A few historic heroines of Western New York

On Thursday,May 4th, Sandy Starks, the interpretive program director at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, discussed “historical heroines of Western New York” at the monthly meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society.

Sandy Starks

Here are a few facts about Forest Lawn Cemetery. It was established in 1849. Its gate was built as a contribution to the Pan American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901. Thirty-three architects bid for the contract to design the gate, which had to accommodate horses and carriages. It provided pedestrian access, as well. Not only that, the gate actually has two rooms and restrooms. The maximum amount that could be spent on the gate was $40,000.  The winning architect was Henry Osgood Holland, whose design was done in the Classical Revival style. It was created to look like a Roman Triumphal Arch.

Sandy Starks said that she started working at Forest Lawn as a tour guide. “The tours were started as a marketing tool” because people believed that the cemetery was full. She provided information about famous people who were buried in the cemetery and noticed that the tour guides were talking a lot about men. She and one other tour guides began compiling information about women. Here are a few of the women, whose stories Sandy shared:

Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913): She was a true pioneer. She was born Jennie Louise Blanchard in Waterloo, New York. As a child, she moved with her family to Buffalo, and, in 1874, she graduated from Buffalo Central High School “She applied to a new program in architecture at Cornell University,” Sandy Starks said. “She was rejected because she was a….”


Apparently, that was against the rules back in 1876. So she went for Plan B. She got a job as an apprentice/draftsman with architect Richard Waite. He and F.W. Caulkins worked together and were well-known architects in Buffalo. Her new employer, Sandy said, was happy to hire Louise because he could payer her less and she could handle all of the “fussy ladies.” 

The Hotel Lafayette in 1914

She married Robert Bethune, a Canadian architect, in 1881. They started their own business, and she became the first independent woman architect in the United States. In 1889, she became the first female fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Most of her designs were of industrial and public buildings. She designed many schools, but, unfortunately, many of the buildings that she designed have been demolished. The building that she is most famous for is the Hotel Lafayette, commissioned for one million dollars and completed in 1904.

Louise and Robert Bethune had one son, Charles William Bethune (1883-1952).

After Louise died at the age of 57, she was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. There was no marker for her grave. In December of 2013, a marker was placed in Forest Lawn Cemetery for the first woman architect, who had designed a “jewel of downtown Buffalo.”

Margaret Saint John (1768-1847): She married young and had twelve children. She and her husband owned and operated a boarding house. During the War of 1812, tragedy struck. One of her sons died of distemper. Her husband Gamaliel and another son, Elijah, died while carrying supplies across the Niagara River. After the Americans burned down the town of Newark in Canada (now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake), the British took their revenge by burning down the village of Buffalo. When Buffalo was evacuated, Margaret did not flee. She begged the British not to burn down her house. Her boarding house, however, was burned to the ground. A British officer is said to have told her that the British left her with “one roof,” which was more than the Americans did for “our widows when they came over.” 

This house, still standing, was one of
four structures to survive the War of 1812.

Margaret supported her ten children by doing needlework. Her house was one of four structures in Buffalo to survive the War of 1812.

Elizabeth Coe Marshall (1834-1892): As a young woman, she was very ill as the result of an accident, and she needed round-the-clock medical care. Because her parents, Millicent and Orastus Holmes Marshall, were wealthy, they were able to hire a nurse to care for her. He had founded a law firm in Buffalo in 1834, which later became known as Phillips Lytle. He founded the Female Academy in Buffalo, which was later known as Buffalo Seminary. 

Sandy said that Elizabeth was very grateful that she had a nurse to help her heal and that she wanted poor people to have the opportunity to have nurses come to their homes if they were to be ill. As a Sunday school teacher, she asked the children to bring in pennies to raise money for nurses for poor people. In 1884, Elizabeth Coe Marshall founded the Visiting Nursing Association of Western New York, with the motto, “Get well, be well, stay well at home.”

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005): She was a pioneer in politics and in education.

She was born in the Bronx with the name Shirley Anita St. Hill to immigrant parents from the Caribbean. She graduated from Girls’ High School in Brooklyn in 1942 and from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married Conrad Chisholm in 1952. Shirley Chisholm went on to continue her education and earned a masters degree in elementary education from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1952.

After running a day care in New York City, Shirley became interested in politics. She was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965 until 1968, when she ran for election to the U.S. House of Representatives in the twelfth district of New York. When she was elected, she was the first black woman to be elected to Congress. She was placed in the House Agricultural Committee, and she worked with Robert Dole to expand the food stamp program. She also was instrumental in forming the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Children, and Infants. She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

In 1972, she ran unsuccessfully for President. She was the first woman to run on a major party ticket for president. Her campaign platform was “unbought and unbossed.”
Her first marriage had ended in divorce in 1977. She married Arthur Hardwick, a former member of the New York State Assembly, who had become a liquor store owner in Buffalo. She moved to Western New York. After he suffered a serious automobile accident, she gave up her career to take care of him. Her retirement from Congress was effective in 1982. Her husband passed away in 1986.

Shirley Chisholm lived in Williamsville, New York, and she returned to teaching. She taught sociology and politics at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and, in 1985, was a visiting professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She gave speeches at many colleges and universities on avoiding polarization and intolerance. She also wrote a book, titled “unbought and unbossed.”

After her death in 2005, she was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. The inscription on her tombstone was “unbought and unbossed.”

3 thoughts on “A few historic heroines of Western New York”

  1. I love hearing about the women who shaped NY, and the lives they led – we're so often caught up in our own worlds that we forget about the stories of those who came before us. Thanks for putting this together, it's really fascinating hearing about their lives – Shirley Chisholm in particular, I had no idea that women had run on a presidential ticket before Hilary Clinton – that said, I'm Australian so I'm not hugely over US politics, but awesome to hear about!

  2. I didn't know that Shirley Chisholm was buried at Forest Lawn, either. I grew up not far from Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which also has a number of famous people buried there. I enjoy visiting historic cemeteries, including Green-wood in Brooklyn and Ft. Hill in Auburn; I most recently visited Mt. Hope in Rochester and Hollywood in Richmond, VA, to get closer to history and to be inspired. And we could use a lot more Shirley Chisholms in these troubled times.

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