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Monday, February 20, 2012


ON PRESIDENT’S DAY--So, there we were driving on a recent summer vacation thru the heart land of Pennsylvania with “my” heart set on visiting, Gettysburg, Fallingwater, Pittsburgh and the Hershey Chocolate Factory.

However, just outside of Lancaster, I’m asked to pull over to take a quick looksee at “Wheatland,” the home of James Buchanan, our 15th President. Well, the peek happily lasted for hours.

Catherine, our amazing vintage tourguide, who was dressed in mid-19th century haute couture, greeted us at the front house of our nation’s only bachelor chief executive. At a leisurely, pace she unveiled the reason why the Prez never married. Buchanan’s lost love epic is a tearjerker tale right out of true romance novels and one that makes Romeo & Juliet come off as a comedy. You’re going to have to Google this on your own. A good place to start, however, is going to American Heritage Magazine’s website and find the 1955 article “The Lost Love of a Bachelor President.”

The Presidential grounds, on the other hand, are a showcase of how upper middleclass America lived in the Antebellum North. The tour and the bookstore were well worth the visit. We’ve come away with a new appreciation of Federalist architecture and
I’ll never take indoor plumbing for granted again.

The home’s decor is sophisticated and fitting for a President. Our guide Catherine, furnishings, interior architecture, table settings and portraits from Queen Victoria all combined to make the visit memorable.

Also, we learned how the term “first lady” came into use. Up until then, Presidents’ wives were simply called Mrs. Adams, etc. But because Buchanan was unmarried, his niece Harriet Lane eagerly became the “first, first lady” of the country, a role she relished. The term stuck.

You’ll note we chose to wander through the President’s home instead of his complicated one-term in office. But for a good primer on the politics of the era go to the White House’s bio of Buchanan:

Later, in Gettysburg, another tour guide, offered what he readily admitted was Civil War gossip involving Buchanan. The unconfirmed story points out just before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863) President Buchanan was rumored to be a target of marauding Confederate army brigades advancing toward Harrisburg, the state Capitol. The alleged goal was to kidnap the ex-President and hold him for ransom. The rebels wanted to cause havoc in the North in order for England and France to recognize the south as a legitimate (nation) cause, plus they needed the cash.

The kidnap plot didn’t materialize mainly because Union militias prior to Gettysburg burned the only bridge over the Susquehanna River making a crossing of the mile wide river too much trouble. Confederate General John Brown Gordon did try to put out the bridge fire but to no avail. His men were called back to Gettysburg and the South never made it to visit James Buchanan or Harrisburg or the North ever again.

Much has been made recently that our nation's only single president was perhaps gay. Good for him if he was, but I think he was more likely refreshingly honest when it came to his romantic side. Having lost his one true love, my call is he was constantly searching but never found another woman, whom he could devote himself to as a husband. He was quite the ballroom dancer and party-goer, especially as an Ambassador and there never seemed to be a shortage of companionship at all the various affairs of state that a President attends. My opinion matches Those of the tour guides at the Buchanan museum: he simply never found another soul mate to the woman he lost.

The James Buchanan House, Wheatland, located at 1120 Marietta Ave., Lancaster, PA, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Wheatland is open April - Oct, Mon thru Sat from 10 am to 4:30 pm, and Nov- Dec, Fri and Sat from 10 am to 4:30pm. From Jan to March, weekday tours are available by appointment. The site is closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years Eve. Tours generally begin every 30 minutes. The first tour begins at 10 am (noon on Sun) and the last tour begins at 3:30 pm. An admission fee is charged. For more information visit the Wheatland website www. or call 717-392-8721.

Images by Phyllis Shess: Clockwise from upper right: Parlor of President Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, PA. On the wall are portraits of Queen Victoria and Consort Albert, which were gifted to President Buchanan by the royal family; Tour guide Catherine is wearing mid-1850s attire and Exterior of Wheatland is an example of federalist architecture in brick.

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