Recollections in 1905 of James Buchanan
By Joan C. McCulloh
In 1905 several articles and letters about James Buchanan were printed in the Mercersburg Journal. We will print them with one exception in their entireties; we will not add, subtract, or change anything in the articles. We think that you may enjoy reading what some old gentlemen in 1905 who remembered Buchanan wrote about him. At the end we will include an excerpt from a speech that Judge Rush Gillan of Franklin County gave at a Pennsylvania Bar Association meeting at Bedford Springs on June 29, 1905.
In the May 5, 1905, issue of the Journal the following unsigned article appeared:
OLDEST CITIZEN SAW BUCHANAN DRINK “LIQUOR”
“William Brewer McCune, father of A. R. McCune of this place, who has been making his home with his son John in Hagerstown for several years, has returned to Mercersburg to spend awhile with his son here. Mr. McCune claims to be the oldest resident of the town, being in his 89th year, coming here when but 2 years of age. He is enjoying good health and is very active for a man of his years.
“During the Buchanan campaign Mr. McCune was located at the Gap [Foltz] manufacturing plows and tells of Mr. Buchanan making a visit to his home place and stopping at the yard of the residence of David Unger, where he was soon surrounded by the people of the village and a speech was called for. A large pitcher of 15-year-old “liquor” was brought out and Mr. Buchanan poured out a large glass full, about half pint, and drank it down. He then made his speech and followed with another well filled glass. A number of the crowd then followed the example set by the candidate for the presidency of the United States and partook freely from the large glass and some became very enthusiastic for the man of their choice who afterwards was elected to the Presidency.”
The unsigned article that follows was printed in the Journal in June 2, 1905, issue:
THE BUCHANAN HOUSE
“Since one of our readers made inquiry about the Buchanan house which had been brought from Buchanan’s birth place in the gap above Foltz to Mercersburg many years ago, we have been making some investigation about it and we think we are safe in saying it is the house next to the alley on South Fayette Street, the second house from the alley being the school house in which Buchanan attended school in the country and which was also brought to town, but we have been unable to fix a date as to the time they were brought here. Why anyone should report the house was placed on Main Street we cannot understand.
“Here is a bit of reminiscence by W. A. McAllister which proves that the house we refer to is the one in which Buchanan was born.
“About two years before the Buchanan campaign Mr. McAllister was a boy of 12 or 14 years of age and frequently did work for his uncle, Col. John Murphy, who then kept the tavern on the square, now the Manson. Buchanan with three of his colleagues, on their way to Bedford Springs, stopped at the hotel and young McAllister was appointed to drive Mr. Buchanan to Africa, a colored settlement about two miles from town, out near the mountains, where Mr. B. wished to visit Aunt Millie, who had been a servant in their family. Upon returning the driver was tipped with a gold dollar, which made the recipient feel as if there might some day be a president whose name would begin with Mc.
“Mr. Buchanan upon alighting from the carriage addressed his companions who were sitting on the bench in front of the house and said, ‘Now, gentlemen, I’ll show you the house in which I was born,’ and took the three men up Main Street and down the alley to the house on Fayette Street, now occupied by Mr. Mary Stoner, and which is an old style log house, chunked and daubed with dovetail corners. The downstairs is divided into one room and a kitchen and the upstairs is all in one. The joists are hewn logs 6 x 7 inches and placed about 2 1/2 feet apart. In the door is a sash containing 4 8 x 10 window glass, which was considered very extravagant in those days. Between this house and the one next to it is a space of 8 or10 feet which has been built in with brick, through which a door enters, but did not belong to either house originally. It is very evident that the second house from the alley is the school house.
Of course, we have not been able to find anyone who assisted in bringing these houses to town, but grandparents and parents of persons now living have handed down the information which goes to make history and establish the act that we really have in our town the house in which President Buchanan was born and the school house in which he was taught the three Rs, Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic.”
The following signed response to the first unsigned article was printed in the Journal in the July 7, 1905, issue:
Dear Sir: For sometime back the Journal has had a good bit to say about former President Buchanan. There was one item that I think should be noticed and I have been waiting for someone to answer it, but it seems no one has undertaken it. I will try and do so. I refer to Mr. W. B. McCune’s statement about seeing Mr. Buchanan drink liquor in public. This article was generally copied by your exchanges and would leave a great many people under a false impression as to his habits. I don’t think that Mr. McCune intended to cast a slur on him, but I think he let his imagination get away with him.
“I don’t know that he would not take a drink at all but anyone that remembers him knows that he was a very dignified old gentleman, one of the old school kind, and had been greatly honored before he was nominated for president.
“From what I can remember of Mr. Unger he would not have any of the rough element loafing around his distillery, but there were not the Government restrictions surrounding the manufacturing of liquor then that there is now. For that reason there would be a crowd of men gather.
“Not likely a man that had been nominated for the highest office in the gift of any people on the earth would drink a half pint of liquor in their presence and follow it with another after he had made a speech. I don’t think that he made a speech at all. I know that he did not make one when he came to Mercersburg (it may have been on account of the two big drinks he took at the Gap) when he would not talk for the gratification of such staunch Democrats as Squire McKinstry, whose guest he had been on a former visit, the Boyds, the Brewers, Murphy [sic], North, Shannon, Louderbaugh, and a score of others, and beside the friends he had in the opposite party. It does not seem reasonable that he would make a speech at a country distillery.
“And as to the large pitcher of 15 year old liquor, that is bosh. Mr. Unger had been living at the Gap for about three years. Before that he had been in the employ of the Funks at Waynesboro. Liquor to be 15 years old in 1856 would have to be made in 1841, and to hand it around in a large pitcher is rather doubtful. I was not of the same political belief of Mr. Buchanan so this has no political interest to serve. It is only intended to defend an honored and distinguished citizen and a native of my old home.
“In the first issue of the Valley Spirit after Mr. Buchanan’s visit the editor censured the opposite party for urging or permitting the boys to insult him while he was the guest of Mr. Thomas Reynolds in the house where Mr. Fallon lived and is still in the possession of some of the family. They said the boys would go up to the house and shout ‘Ten Cent Jimmie.’ I did not know anything about it until I saw it in the paper. I was about the right age (16) to know all about what the boys were doing especially on an occasion of that kind, for that reason I think it was a false report.
“As for Mr. McAllister’s article I have nothing to say only I think he is mistaken as to the time. Mr. Buchanan was minister to England during Pierce’s administration, therefore he was not in Pennsylvania at that time. I remember the old colored woman very well, Aunt Millie as she was called.
“It was generally believed that Mr. Jacob McCune had bought the Buchanan house at Stony Batter and moved it to town and occupied it as a weaver shop. If that was a fact, it was not the one on the alley as he had his loom in the other end so it is hard to tell if either of them were the original Buchanan house. But as to the one being the house where he went to school that is a myth. He was about 9 years old when he left Mercersburg.
“I do not know who your correspondent is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but I think he is mistaken about Davy Johnston living in the so-called Buchanan house. As long as I knew Davy, he lived in a house on the opposite side of the street and about a half square above and nearly opposite the house where Mr. Robert McCune lived for a long time. Davy has been dead for at least fifteen years. I will have to bring this to a close or some of my old friends will think I am a knocker. J. T. Parker Altoona, Pa “
The Journal during the week of July 21, 1905, printed the following signed letter:
AN INTERESTING LETTER
“Mr. Editor -
I have been interested in reading the articles in the recent issues of your paper concerning the visit of James Buchanan to Mercersburg. My recollection of the date is that it was in 1856 or the year in which he was elevated to the presidency and also that he was the guest of Hon. James O. Carson at least a portion of the time. Like most boys at the age of 10 years in a campaign year I was very much interested in trying to figure out his defeat, for you must know my Dad was an old time whig first and then a Native American [an adherent to a party that opposed immigration and immigrants] and lastly and until his death an uncompromising republican. It is true that the boys did holloa out, ‘there goes ten cent Jimmy,’ but I doubt if they holloaed loud enough for him to hear them especially if such boys as Jim McConnell, the McKinstry or the Crilly boys were near. Of course, Bob Shirts, the Murray boys, Ed and Mort, and the Wolff boys were always ready to defend the other side, and the times we had with camphene fire balls were a caution. The McAfee boys also were on our side and John and Tom and Jim were a host.
“I remember Mr. Buchanan very well and can yet see him passing along the street a very dignified looking old gentleman, he did not look very good to me and the rest of the republican boys, but was idolized by the enemy. I cannot quite now figure out which of the McCune family is meant by W. B. McCune, there was so many of them you could hardly fire a gun off in some parts of town without hitting one; but of all the family the one I remember so well and will never forget is the one, uncle James, I think, who kept the little cake and candy store on Main street. Oh those ginger cakes and cookies, and that never to be forgotten taffy candy, and at Christmas time the toys and the good things that I wanted so badly and so often could not get on account of financial depression, when an old fashioned penny looked bigger than a cart wheel and invariably burned in my pocket about fifteen minutes; but enough of this, I am glad to hear from the old boys; and if Andy McAllister and J. T. Parker will only appear often in the paper it will be read with interest by all the older residents of glorious old Mercersburg. C. A. Hassler Bloomington, ILL July 17, 1905”
Note: The election of 1856 was the first election in which the Republican Party, a new political party, had a candidate for president, John C. Fremont.
In noting James Buchanan’s personal qualities Judge Gillan in his 1905 speech included the following two unrelated anecdotes:
“He [James Buchanan] never, while in public, accepted a gift. On the day on which he was elected President of the United States, Mr. Unger, who then conducted a distillery close to Buchanan’s birth-place made a barrel of very fine wiskey [sic]. He kept it for three years, and then sent it, with his compliments, to the President. Mr. Buchanan accepted it, but shortly afterwards there came to Mr. Unger a package, post-marked Washington containing seventy-five dollars.”
“Mr. Buchanan seems to have had a practical turn of mind and to have been ready even in the small affairs of life to meet any emergency. A story is told of his one day traveling from Pittsburg [sic] eastward in a stage coach. Somewhere between Somerset and Bedford it was observed that the burr had been lost from one of the spindles and the wheel was about to leave the axle. There was no place near where[sic] a burr could be obtained, nor where another stage could be procured. The whole party, the driver as well as the passengers, were very much excited and worried because of the trouble. Mr. Buchanan, looking around, espied a mountain cabin not far distant, and walking to it he asked for an old shoe. The shoe was produced, and from it Mr. Buchanan cut the heel, then cutting a hole in the heel, screwed it on the end of the spindle, and the party traveled safely to Bedford.”
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