Looking Back at Pennsylvania’s Presidential Past

History & Heritage, Magazine Features

Sites in Lancaster and Gettysburg recall chapters in American history, showcasing the presidencies of James Buchanan, Dwight Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln

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Quick—can you name all the U.S. presidents from Pennsylvania?

Actually, before Joe Biden, there was only one—James Buchanan—a rather obscure figure who preceded Abraham Lincoln.

A collector of presidential sites in my travels around the country, I recently found myself in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and made a beeline to Buchanan’s stately red-brick home. In Gettysburg the next day I toured the country retreat of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general who spent getaways and retirement on a farm bordering the famous Civil War battlefield in south-central Pennsylvania.

James Buchanan: The Country’s Only Bachelor President

A visit to President James Buchanan’s Wheatland begins at LancasterHistory, the non-profit history museum and research center that preserves and interprets the home. After checking in at the museum, my experience began in the Buckwalter Theater with the 24-minute film Buchanan’s America: A Nation Divided. It sheds light on issues the 15th president faced during his 1857-61 term in office, most prominently the controversy over slavery that fueled the growing rebellion that led up to the Civil War.

On a guided tour of the Federal- and Greek Revival-style home, visitors learn about the furnishings (many of them original to the house) and personal life of our only bachelor president. His “little family” at Wheatland included his housekeeper, Esther “Miss Hetty” Parker, and his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane, who would take on the role of First Lady, or hostess, at the White House. Harriet inherited the house upon her uncle’s death at the age of 77 in 1868. Buchanan is buried in a simple tomb at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster.

Another resident was James Buchanan “Buck” Henry, an orphaned nephew who served as the president’s private secretary, or chief of staff, for two years in Washington, D.C.

The dining room at President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. (Photo credit: LancasterHistory/Larry Lefever Photography)

The dining room at President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. (Photo credit: LancasterHistory/Larry Lefever Photography)

In Wheatland’s dining room, visitors see the sets of opulent, French-made china, some of which was used in the White House. Buchanan’s grand piano and a magnificent Italian marble fireplace grace the east parlor, where Harriet was married in 1866. Your guide also points out the bell system used for summoning servants and Buchanan’s “hat tub,” a small bathing tub that resembles an upside down hat. Another interesting artifact is Buchanan’s teakwood presidential desk, a gift from India. Few rooms have barriers, allowing visitors to stand in the spaces frequented by the former president. 

Guests also get a look at the two original outbuildings—the privy and smokehouse/icehouse.

Buchanan had acquired the tree-shaded estate in 1848 from a wealthy banker and lawyer who had named it “The Wheatlands” for the wheat fields it overlooked. A successful lawyer himself, Buchanan carved out a distinguished political career that prepared him for becoming president. Besides serving in the U.S. House and Senate, he was appointed minister to Russia by President Andrew Jackson, secretary of state by President James K. Polk and minister to Great Britain by President Franklin Pierce.

LancasterHistory’s museum focuses on the history of Lancaster County but does have a few Buchanan-related items. It is not, however, a presidential museum. For more information about visiting President James Buchanan’s Wheatland, visit lancasterhistory.org.

President Eisenhower’s Rural Retreat in Gettysburg, PA

Eisenhower National Historic Site preserves the Gettysburg farm where President Dwight Eisenhower lived with his wife, Mamie.

Purchased by the Eisenhowers in 1950 after a 30-year military career that took them around the world, the farm is the only home they ever owned. They expected it to be their retirement home. But after Ike was persuaded to be the Republican presidential candidate and got elected by a landslide in 1952, it became a second White House and was visited by such world leaders as Nikita Khruschchev and Winston Churchill. 

President Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farmhouse. (Photo credit: Destination Gettysburg)

President Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farmhouse. (Photo credit: NPS/Mary O”Neill)

 Eisenhower, a Kansas farm boy, first lived in Gettysburg during World War I when he was in charge of the Army’s fledgling tank corps at Camp Colt. He went on to become Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, leading the Allies to victory against Nazi Germany. After his White House years, Ike kept an office at Gettysburg College.

Touring Ike’s Gettysburg Farm

Tours of the farmhouse, looking pretty much as the First Couple left it, are given by National Park Service rangers. The formal living room showcases gifts from heads of state. The glassed-in sun porch, facing fields and trees on the east side of the house, was the Eisenhowers’ favorite room. Here they watched TV, played cards with friends, visited with the grandchildren and ate on TV tray tables. On the porch, Ike also met with distinguished guests and pursued his hobby of oil painting. Of the 260 works he did on the farm, several are displayed throughout the house.

The kitchen, with its linoleum counters and Crosley refrigerator in the pantry, reflects the 1950s style more than any other room in the house. 

A self-guided walk around the grounds reveals the putting green, rose garden and cattle barns. The brick barbecue patio is where Ike grilled steaks from his herd of prize-winning black Angus cattle. 

An exhibit at the skeet range explains Eisenhower’s prowess in the shooting sport. The garage contains golf carts, a presidential limousine, 1965 Buick station wagon and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” that was used to show visitors around the farm. 

WWII Weekend, an annual event at Eisenhower National Historic Site. (Photo credit: Destination Gettsyburg)

WWII Weekend, an annual event at Eisenhower National Historic Site. (Photo credit: NPS/Mary O’Neill)

During the annual WWII Weekend (September 20-22, 2024), park rangers, guest speakers and living history groups bring the stories of war to life through encampments and interactive activities for visitors of all ages.

The roads at Eisenhower National Historic Site were not designed with big buses and RVs in mind. There are tight turns and narrow openings that may present safety hazards. Tour buses need prior approval to enter the site.

Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg also has Abraham Lincoln connections. At Soldiers’ National Cemetery, part of Gettysburg National Military Park, a memorial honors President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The two-minute speech, delivered on November 19, 1863, at the cemetery’s dedication, is inscribed in bronze next to a bust of Lincoln.

Tourists pose with the statue of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Gettysburg. (Photo credit: Destination Gettysburg)

Tourists pose with the statue of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Gettysburg. (Photo credit: Destination Gettysburg)

In downtown Gettysburg, a statue of Lincoln stands outside the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night before delivering his immortal words at the cemetery. Entitled “Return Visit,” it depicts him pointing toward the house and standing with a man in 20th century dress reading a copy of the Gettysburg Address. The three-story Wills House was the home of the prominent lawyer who was in charge of organizing the national cemetery. Visitors can view exhibits on the Civil War and see the bed Lincoln slept in.

At Gettysburg Presbyterian Church, a plaque designates the pew in which Lincoln sat when he attended a patriotic service after the cemetery dedication. The Eisenhowers were members of the church and a plaque marks their pew as well.

For more information on group-friendly places in Pennsylvania, be sure to Subscribe to Leisure Group Travel for FREE

By Randy Mink, Senior Editor

Lead Photo – President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. (Photo credit: LancasterHistory/Larry Lefever Photography)

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