By SALLY JARZAB
Published May 17, 2023
Standing proudly in its own small pasture near Alumni Arena and the Center for the Arts, UB’s bronze bison often takes a starring role in photos documenting campus tours, big games and, of course, graduations.
The beloved behemoth is heading into its 27th commencement season here on campus, but its history goes back much further, with ties to the city of Buffalo’s old Central Terminal and the sculpted bison — or buffalo, as it was commonly (but erroneously) called — that once graced the station’s concourse.
The New York City display firm of Messmore & Damon is said to have created that figure in the 1940s from a composite of clay and papier mâché with a bronze-like finish. It served as a touchpoint for visitors to the huge building, who would often arrange to “meet up at the buffalo.”
Decades later, when the Central Terminal was shuttered and its fixtures removed, the statue became damaged beyond repair. In 1992, in response to rumored plans for the revival of the terminal, Francis B. Messmore, son of the sculptor, notified city officials that he still had fiberglass pieces made from the original mold — should a duplicate statue be wanted for the restoration.
While that never happened, other plans were advancing. UB administrators wanted to create a marker of institutional pride and identity for the North Campus, as they wrote in a memo in 1996, to serve as “the preferred spot for pictures with family and friends,” something for “people to remember and identify with long after their years at UB.”
With Penn State’s Nittany lion shrine and UCLA’s giant bruin statue in mind, Ronald H. Stein, a UB alumnus and then-vice president for advancement and development, pushed for something big and bold, a larger-than-life mascot. He reached out to Messmore and arranged for a bison statue to be cast in bronze using a mold made from that fiberglass reproduction of the Central Terminal buffalo — an approach both thrifty and meaningful.
Funded largely through donations, the finished product measured 8 feet long, 65 inches high and 33 inches at its widest part, and weighed roughly half a ton. It was installed at Coventry Loop in 1996 upon a raised concrete platform with stairs and a ramp. Soon after, stone and floral berms were added to display the interlocking UB, aligned with the bison’s nose as the center point.
Concurrent with the university’s 150th anniversary celebration, the bison was dedicated, according to a program booklet, to “bring enduring symbolic focus and unifying spirit to the thousands of students, faculty, alumni, neighbors and friends who make up the University at Buffalo community.”
Though it predated the powers of Instagram and TikTok, a 1996 project proposal hit the bullseye when it predicted that “the image of the bronze buffalo would be broadcast around the world … creating an immediate and warm bond of recognition between the university and its extended family.”
Indeed, UB’s bronze bison has been the focus of countless photos by new students as they make their way into the university and by graduating students as they mark their way out. Before and after commencement ceremonies, a line often forms, with people eager to get their shot.
Last year, a True Blue photo spot sign was installed, complete with a smartphone holder and a hashtag, allowing people to snap a picture hands-free and share their perfect shot with the #UBTrueBlue community worldwide.
Editor's note: Special thanks to University Archives, which helped source the materials and images for this story.
A quick note on buffalo vs bison: "Though "bison" might be considered more scientifically correct, "buffalo" is also considered correct as a result of standard usage in American English, and is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison."