One of Explore Buffalo’s most popular tours is Delaware Avenue Mansions. One of the most interesting aspects of this tour is not only the grand architecture, but the stories of the families who built and lived in these stately homes. Explore Buffalo docent Cheryl McDonald shares some history and anecdotes of Buffalo’s “Elite 54” families from the turn of the 20th Century. The Delaware Mansions tour is given several times a month, and we hope to see you there soon!
At the turn of the century families in New York City clamored to be included in The Four Hundred, a list of high society families led by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. In Buffalo we were a bit more conservative and had The Buffalo 54, which consisted of 54 prominent families such as the Rumseys, Goodyears, and Hamlins. These men who were bankers, lawyers, tanners, shipping magnates, and entrepreneurs made the money, became involved in local, state, and federal politics, built the mansions along Delaware Avenue and often had business dealings with each other. It was their wives, however, who ran the households like a small business (sometimes with as many as 10 servants), determined which charities their husbands supported, whom they socialized with, and even who their children married.
The men were bankers, lawyers, tanners, shipping magnates, and entrepreneurs who made the money… it was their wives, however, who ran the households like a small business.
Between 1880 and 1910, 27 individuals married other members of their social circle, making 50 percent of the families interconnected through marriage. Extensive intermarriage solidified the economic position of each family and ensured the continuation of the family’s wealth and prominence in society.
Explore Buffalo’s Delaware Mansions Tour highlights not only the architecture of the mansions along Delaware Avenue, but peeks inside to reveal who lived there, why they lived there and who was connected through business, marriage, or both. Not all the mansions survived the ages, but the stories of the families are worth telling.
Dexter and Bronson Rumsey were included in the New World Almanac of 1902 as two of the millionaires in Buffalo. The Rumsey family once owned 22 of Buffalo’s 43 square miles, including the land where the Pan-American Exhibition was held, today the site of the Albright-Knox and Buffalo History Museum. They earned their fortune in the tanning business, the process of treating animal hides to produce leather, which was prevalent in the Northeast due to the abundance of hemlock trees that contained a high level of tannic acid used in the process, along with water and livestock.
Patriarch Aaron Rumsey built his brick home at the northwest corner of Delaware and North with a conservatory, something rare and unique in the city. A block away, his son Dexter chose a home that had begun as a simple cottage for seaman Captain Allen, expanded by the Rose brothers who were architectural gardeners, and then expanded further in 1857 by Dexter Rumsey.
After his death, his widow, Susan Fiske Rumsey, expanded it even more. From 1857 until 1945 the Rumsey family, including children and grandchildren, occupied this beautiful yellow brick home. Today the site where the home once stood is the office of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.
There were three Mrs. Dexter Rumsey’s – Mary Coburn, Mary Bissell, and Susan Fiske. Mary Coburn was the mother of Cornelia and Mary Grace, both of whom married Ansley Wilcox. Cornelia died soon after giving birth to their daughter Nina, and three years later little sister Mary Grace became the second Mrs. Ansley Wilcox, giving birth to another daughter, Frances. Dexter’s second marriage produced a son, Clarence, who died before the age of five. In 1889 Dexter married Susan Fiske, 30 years his junior. The couple had a daughter Ruth, and a son Dexter Junior.
Susan Fiske survived Dexter by 45 years, running the household of servants, entertaining dignitaries from around the world as well as authors, actors, and politicians. An early proponent of women’s suffrage, she opened her home to groups furthering the cause. A frequent guest and close friend of Mrs. Rumsey was the late leader of the women’s suffrage movement Carrie Chapman Cott.
The debutant balls for the Rumsey girls, including daughters, granddaughters, and nieces were held at the home followed by the traditional calling of gentlemen. These chaperoned visits would often lead to engagements and then marriages within the year. But Ruth Rumsey took a different path and married a young man not from Delaware Avenue as so many of the young ladies did. To discover who Ruth married, you will need to take the Explore Buffalo Delaware Avenue Mansions tour!
Ancestry.com courtesy of Glen Woodford Balzer
“Men of New York,” Buffalo: Geo. E. Matthews, 1898
You can discover more local architecture and history by joining an Explore Buffalo tour (tickets can be purchased here), signing up for the weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which were suspended until July 2020. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:
- Donating online at explorebuffalo.org/donate
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- Purchasing an annual Explorer Pass at explorebuffalo.org/explorer-pass
Also see Explore Buffalo Building Profiles: