Wednesday, June 30, 2021

History Unfolds with Mercersburg Walking Tour

Mercersburg, in Franklin County, is located 72 miles southwest of Harrisburg, which is about an hour and a half away from where I live, so, for a change of scenery, my husband and I decided to explore the area, which, according to the last census, is home to less than 2,000 people.

Thanks to the The Franklin County Tourism Board, I was able to take a self-guided walking tour and learn more about the houses that dot the town. Here I share photos that I took, along with a brief explanation of the structures provided by the Tourism Board. In some instances, I was able to find additional information on these old places and am including links to relevant articles I discovered at

The first stop on the tour is the McKinstry House named for William McKinstry, a native of Belfast, Ireland, who came to Mercersburg around 1796. McKinstry bought a general store from James Buchannan, Sr. and was also responsible for publishing the town's first newspaper, The Visitar, which was the forerunner of The Mercersburg Journal. His residence and general store (pictured below) was built in 1910. McKinstry represented Franklin County in the Legislature from 1838 until 1840. Fun Fact: Fancy graffiti leading to the attic reads, "Vote for Henry Clay of Tennessee."

The McKinstry House can be seen at 5 N. Main Street.

The second stop on the tour is a home built in 1984 by Judge James Carson, friend of James Buchanan. The brick building replaced two log cabins and the "eyebrow windows" in the attic are typical of the Greek Revival style. This house is also known for having the first bake oven in town.

When I delved into the archives at and searched Judge James Carson, I ran into this interesting clip.

This brick building, built by Judge James Carson, is found at 11 N. Main.

The next step on the tour is the Buchanan Hotel, built in 1796 by James Buchanan, Sr. It was where the future president James Buchanan spent his childhood. It was purchased by James O. Carson and later bought by the McAfee brothers who enlarged it and converted it to a hotel. In 1909, it was sold to C.W. McLaughlin, who named it Hotel Mercer. I uncovered an article written in the Chambersburg Public Opinion in 1932, which announced the 25th anniversary of the business, stating that the hotel opened in 1909 with 300 guests, all of whom were offered a free turkey dinner. You can learn more about the guests of the hotel, along with an interesting tidbit about 185 "intemperate drinkers" who were on the list of those who were forbidden alcohol on the premises.

C.W. McLaughlin's son later named it the James Buchanan Hotel. 

The Buchanan Hotel is located at 17 N. Main St.
The next step on the tour is The Creigh House, named for Thomas Creigh, D.O., who was the fourth Presbyterian minister in Mercersburg and member of the Board of Regents of Marshall College and founder of Wilson College in Chambersburg. It was built in 1792, has nine fireplaces and initially served as a tavern, afterwards serving as a "center for fashion and dancing." I thought it rather peculiar to name a house given to drinking and dancing after a religious man, but I couldn't seem to find any additional information in the archives of various local papers.

The Creigh House at 39 N. Main is named after Thomas Creigh, D.O.

Next on the tour is the home of William Smith, who first laid out the town. He left directions at his death that a "neat and commodious house of middling size" be erected for his wife and daughter Sarah. You can read a little more about William Smith in this small history of the town written in 1985.

This lovely house at 52 N. Main was built for William Smith's wife and daughter.

Up next is a dwelling at 30 N. Main, which was once two houses, one of which was occupied by a hatter. Both were purchased by William Smith, who combined the two as a single residence. The brochure describes the first floor as having a "borning room," which had me stumped. I soon learned that "borning rooms" were reserved for births and were often adjacent to the kitchen for warmth. This rather humble looking house features ornate woodwork adorning the fireplaces and stained glass throughout the first story.
This house at 30 N. Main was once two houses.

The stone house below was built in 1786 and enlarged in 1830 by Joseph Cowan, who operated a carpenter's shop in the backyard, with his stepson Cephus Huston. This is now a summer kitchen. Also on the property is a smokehouse, a horse barn, an outhouse and a well. The basement served as Mercersburg Savings Fund in the 1850's.
This stately house at 26 N. Main was home to the Mercersburg Saving's Fund in the 1850's.

The brick house below was built in the late 1700's, with eight rooms, eight fireplaces and a facade that features keystones above the lintels. At the rear of the property is a horse and cow barn with German siding and a stone foundation, along with a smokehouse.  The house next door shares many of the same attributes.
This structure is located at 22-24 N. Main Street

The next house below belonged to Robert Parker, who, after serving as a Captain Lieutenant in the Second Continental Artillary, was appointed Collector of Excise for Franklin County. He went on to marry William Smith's daughter Sarah. Remember him? Smith was the man who laid out the town. The structure, which now serves as the Fendrick Library was built of native limestone in 1788. The library takes its name from Mrs. Fendrick a local historian and geneologist born in 1862. Leading to the passageway over the alley is a wide plank door with original strap hinges. I can't quite understand what this architectural detail is for, so if someone out there has an idea, feel free to let me know. 
The Fendrick Library is located at 16 N. Main.

Across the street from James Buchanan's boyhood home is the Lane House, which features Georgian architecture. The house was built in 1828 by Thomas Lane, but occupied by Elliott Lane, who married Jane Buchanan, the sister of James Buchanan. Elliott and Jane were the parents of Harriett, who served as hostess at the White House during her uncle's  presidency. (You can read about Harriett in this clipping from the Baltimore Sun, dated December 9, 1906).

The house features hand-carved woodwork and a hallway with a curved ceiling that runs from the front, to the rear and is equipped with 10 fireplace mantels, all with a different design.

The Lane House is located at 14 N. Main.

I crossed the square to end up at the 15th house on the tour called "The Mansion House." Built around 1790, this house was used by Marshall College from 1840-1945. Afterwards, it was operated by Colonel Murphy and according to the Franklin County tourism brochure, it was often crowded with people from near and far. I wondered why and came across this old article published in 1911. Apparently farm auctions were held there. Today it appears to be operating as a bar that may or may not have made it through the ravages of COVID. It's listed as "temporarily closed."

The Mansion House is located at 2-6 S. Main.

We proceeded down S. Market to view the houses across the street, so the tour numbers will no longer be in sequence, but will follow the map provided on the brochure.

This house below is number 30 on the tour and was purchased in 1908 by the Board of Directors of the First National Bank. According to the brochure, the bank opened for business on February 1, 1909, with total assets of $22,232.84, two full-time workers and a night watchman who earned 75 cents a night. It's know as the brownstone building.

The Brownstone Building located at 13 S. Main St.

Not far from the square, we found this statue in homage to Mercersburg's native son and 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan.

James Buchanan, a Mercersburg native, was elected 15th president of the United States.

The stone building, pictured below, dates back to the late 1700's. The shed-roof barn located at the rear of the building was once a livery stable. After the onset of automobiles, it housed the town taxi. The log building to the right has been home to many businesses.
This stone residence dates back to the late 1700's and is located at 35 S. Main.

The house below was built in the Colonial Revival style and was made of California brick. Interesting features include three tile fireplaces: one maroon, one green and one yellow. Built in 1906, it has three pocket doors, oak woodwork and arched cathedral windows on the south side. 

This house, built in the Colonial Revival style is located at 35 S. Main St.

The attractive stone house below is known as Mercersburg's first full-sized stone house. It was built in in 1780 by Dr. William McGaw, a distinguished soldier and surgeon in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he settled in Mercersburg and practiced medicine for 40 years. The house touts walls that are a feet thick and 10 fireplaces, all in working condition.

The first full-sized stone house was built in Mercersburg in 1780 and is located at 43 S. Main St.

The next house, a two-story log home, is now encased with brick and was built around 1787. Prior to 1810, the house had no stairway, the purpose of which was to evade unfriendly Indians. Those interested in reaching the second floor did so by ladders. The house shares a common wall with the stone house next door.

This residence was initially a log house with no stairway prior to 1810. It's located at 49 S. Main St.

The following house was build in the late 1700's. In the 1800's, a man by the name of Captain Dick enlarged it and established a butcher shop with the slaughterhouse at the rear of the lot. When I tried to find more about the old butcher shop, I came up with nothing, other than this interesting cradling competition described in the Mercersburg Journal in 1903.

A butcher shop operated at the rear of the lot at 57 S. Main St.

Next up is a structure that was built between 1820 and 1825 by Harry Spangler, who rented it out before selling it to Frederick Waidlich, who enlarged it. Later, when the sidewalk was being rebuilt, what was known as the "Waidlich well," was discovered and determined to be 40-50-foot deep. This was one of five or six wells that supplied the town with water prior to the installation of the water system in 1912.
A well was discovered at 101 Main Street when the sidewalks were being replaced.

The Borough Hall below was built in just four months in this Colonial Revival style. In the end it cost $4,308.39. In 1909, Council authorized George W. Seylor, for the sum of $375, to erect a wood tower to encase a town clock.
The Borough Hall is located at 113 S. Main St.

The structure below serves as the Mercersburg Post Office and is constructed of locally quarried limestone, with granite steps. At the dedication in 1937, Postmaster General James A. Farley was the principal speaker.

The Mercersburg Post Office is located at 128 S. Main St.

The mansion below contains five commodious porches and five dormer windows in the attic. The house is known as "Rosemont" and stands on the same foundation as the former Presbyterian church. Built by William Smith in 1910, the four-bedroom mansion is in the Classical Revival Style.
Rosemont is located at South Main St. at Linden Ave.

A marker honors Hugh Mercer, for whom the town is named.

Hugh Mercer is recognized with a marker as a Scot, who came to the area in 1749, established a local medical practice and served with distinction as a Colonel of the Pennsylvania Militia during the French and Indian War.

As we returned to our car, we saw this cute log cabin on the square. The structure pictured in the brochure, which was the home of the grandparents of U.S. President William Henry Harrison, burned down and this cabin was found under the charred ruins. It now operates as a consignment shop.

A consignment shop now operates at 5 S. Main St.

There are more steps along this tour, for a total of 35 stops, making it an interesting and insightful walking tour for history buffs. Thanks to the Franklin County Tourism Board for the handy brochure which provided the many details describing the stops along the way.