When we travel, I always consult my Presidents and First Ladies historical site list. You never know how close you may be to a birthplace or home of these men and women so important to American history. While we spent a few days in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for a basketball camp, I was excited to check another of these sites off my list, James Buchanan’s Wheatland.
James Buchanan is ranked as one of America’s worst presidents by historians. He was president during the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War when it was almost impossible to rule over a divided union. He was vastly prepared to be president, having served in Congress, as a foreign minister to both Russia and England, and as secretary of state. However, his diplomatic skills did not translate to the internal crisis that was brewing throughout the 1850s. He didn’t do much to arrest secession and is infamous in history for being the only president who saw the Union shrink during his presidency.
Buchanan was born in western Pennsylvania but spent his adult life in Lancaster. He is the only unmarried president, remaining a lifelong bachelor after his former fianceé passed away. He raised his niece, Harriet, and nephew at Wheatland, which he purchased in 1849. Harriet served as his White House hostess and was known for her wit and charm. Buchanan passed away at Wheatland in 1868 and is buried in a nearby cemetery. Wheatland is now part of the LancasterHistory museum.
LancasterHistory, formerly the Lancaster County Historical Society, is adjacent to Wheatland and provides tickets and docents for your tour of the site. Buy your tickets in advance to assure a spot in the limited guided tours of the property.
Your tour will start in the LancasterHistory museum where you’ll view a 20-minute video about James Buchanan’s life. Note for younger visitors, it does mention the rumors of his sexuality. The movie provides good context as to the coming crisis and how Buchanan is remembered in history as the president who didn’t do anything to avert war.
After the video, the tour will progress to the house, a short walk away. You’ll meet your guide on the steps, and they will escort you through the rooms of the beautiful home, beginning in the foyer with James Buchanan’s bust.
The dining room includes a beautifully set table with Buchanan’s china from the White House.
The sitting room and parlor are both full of original furniture from Buchanan’s time here, including the original desk from his White House office.
The library includes almost all of his original books and interesting artwork, including a very small, tucked away picture of Vice President John C. Breckinridge. They weren’t close and Breckinridge went on to run in the 1860 Presidential election, losing, of course, to Abraham Lincoln.
The tour will go upstairs where there are several bedrooms. The most interesting artifact here is Buchanan’s bathing tub. He suffered from gout and soaked his feet every night. It is quite unusual!
After his death, Harriet made several additions to the home, including a turn-of-the-century bathroom.
The bedroom addition served as Harriet’s room in her later years. Her tale is a sad one, with the death of her husband and children. She established a hospital for invalid children at Johns Hopkins, and her name is still revered in pediatric health circles.
The last room of the tour is actually one of the most fascinating for kids – the kitchen prep room where you can see the dumbwaiter.
After the 45-minute guided tour, don’t miss walking around the grounds to view the ice house and to kids’ delight, the privy!
Buchanan is buried at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, just a short drive away.
If you can’t make it to Wheatland in person, check out the online virtual tour!
While James Buchanan isn’t known as a great president, his life and home is still an interesting part of history. Seeing where someone lived and died can tell you so much about why they did what they did – both the positive or negative decisions. Learning more about Harriet Lane is a bonus of visiting Wheatland. I love hearing more stories about the strong women behind these famous men being told at historical sites, thereby inspiring the next generation of leaders.
- Cost: $15/adults; $11/ages 11-18; free/ages 10 and under
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 45 minutes
- Gift shop located at the adjacent history museum
- Transportation: There is ample parking at the history complex.
- Dining options nearby: Downtown Lancaster is a short drive away and is full of great restaurants. Check out its tourism site for ideas. I really wanted to eat at the Central Market but it was closed when we were visiting. We really enjoyed The Pressroom Restaurant.
- Hotel options nearby: My recommended hotel, especially for history lovers, is the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square which is built around a historic home and is currently undergoing excavations to be included in a new Thaddeus Stevens/underground railroad-related historical site.
- Nearby attractions include: LancasterHistory Museum, Buchanan Park, North Museum of Nature and Science, and Historic Downtown Lancaster
- Other Buchanan sites include: Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park (Ft. Loudon, PA), Birthplace Cabin (Mercersburg, PA), and Memorial at Meridian Hill Park (Washington, DC)
Books to Read:
See my list of Presidential books at my Bookshop.org shop, a website that supports independent bookstores and creators.
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