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Out of the Past: Seth Abbott

The following is a guest column by Edwin Beck. Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker’s column will return next week.

Each day, there are nearly 600 veterans of World War II who pass on to their rewards. On one recent June day in Maine, a son of Hamburg, Seth Abbott, followed other WWII servicemen into our nation’s past. As an attorney with a stunning reputation among colleagues and clients and with bipartisan support of local voters, this Republican’s career was not only about the law but was about a devotion to public service – he was repeatedly elected to serve on the bench and also chosen as a public leader. He performed the duties of justice on New York State’s Supreme Court, both the Hamburg town and village courts; as administrative judge for the NYS Comptroller; and as Hamburg Town Supervisor. Growing up, Seth attended the red-brick Armor School, graduated from Hamburg High School at age 16; four years later graduated from Brown University and, after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, returned to his education and graduated from Harvard Law School.

He was born in 1921, when Hamburg’s population was not yet 7,000 residents, and as Tom Brokaw tells readers in “The Greatest Generation,” these were “auspicious” times “for a young person to enter the world ... The U.S. population had topped 106 million people, and the landscape was changing rapidly, from agrarian to urban, even though one in three Americans still lived on a farm.” Abbott was one of those Americans living on a working farm with his family, with the sign still reading “Locust Hill Farm.” His home was on Abbott Road, just a bit north of Armor. The little community, originally named for his forebearers as “Abbott’s Corners,” was Hamburg’s major settlement during the mid 1800s; the hamlet was clearly in the Abbott family’s blood.

During retirement, Seth became an accomplished amateur genealogist, exploring the facts of his own gene pool: That the first Hamburg Town Supervisor (in 1812) was an earlier Seth Abbott; that his son (Harry Abbott) was the town’s first postmaster and opened Armor’s first store. He would have known that the same early Seth Abbott opened a tavern in 1820 on the site of the present Armor Tap Room; that his other son (Chauncey Abbott) would take over the business and rebuild it as a stunning brick landmark of the day.

Well before genealogy, there was Abbott’s career. While still a rather young man, he was a member of the old “Erie County Board of Supervisors.” In those simpler times, there was no Erie County Legislature, as there is today. All the town supervisors – Seth Abbott was Hamburg’s – would meet in Buffalo to decide on issues affecting the county. The Supervisors’ Board of the late 1960s was largely dominated by a single issue – whether or not to build a domed football stadium, and to what extent to do so with taxpayers’ dollars. Differences arose – especially over two distinct sites – which grew into a level of heated divisiveness that would lead to health problems for some and help to end political careers for others. Seth Abbott led those supervisors, convinced that Buffalo needed a downtown stadium – with a dome that would shelter Bills fans and Bills players from our famous winters. Opponents to Abbott’s vision wanted the county’s stadium built in the town of Lancaster’s far-off eastern end. The Bills’ owner, the late Ralph Wilson, claimed his love for Buffalo and keeping the team here, but at the same time, was making no secret of the fact that he was talking to movers-and-shakers in Seattle about relocating his team to Washington state.

Seth Abbott and his pro-city cohorts claimed that the downtown Buffalo “crossroads site” – in the vicinity we are now calling “Canalside” – would unite the city and the suburbs, offer a central location for the fans and pump loads of opportunity into the economy of the Buffalo region. Even then, retailers were getting scarce in the downtown streets, with the thinking that something significant had to be done to reverse the city’s downward trend and mitigate against ominous predictions on a darkening horizon.

As it turned out, neither vision prevailed, and in 1973, the Bills and the county’s taxpayers received their stadium in Orchard Park, out in the open, with no dome. Somewhat ironically back in 1968, the supervisors had approved a bond for $60 million, perhaps with a shared optimism and inspired by a dream that pro-football could become Erie County’s “cash cow.” However, by 1971, after months and years of arguing, delays, union problems and lawsuits threatened against the county, the price tag for any stadium had reached $72 million – far exceeding the original bond – and assigning the dome stadium to the shredder. Thirteen years later, the issue was still lighting up the media when, after years in the courts, a jury awarded the businessman Edward Cottrell some $53 million for lost profits. His firm had worked with the county on the domed-stadium project between 1969 and when the project gasped its final breath. Cottrell’s original claim was for $619.3 million. Fortunately, the jurors saw his lawsuit a bit differently.

Abbott and others would eventually leave the old Board of Supervisors, some by choice, others by the election process and some through indictments and trials. Abbott’s vision of a crossroads stadium would surely have saved Buffalo from declining as it did throughout the rest of the century, losing so many businesses and jobs and talent. Today, the Crossroads Site – some 40-plus years later – bustles with Seth Abbott’s vision for Buffalo’s health and renewal.

Seth Abbott retired permanently to the family’s summer place in Maine with his wife, the former Lois Creighton – also from Hamburg.

Shortly before leaving for their new home, Seth changed his lifelong party affiliation and became a Democrat.


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