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The lives of the domestic servants at Lindenwald, the home of eighth president Martin Van Buren, were busy, to say the least. The staff of young Irish women cooked, cleaned, served meals, did laundry, emptied chamber pots, and otherwise kept the household running smoothly. They worked at least 10 hours a day, usually more, and rarely had an entire day to spend off the farm. The domestics were literally on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a fact attested to by an elaborate system of call bells throughout the mansion.
Visitors may learn about the servants’ lives and more during a 45-minute ranger-led tour of Lindenwald, which focuses on the 40 turbulent years before the Civil War. In addition to touring the mansion, visitors can also head outdoors for a farm walk that affords beautiful views of the Catskill Mountains.
Van Buren purchased Lindenwald in 1839, while he was president, and lived there following his single term in office. The mansion and farm were not a retirement home, however. Van Buren ran twice more for the presidency in 1844 and 1848. Following those campaigns, he continued to meet and entertain the likes of Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, as the issue of slavery absorbed and finally paralyzed the nation.
Interpreters at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site shed light on the politics of antebellum America. The complex political scene would not have existed without the mosaic of people inhabiting this restless nation, of which Lindenwald was a microcosm. The range of classes in American society was present on the estate, which sheltered domestic workers as well as the president and his guests. Geographic and occupational diversity were also to be found. Most in the household hailed from the North. A few had grown up in the South. Some were native born; others were immigrants. There were farm laborers, soldiers, and professionals with great wealth. The staff at Lindenwald has made sure that visitors hear the stories of the working people (pdf) on the estate to obtain a fuller understanding of history.
This past winter saw a restoration of the bell system. A National Park Service exhibits specialist pieced together bells, knobs, and levers, using information from studies and a little detective work to find the likely locations of each bell lever. From home, you can help with another restoration project – that of recovering the text of Martin Van Buren’s letters through deciphering and transcription.
One can imagine the interplay between bell-summoned servants, the Van Buren family, and political guests in the main hall of the house. Around the table in this room, the decision to form the Free Soil Party in 1848 was made. Van Buren ran as the presidential candidate of this third party as anxiety over extending the territorial reach of slavery grew. And it was in the main hall that servants, family, and guests anguished over the approach of the Civil War. Van Buren died in Lindenwald in 1862, not knowing if the nation he helped to shape would survive or perish.
By Jim McKay, Chief Ranger, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site