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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: Frances Folsom Cleveland, the youngest first lady

This post is the latest in an occasional series about the men and women who played important roles in Buffalo’s early history.

Buffalo not only produced two American presidents – Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland – but also gave the country its youngest-ever first lady, who was also the first woman to marry in the White House.

Frances Clara Folsom was born in 1864 in Buffalo and was the only child of Emma C. Harmon and Oscar Folsom, who became one of Cleveland’s law partners, according to the White House’s official website. Cleveland, a family friend, bought Folsom, who was nicknamed “Frank,” her first baby carriage.

Cleveland, 27 years Folsom’s senior, went on to become the sheriff of Erie County in 1871, mayor of Buffalo in 1882 and governor of New York in 1883 before ultimately winning the 1884 presidential election and ascending to the White House. He also served as executor of Folsom’s father’s quarter-million-dollar estate upon his death in 1873, according to the National First Ladies’ Library.

Folsom maintained a longstanding correspondence with Cleveland and graduated from Wells College in 1885. She and her mother visited him in the White House that year, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Photo of Frances Folsom Cleveland from the collection of Mark D. Evans. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Cleveland proposed to Folsom by letter just before she was to leave for a trip to Europe. They were married upon her return, in June 1886. She was 21 at the time.

Cleveland was the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. In the interim, the couple moved to New York City and had a baby daughter named Ruth – whom the Curtiss Candy Co. later controversially claimed served as the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar. (Many thought that was a ploy to avoid paying royalties to baseball star Babe Ruth.)

Folsom claimed a few more “firsts.” When Folsom and Cleveland rented a house outside Washington, D.C., they became the first incumbent presidential couple to live outside the White House since its construction. When her daughter, Esther, was born in 1893, she was the first child born to a sitting president. And after Cleveland died in 1908, Folsom married Princeton archaeologist Thomas Preston in 1913, becoming the first presidential widow to remarry, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

When she left the White House for the second time, according to the executive mansion’s official site, she “had become one of the most popular women ever to serve as hostess for the nation.”

The Buffalo You Should Know: Grover Cleveland was here

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