James Buchanan

James Buchanan was born in a log cabin in 1791, at Stony Batter, his parents’ frontier trading post at Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. The site is now inside Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park.
The site is still remote and rural, and has a considerable amount of interpretation, describing conditions here at that time, his presidency, and how his family moved to nearby Mercersburg to run a store, when he was six.
When his family left Stony Batter, the property was purchased by a local family, and remained in private hands until 1906, when it was purchased by a trust, executing the last wishes of James Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Rebecca Lane.
Harriet’s parents died when she was 11 years old, and James Buchanan became her guardian. He never married, and when he was in the White House, she served as his first lady, arranging social activities, doing humanitarian work, and guarding his legacy.
Harriet died in 1903, leaving $100,000 to a trust to make two memorials to her beloved uncle. One is a statue in Washington DC, and the other is here, in the form of a pyramid.
A pathway through the trees, flanked with interpretive plaques, leads from a parking area to the structure. Buchanan was an active Freemason, a Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, which perhaps explains the pyramid shape.
The construction of the 31 foot-tall pyramid involved 35 men, and required building a small railroad to move 300 tons of material to the site.
In 1911, after construction was completed by the trust and its assigned architects, the 18.5-acre property was donated to the state, making it the smallest park in Pennsylvania’s state park system.
The pyramid was built on the site of the birthplace log cabin, which, obviously, was not there when the memorial was built. This structure has its own curious traveling tale.
The birthplace cabin was purchased by a local businessman in 1850, before Buchanan became president. He removed it from the site at Stony Batter, and reconstructed it in town, to use as a workshop. It eventually was expanded, and turned into a home that was rented out.
In 1925, the structure, by then in some disrepair, was purchased by another local businessman, who moved it 20 miles to a lot he owned in Chambersburg. A bronze plaque explained its origins, and over the next 30 years it was variously used as a gift shop, Girl Scouts headquarters, antique shop, museum, and Democratic Party headquarters, before it was moved again, leaving an empty lot.
In 1953, it was purchased for $300 by Mercersburg Academy, a prep school in town, and moved to campus, where it remains, for now.
Buchanan had moved to Lancaster to practice law by 1812, and after serving in the army in Baltimore during the War of 1812, he returned to town and moved up the political ladder, from state representative, to Congress. In 1848, he purchased a 22-acre estate in Lancaster, with a large Federal-style house, called Wheatland.
This was his home for the rest of his life.
Buchanan was mostly absent from 1857 to 1861, when he served as president, but he left Washington quickly to come back to Wheatland, greeting the next president, Abraham Lincoln, on his way out.
He remained there in retirement, while the Civil War raged. He died in 1868, and is buried in a nearby cemetery.
In 1936, the last private owners of Wheatland passed it on to preservationists groups, and the Lancaster County Historical Society built its headquarters on the site.
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