It started with a all of wool, a mass of once-white yarn with slightly rusted knitting needles stuck through the strands, wrapped in blue paper. I pulled it out of the old trunk that had survived moves and cartings from one house to another. It had been my grandmother's trunk, a Saratoga, so called, with an unusual rounded top and trays inside filled with a collections of oddments that were part of her life from 1850 to 1905.
Suddenly, I was no longer an octogenarian, but a child of eight, and the year was 1901, back in the old house on Norwood Avenue. I was listening to my mother and grandmother making plans to open the two parlors, usually kept sacrosanct for special tea guests…my reluctant piano practicing. Now the rooms would become temporary bedrooms for strangers from out of town, visitors to the Pan American Exposition. The city fathers had asked householders to open their homes for the influx of thousands of tourists. The two hotels, the Iroquois and Lafayette, could not accommodate them all1. And what home owner could resist the fee of one dollar a person a night?
So strangers deposited their bags, were gone for the day and returned at night, exhausted. Some stayed only a day, some two or three, to be replaced by others who went through the same strange performance, but always were enthusiastic about the sights, sounds and experiences that left them weary but exhilarated.
Finally, I begged to be allowed to visit the magic spot that lured them, excited them and exhausted them. Even my parents were curious. So, leaving Grandma in charge of the house and the door-bell, and engrossed in her beloved knitting, and armed with a lunch box and an umbrella, we walked to the trolley stop. To my delight, it was an open car, the long seats extending from side to side. Gleefully, I claimed the end seat, clutching the guard pole with one hand, in the other the five-cent fare for each parent and the three pennies for my fare to be paid to the conductor who navigated the narrow step along the outside and collected fares between stops.
It was a three-quarter hour ride on the trolley to the site of the Pan-American Exposition, and a wondrous site awaited us. Broad avenues led to large white buildings - fountains and flowers everywhere - and in the center was the beautiful lake, now known as Delaware Park Lake, formed by damming the Scajaquada Creek. The buildings, all white2, sparkled in the sun (we never did use the umbrella). One of the few stone buildings, an exquisite marble one, now housing the Historical Society, still stands at the side of the lake as a reminder of that summer -- all the other buildings were demolished like houses of cards at the end of the season.
We walked up endless steps, peers at endless exhibits, strolled the midway, and gaped at the splendor around us. Loth to leave, we waited until dusk, when through the new miracle of electricity, thousands of lights went on, and bands played in every section. The place was transformed into a panorama of light and sound in which the people seemed incongruous intruders -- the women in their long dresses, hats set high on pompadours, the men in bowler hats and dark suits, unlikely denizens of a glittering fairyland.
I don’t remember the ride home, except that we arrived there as had all the others -- exhausted but happy and thrilled.
That happiness was short-lived. The next evening, Grandma was knitting from this very ball of wool, as I was trying to describe the wonders I had seen at the Fair, when we heard cries of newsboys, going by on their bicycles, shouting, "Extra! Extra! President shot!…Extra! …Read all about it!"
So we learned the sad news. On that afternoon (Sept 6), during a public reception, President McKinley had been shot at close range by the anarchist Czolgosz. I remember my family's sad reaction, my grandmother crying. She rolled up her knitting and said, "I won't work on this again until he recovers."
For days, the Milburn house on Delaware Avenue, McKinley lay very ill while doctors worked desperately to save his life. Tan bark was spready over the street to deaden the sound of horses' hooves, citizens were asked to pass quietly, bulletins were issued constantly, and a nation prayed.
On September 14 the beloved President died, and on September 15 Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President on the porch3 of the Wilcox mansion on Delaware Avenue.
Eighty-one years ago. It seems like yesterday.
I wrapped the ball of wool and its
memories in the blue paper, and put it back in the trunk and closed the
1There were in 1901 many more hotels in Buffalo than these two, not counting the ones constructed for the Exposition (such as Ellsworth Statler's 2,100 room 'temporary' hotel put up on Elmwood Avenue adjacent to the Exposition grounds.) She is nonetheless accurate that Exposition planners appealed to all citizens to open their homes to visitors. This article is the only first-hand account I have found describing what it was like for homeowners to "take in" strangers at this time.
2Her memory seems focused on the area surrounding Delaware Park where the unfinished Albright Art Gallery and the New York State Building gleamed in their new marble whiteness. Except for the Electric Tower, all of the Exposition buildings were in pastel colors as part of the plan of the "Rainbow City".
3A minor detail, but Roosevelt was sworn in as President in the parlor of the Wilcox home. It is today on view at the National Historic Site (aka "The Wilcox Mansion"), preserved as it was on the day of the ceremony.