By Michael Canfield:
South Buffalo has a rich and diverse history, with Buffum Street – and what may be the oldest home in South Buffalo – playing a large part in it.
The history of what is now Buffum Street dates back to the 17th century, when the Senecas took over the land surrounding the street from the Kah – Kwah tribe. The area eventually became known as the Buffalo Creek Indian Reservation, and the corner of Buffum Street and Fields Avenue still holds the remnants of a Native American burial ground, now a memorial park. The burial ground was the original gravesite for two well known Native American figures of the era, Red Jacket and Mary Jemison. The street was also home to a Native American mission school, which was replaced by public school No. 70 in the early twentieth century. The main artifact on the street, however, is the house at 49 Buffum Street, believed to be the oldest home in South Buffalo (see photo).
49 Buffum was built in 1850 by Horace Buffum. Early written accounts of the house, from the Buffums and their grandchildren, describe curious Senecas peeking into the house through the windows. An addition was put on the house in the early 1900’s, and, despite a fire in 2008, most of the original structure remains. The house, however, ended up in housing court after the fire, and almost ended up marked for demolition. Matt Fisher, director of housing at the Caz Resource Center, discovered the house. “The whole thing with it being the oldest house in South Buffalo, and the history piqued an interest in me,” Fisher says. The house was inspected by the city, and found to be structurally sound. Fisher brought in several noted preservationists, trying to spark interest in having them take over the house. While the preservationists believed the house was a good find, there was little interest in taking the home over. “When that wasn’t happening right way,” Fisher says, referring to a preservation group taking over, “the councilmember (Mickey Kearns) said we can make this a great place for the community. That’s when we developed a plan, and approached AmeriCorps about them having affordable housing here (for their program volunteers).” A partnership was formed between the office of South District Councilmember Mickey Kearns (in conjunction with the Caz Resource Center), and AmeriCorps, forming 49 Buffum LLC. 49 Buffum LLC holds the house.
One of the most intriguing, and longstanding rumors surrounding the house is the possibility of the Underground Railroad coming through the home. While no definitive proof exists, there is proof of underground tunnels and secret rooms. “They used the tunnels for storing beer and ale,” Fisher says. “The architect that is doing a lot of the work pro bono, DRF Design, he knows there are some unexplored rooms we haven’t gotten to yet.” The rumors have been around for years, adding to the folklore of the house. “They were talking about it in the early 1900’s,” Fisher points out, referring to a newspaper clip from the 1920’s. “There were rumors that runaway slaves were hidden here.”
While important for the history it preserves, the house is also important to the neighborhood. It’s a sign that people care. “You start seeing stuff like this happening in the community, you start seeing other people painting their porches, trimming their bushes, it kind of spreads in a positive direction,” says Cindy Klukowski, a volunteer on the project and photo-journalist who documents the project. Klukowski lives in the neighborhood, and believes the project is vital. “It’s taking care of the community, so the community takes care of itself,” she says. “It kind of gets other people doing things. It brings pride back to the community.” The neighbors pitch in by watching the house and mowing the lawn. “It’s that type of neighborhood buy in that is really important,” Fisher says, “We want to give them ownership of the project.”
Fisher is excited about the collaborations coming together for the project, which is looking at unique ways to fund the restoration. “It’s not strictly $200,000 of federal money,” Fisher says. “It’s going to be a mixture of sources – we’re bringing in many different partners.” One partnership involves a building program at ECC that re-trains out of work adults to be carpenters. The plan is for those in the program to help re-build the porch that was destroyed in the fire. One group they plan on talking to had its roots in the area long before the house was built. “Part of what we are looking to do is approach the Senecas in the future and ask them if they would like to be a part of this project, to do a learning center where children could walk in and learn about the Native American history,” Fisher says.
The future of the house is bright, including affordable housing for AmeriCorps VISTA’s – recent college grads who work in AmeriCorps programs. Other plans include a way to teach the history of the area. “We’re looking to take much of the historical, 1850’s structure and do a history and heritage center for South Buffalo,” Fisher says. “It looks like we have three full size rooms to showcase the history.” More information can be found on the group’s Facebook page.
Images: Cindy Klukowski