June 29, 2009
Town honors Millard Fillmore
Park, pavilion dedicated to the country’s 13th president
SUMMER HILL — Local residents and a Civil War veterans’ descendants group gathered Saturday to celebrate the life and presidency of Millard Fillmore, the 13th United States president.
Fillmore was born in a log cabin in the town and served as president from 1850 to 1853.
People sat inside and next to a 600-square-foot memorial pavilion, which was erected in June. The Millard Fillmore Pavilion is the centerpiece of a park dedicated to Fillmore that includes several picnic tables and a flower garden.
The steel pavilion was designed by Nucor Corp., a North Carolina-based company with a factory in Auburn.
Florence Lansdowne, historian of Summer Hill, who organized the celebration, said her main goal in recent years has been to create a building so that people can enjoy the park.
She said Nucor Steel proposed to the Cayuga-Owasco Lakes Historical Society to build a Millard Fillmore museum in Moravia, but the society turned it down in the spring of 2008 because it would have been too expensive.
Lansdowne then spoke to Dick Stoyell, the president of the historical society, who suggested that they do something to honor Fillmore in Summer Hill, which is located five miles southeast of Moravia in Cayuga County.
Saturday’s celebration was the first formal celebration to honor Fillmore in Summer Hill, Lansdowne said. People in the town are becoming more appreciative of Fillmore, she said.
Fillmore used to be celebrated in Moravia when the town hosted bathtub races because Fillmore is often said to have been the first president to have a bathtub in the White House.
Fillmore’s wife, Abigail Powers, was born in Moravia, and Fillmore lived at her parents’ house in Moravia after they were married.
“We like to claim him instead of Moravia getting him,” Lansdowne said.
“We’ve always bragged up the fact that Millard Fillmore was born here and not in Moravia,” said Kathy Fick, 61, a Sempronius resident who grew up in Summer Hill and attended the celebration.
Alan Clugston, an Aurora resident, spoke to attendees and answered questions about the former president while pretending to be Cyrus Powers, the nephew of Fillmore’s wife, Abigail Powers.
Clugston said that two of Fillmore’s most recognized accomplishments were authorizing the expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry and signing the Compromise of 1850.
Perry went to Japan in a steam ship and negotiated a trade agreement with the Japanese government, permitting the United States to enter two Japanese harbors. Prior to that, Japanese ports were closed to all but a few Dutch and Chinese traders, according to a summary of the expedition linked to the Web site www.history.navy.mil/index.html.
In addition to obtaining Japanese goods, the treaty allowed the United States to replenish coal and supplies for its commercial fleets at the Japanese ports, according to the summary.
The Compromise of 1850 contained five acts. Four of the acts were “anti-slavery” and one of the acts was “pro-slavery,” Clugston said. It was very controversial when it passed.
The “pro-slavery” aspect of the bill allowed federal marshals to recover slaves who escaped from their owners.
The bill also allowed California to enter the union as a free state and outlawed slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Fillmore was criticized by northerners for not vetoing the Fugitive Slave Law.
“But he felt that the spirit of compromise was too important to do that,” Clugston said.
This compromise with southern slave owners might have pushed back the start of the Civil War by about 11 years, allowing the North to consolidate its manufacturing and improve its communication, and improve its chances of winning the war, Clugston said.
Clugston said Fillmore also passed through Congress a grant allowing the War Department to begin surveying to develop a transcontinental railroad from the East Coast to West Coast. The railroad was not built until after his presidency.
“Millard Fillmore had the vision to start that union,” Clugston said.
Fillmore is often regarded as a poor president, but Clugston said his accomplishments are too widely discarded.
“He wasn’t that bad, and in some cases, he was even pretty good,” Clugston said.
Clugston said Fillmore served at a difficult time when the North and South were extremely divided over the issue of slavery.
“I think the degree to which he’s scorned is too much. I’m not sure that anybody could have done better than he at that point because it was just terrific times,” Clugston said.
Douglas Deuel, an Endicott resident, attended the celebration wearing a Civil War Union soldier uniform along with 15 other members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War’s Binghamton division.
They brought a color guard, a drummer, a bugler and a rifle team.
“It’s time for Millard Fillmore to be given his proper homage,” Deuel said.
Near the park where the celebration was held is Fillmore Glen State Park in Moravia, where there stands a replica of the log cabin where Fillmore was born.
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