James Buchanan and Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt

LancasterHistory volunteers will portray President James Buchanan (right, photographed in 1856 by Meade Brothers Studio) and his friend Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt (seen here in a Matthew Brady portrait from 1857) during Presidents Day virtual tours through LancasterHistory.

LancasterHistory and James Buchanan’s Wheatland may remain closed to visitors because of the pandemic. But the local history organization still has a full schedule of events to offer the public between now and May.

Presentations about Thaddeus Stevens, controversial monuments and Lancaster architecture, along with a Valentine’s Day fundraising gala and a special Presidents Day tour of Wheatland, are among the history organization’s upcoming virtual offerings.

Tour of Wheatland

On Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 15, visitors can not only take a virtual guided tour, via Zoom, of James Buchanan’s home, but can eavesdrop on a conversation between the nation’s 15th president and a close friend from the Roosevelt family, says Patrick Clarke, director of Wheatland.

“We’re going to make it something a little special,” Clarke says. At 10 a.m. and again at 1 p.m., the tour guide will begin by taking those tuning in via Zoom on a tour of the mansion.

“We’re going to go through the first three rooms, and provide an interpretation of Mr. Buchanan and his life and his family here at Wheatland,” Clarke says. “But when we get to the fourth room, which is the president’s private sitting room, we’re going to have a special living-history element ... which will consist of a conversation between the retired president and his good friend from Oyster Bay, New York,” Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt.

“You’ll get to see two of our volunteers portraying Mr. Buchanan and Mrs. Roosevelt in the year 1864,” Clarke says. Their conversation is based on the contents of an 1863 letter Buchanan wrote to Roosevelt, he adds.

The two were close friends, he says, visiting each other’s homes from time to time, and meeting at Bedford Springs, where they both liked to vacation in the summer.

“The topics they’re discussing (during the tour) are very relevant to the year 1864,” he says. “There’s gossip, but there’s also a political discussion.”

Roosevelt, through her marriage to prominent New York attorney James I. Roosevelt, would eventually become the great-aunt of future president Theodore Roosevelt.

“Mrs. Roosevelt ... was extremely aware of what was happening not only in the nation but also worldwide,” Clarke says. “Her father ... had served as the ambassador to Spain for the United States, so she spent a good deal of her life in Spain, rubbing elbows with the queen and king.

“In the course of this little conversation, Buchanan will chat about mutual friends,” Clarke says. “And then, as Buchanan oftentimes did as a retired politician, he will share his perspective on who was responsible for the hastening of the catastrophe of the Southern states’ rebellion” and secession ahead of the Civil War.

And, in Buchanan’s words, Clarke says with a laugh, “it certainly wasn’t him. He takes no responsibility.”

After the tour group hears that conversation, and as it is led virtually through the rest of Wheatland mansion, Clarke says, people “will be able to ask questions in real time, not only of the tour guide ... but of Buchanan and Mrs. Roosevelt” by typing them into a box on their computer screens or other devices.

“That’s one of the nice, interactive features of doing these webinars on Zoom, that folks can ask as many questions as they want,” Clarke says.

The tour is suitable for all ages, he says, and will last about an hour.

Wheatland will offer regular 45-minute virtual tours of the mansion at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays, beginning this week, Clarke adds.

LancasterLove logo

T-shirts with this logo will be part of a gift bag those virtually attending the Valentine's Stay-at-Home gala to raise money for LancasterHistory. 

Annual fundraising gala

The pandemic won’t prevent LancasterHistory supporters from celebrating their 17th annual Valentine’s Day fundraising gala, LancasterHistory Vice President Robin Sarratt says. It will just happen virtually this year, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13.

The Valentine’s Stay-at-Home Gala, which raises money for the organization’s educational programs, will feature an online program, Sarratt says.

“It’s almost like a pep rally, a look back at what we’ve accomplished in this strange year, but also give a little bit of a sneak preview of our upcoming project to take on the Stevens and Smith Historic Site,” she says.

LancasterHistory will soon begin developing as a museum the buildings at the corner of Queen and Vine streets, where U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and his housekeeper, local businesswoman Lydia Hamilton Smith, lived.

“The virtual (gala) program is being filmed in partnership with Aurora Films, and will feature a combination of live interviews, historic photos (and) contemporary images,” Sarratt says.

“We’ll talk about Lancaster County history and why history matters and how it’s in every part of our lives,” Sarratt says. “And then, we’ll try to take a contextual look at the strange experiences of 2020 but how common, in their own ways, they all are.

“We’ve been through pandemics and controversies and challenging presidential elections and similar experiences, historically, and (we’re) just trying to give everyone a little pep talk that we can get through this, too,” Sarratt says.

For those who’ve bought tickets to join the virtual gala, Sarratt says, after the program “we’ll we close it out with kind of a virtual dance party at home, where we’ll go through and look at about a decade’s worth of (gala) events over the years, with a big photo montage and video montage to have a little fun.”

Tickets to the fundraiser start at $50 per person; everyone will get a gift bag containing commemorative long-sleeved T-shirts and Wheatland chocolates from Miesse Candies.

Those donating higher amounts will receive such additional perks as wine, custom wine glasses and charcuterie plates, Sarratt says.

“We started this event 17 years ago, really in an effort to broaden the historical society’s audience and base of support,” says Sarratt, adding it’s the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

“We’re trying to make this as much fun as possible even though we can’t be together,” Sarratt says.

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"Down Along with that Devil's Bones" is a book by Lancaster native Connor Towne O'Neill, who will be part of LancasterHistory's virtual speaker series.

Spring speaker series

LancasterHistory also has begun its annual free spring speaker series — being held virtually this year instead of in the auditorium at the organization’s campus.

“In the past, the in-person lectures always filled up,” Sarratt says. With virtual speakers — who are now more accessible because they don’t have to travel across the country — there’s no limit on attendance.

“It’s a strange benefit to having this new experience and platform of doing these virtually,” she says. “We have members in all 50 states, and we’re experiencing attendance from people who would never be able to come to our lectures (in person) — people from North Carolina and California and somebody just chimed in from Oklahoma to buy tickets.

“We’re recording them all,” Saratt adds, “so it gives the opportunity for anyone who’s not available ... to just watch it at their leisure” from a link on LancasterHistory’s website.

The remaining speakers from now through May are:

• Journalist, author and Lancaster native Connor Towne O’Neill, speaking about his recent book “Down Along with that Devil’s Bones,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18.

The book by O’Neill, a Penn Manor High School graduate who lives in Alabama and teaches at Auburn University, looks at the controversy surrounding Southern monuments to Confederate general and first Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

O’Neill “really examines this issue of monuments and legacy and systemic racism,” Sarratt says. “It’s a topic we’re all looking at right now.”

Tog LancasterHistory Thad book F5.jpg

The new biography "Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice," by Bruce Levine, will be released March 2. Levine is one of the speakers in LancasterHistory's virtual spring series.

 — Bruce Levine, author of a new biography on Lancaster’s 19th-century congressman, “Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice.” His program is at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 18.

Levine is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois who has written five books on the Civil War.

Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, will present “Birthright Citizens” at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 15.

Her 2018 book, “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America,” tells of how Black activists fought for the rights of all citizens through battles in legislatures and courthouses.

— Architect and LNP architecture columnist Gregory J. Scott will present “Lancaster’s Forgotten Architect: James Warner,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 11.

The London-born Warner, 1865-1913, transformed Lancaster’s cityscape by designing such buildings as Lancaster Central Market, the Hamilton Club and old Millersville University library buildings, along with schools, churches and private mansions.

“For these remarkable people from across the country, to address the Lancaster County audience is pretty exciting,” Sarratt adds.

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