buffalonians were ready to offer assistance in telling the story was said to have left President Cleveland with a slightly sour taste for many in Buffalo.

He only visited Buffalo once after leaving the presidency. In 1903, Cleveland spent not-quite-a-full-day in Buffalo for the funeral of his former law partner and his second-term postmaster general, Wilson Bissell.

Cleveland stayed holed up in the home of John Milburn, which was infamous as the place where two years earlier, William McKinley died. Milburn’s home was near the corner of Delaware Avenue and West Ferry. It was razed in the mid-1950s for a parking lot for Canisius High School.

The much beloved former president didn’t have much to say to reporters in Buffalo that day, only briefly reflecting on the life of his friend and partner Bissell. However, a photo of Cleveland (left) was snapped on the front lawn of his late friend’s home as he waited to call on Mrs. Bissell.

Buffalo Stories archives/Steve Cichon Collection

The Bissell home was on Delaware Avenue, and the site is now the home of the Catholic Academy of West Buffalo.

The shadows of Grover Cleveland’s Buffalo are still among us, but it’s not quite as easy as making up a story about whether one of Buffalo’s favorite adopted sons ate, drank, slept or hunted in a particular spot.