To date, the state of Pennsylvania has only produced a single president. The 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan was originally from Cove Gap, in southcentral Pennsylvania just north of the Maryland border. But he settled in Lancaster which then served as the state capital. Wheatland was his longtime estate. Today it is a historic site worth visiting, less than two miles from the city center.
Historians would likely tell you that the one-term Buchanan is considered to be one of the worst presidents in US history. This is largely due to his failure to keep the country united. Seven states seceded from the Union under his leadership and shortly thereafter an all-out war broke out once Abraham Lincoln took office.
Regardless of your politics, Wheatland is a fascinating visit. Here you can learn the backstory and get an education on a man that, frankly, most average Americans known little of.
The Buchanan Family
Despite being a lifelong bachelor, Buchanan did not reside alone at Wheatland. With him came his two wards — niece Harriet Lane and nephew James Buchanan Henry — and a housekeeper, Esther Parker. There were also other domestic servants in the home.
Lane is an important part of Buchanan’s story and American history. She accompanied him to London when he served as ambassador. There she became good friends with Queen Victoria. When she returned Stateside and her uncle became president, she again accompanied him. She filled the role of First Lady and was very popular with the country. Lane’s clothing choices set styles, such as when she lowered the neckline of a dress.
While President Buchanan was the most famous inhabitant of Wheatland, he isn’t the original owner. The home was built in 1828 by a local lawyer named William Jenkins. It changed hands in 1841 and then again seven years later when Buchanan purchased it.
Today, politicians go out and actively campaign for office. Things were done a little differently in the 19th century. Buchanan himself remained at home while delegates essentially campaigned for him. Wheatland was a campaign headquarters of sorts that saw much traffic from those supporting Buchanan’s campaign.
The brick Federal-style home had all of the bells and whistles you would expect from a wealthy owner. Buchanan made sure the house was of the latest style. This included having door frames redone to appear as though they were oak. The technique, which is achieved using a feather, was very stylish at the time.
Today the interior of the home is a mixture of old and new. Some of the wallpapers and furniture are replacements and reproductions. But other things are original. The dining room table goes back to the home’s original owner; all of the Venetian blinds are, amazingly, original; several of Buchanan’s sets of French fine China, in a then expensive and trendy pink hue, are preserved as well.
The home also features one of the region’s first indoor bathrooms. Apparently following Buchanan’s death, Lane had it installed. It features a shower and a galvanized steel tub.
Tours of Wheatland
Tours of his home with a guide. Visitors simply need to reserve tickets ahead of time. The roughly one hour tour shows off a portion of the stately home. The guide for the tour I took, Stephanie, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Tours can be scheduled via LancasterHistory.org. The organization maintains and preserves Wheatland as well as the history of the area. Inside the visitor center there is a film on Buchanan as well as a small museum with rotating exhibits.
Parking at Wheatland is free and relatively ample.
Thank you to Discover Lancaster for providing complimentary passes for Wheatland. All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own.