Chautauqua County: A Place Fit for a President

Madison Schroeder, portraying former Westfield resident Grace Bedell, poses with Fritz Klein, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, at the McClurg Museum in Westfield. The 2011 reenactment was part of the National Park Service’s program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of President-elect Lincoln’s inaugural trip to Washington, D.C. (Photo by Niles Dening)

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Timelines, the Chautauqua County Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter. All members of the historical society receive the news letter as part of their annual $20 membership fee. You can sign up for a membership at the homepage of our website, McClurgMuseum.org.

Since its founding in 1811, Chautauqua County has had an impressive history when it comes to U. S. Presidents who’ve paid us a visit. From what we can tell, a total of ten presidents visited various places in Chautauqua County – either while in office or after leaving office. Additionally, four others came to the county prior to becoming commander-in-chief.

One of the primary reasons why our Commander in Chief would come to our county is Chautauqua Institution – which has served as a national and international platform for the sharing of ideas since 1874. In addition, the cities of Jamestown and Dunkirk have also been honored with a visit from sitting presidents. And as many of us know, the most famous visit of them all took place in Westfield.

Millard Fillmore

The first sitting U.S. President to actually visit Chautauqua County was President Millard Fillmore on May 15, 1851. Fillmore was one of more than a dozen prominent officials who arrived in Dunkirk via the New York and Erie Railroad. President Fillmore’s visit was part of a colossal celebration of the completion of the rail-line, which stretched 445.5 miles from New York City to Dunkirk Harbor.  At the time it was the longest line in the world.

Abraham Lincoln is not only considered one of America’s greatest presidents, but also one of the most identifiable, thanks in part to his beard. It’s fascinating to consider, then, that the roots of his iconic facial hair can be traced to Chautauqua County.

On October 15, 1860, 11 year-old Grace Bedell wrote a letter to the Republican presidential candidate, urging him to grow a beard to improve his appearance. Lincoln responded to Grace in a letter, making no promises. However, within a month he grew a full beard, which he wore for most of the remainder of his life.

After winning the election and during his inaugural train ride from Chicago to Washington, President-elect Lincoln made an appearance in Westfield on Feb. 16, 1861. Not only did he address a large crowd that had assembled, but he also made a point to seek out Bedell in order to meet her and give her a kiss on the check.  Today, a statue depicting the meeting is located in the center of the village.

Lincoln’s inauguration train also made stops in Dunkirk and Silver Creek.  And Following President Lincoln’s assassination, his funeral train passed through Chautauqua County on April 27, 1865.

Ulysses S. Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant came to Jamestown and the Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 14 and 15, 1875. Grant arrived in Jamestown on Aug. 14 and had lunch in the home of local merchant Alonzo Kent. Today the home is better known as Robert H. Jackson Center.

Following lunch, President Grant headed to Chautauqua Institution via the 55-foot long steamer Josie Belle. He would be a guest of the Chautauqua Assembly co-funder John Heyl Vincent – who had served as pastor of Grant’s church in Illinois.

A Comprehensive Account of President Ulysses S. Grant’s Visit to Chautauqua County, has been recorded by noted author and former historical society trustee Kathleen Crocker, and can be found at the Jackson Center.

The next presidential visit to Chautauqua Institution wouldn’t take place until Aug. 19, 1892. That’s when Rutherford B. Hayes came to Chautauqua for Grange Day. His appearance took place after he left office.

President Grover Cleveland also spent time on Chautauqua Lake – but he avoided the Institution. The exact date isn’t given, but it’s believed he stayed at Chautauqua Point as part of a fishing trip and its said he was able to reel in the famous musky of Chautauqua Lake.

William Taft

William Taft came to Chautauqua County on several occasions – three times prior to being elected president. His first two visits were at the Institution and his third visit was to Dunkirk and Westfield while campaigning for the presidency. His final visit came while he was in office – speaking in Jamestown on Oct. 26, 1912.

Perhaps no president spent more time in Chautauqua County than Theodore Roosevelt, who came on several occasions while serving as Governor of New York, again as President, and even after leaving office.

Roosevelt’s first appearance in the county was on Nov. 7, 1898 while running for Governor. He spoke in both Jamestown and Lakewood. While campaigning as vice president, Roosevelt made one of his most publicized appearances, coming to Jamestown on Nov. 1, 1900 and speaking to a huge crowd in the city.  In 1905, Roosevelt came to the county as President. It was his fourth and final appearance at Chautauqua and he spoke in the Amphitheater on the subject of the merging American middle class.

President Roosevelt thought highly of the Institution. He is quoted as saying Chautauqua Institution is the most American thing in America.

President Roosevelt at Chautauqua Institution in 1936

Franklin D. Roosevelt also came to the Chautauqua Institution on several occasions prior to becoming commander-in-chief. But his most memorable appearance was as President, when he came to Chautauqua during his reelection campaign on Aug. 14, 1936 and delivered his famous “I Hate War” speech.

Gerald Ford never spent time in Chautauqua County while in office, but he did come to the area before becoming president and again after leaving office. Ford first came Chautauqua Institution on July 30, 1965 when he was then a congressman from Michigan. Nineteen years later, on Aug. 10, 1984, Ford came to the Jamestown airport for a Jill Emery fundraiser. By this time he had already served as president and was no longer in office.

Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and also a candidate for president when he came to Chautauqua County. He and running mate Al Gore appeared at Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 23, 1992. Chautauqua must have proved inspiring for Clinton, He returned while serving as President on Oct. 3, 1996 to prepare for a campaign debate against Republican challenger Bob Dole.

Besides the ten men listed above, four others also appeared in the county prior to being elected President of the United States. They were James Garfield (Chautauqua Institution – Aug. 7, 1880); William McKinley (Chautauqua Institution – Aug. 23, 1895); Herbert Hoover (Jamestown – May 25, 1922); and Richard Nixon (Jamestown – Oct. 11, 1952 and May 31, 1966).

It should be noted that at one point, there was a belief that George Washington himself also set foot in what is today Chautauqua County, when he was serving as a British officer during the French and Indian War. The legend said that he had spent the night at Findley Lake. However, that myth has since been proven incorrect. In fact, the closest Washington ever came to our area was on December 11, 1753 when he arrived at Fort Le Boeuf on French Creek, in what is today Waterford, Pa – an estimated 10 miles away from the southwest corner of our county.

Special thanks to the Fenton Historical Center’s Norman Carlson, Chautauqua historian Jon Schmitz and Hanover historian Vince Martonis for providing information for this article. Additional information was provided by Helen McMahon’s book, “Chautauqua County: A History,” available in most local public libraries.

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