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Donegal: My family's emotional ties to the legendary Cameron Estate in Lancaster County

What I can distinctly remember so well about my days at that special summer home at Donegal were the trees that surrounded the summer mansion. The smell was like hickory nuts, but maybe something sweet like that, but we loved them.

My sister and I were relegated to the outside while my mother visited “Miss Mary” Cameron, who had more of an influence on my family that I knew at a nine or ten-year-old.

My mother often spoke of Donegal in reverent tones, and I knew that was because of her parents years of employment with the Camerons. I later conjectured that Miss Mary had paid my mother’s way through Dickinson College in the 1920s.

I still remember the beauty of that location that we visited so often in those days. Today, I realize the symbolic beauty of that home, which is where Miss Mary resided for most of the final years of her life.

The name took me back to the country where three of my grandparents were born in the 1800s.

Roots of Donegal

At some point, I learned that Donegal was a place in Ireland, but for us as a family, the name had solid American and Pennsylvania roots.

Donegal, Ireland was called Irish Dún na nGall, which means Fort of the Foreigners. It is a seaport and market town, and it is known for its beauty and history.

For our family, the name is associated with the Simon Cameron family. The former U.S. Senator and Secretary of War owned the large estate and used it as a summer home from 1872 until 1961. Miss Mary Cameron, the granddaughter of Sen. Cameron, passed away in 1959 and her estate sold it in 1961.

My grandparents came to the U.S. from Ireland in the late 1800s, I believe, as indentured servants [see related story]. As such, they worked as servants for the Cameron family for at least five years, though my grandfather worked for about 40 years. I do not have the exact totals. I think that my grandmother worked there for about 15 years.

When they arrived, they worked in what is now known as the Harris Cameron mansion on Front Street. It is presently owned by the Dauphin County Historical Society, which has restored it and uses it as their headquarters.

I can remember entering that mansion as a young child and first seeing “Miss Mary” as my mother called her.

However, the place that I remember better was Donegal, the summer mansion where we spent more time that in the Harrisburg mansion.

Simon Cameron's Donegal

Simon Cameron had built a fortune in railroads and construction and then entered politics. He had five summer homes, but the one that he loved affectionately was named Donegal. The Cameron family had formed roots in that area of Lancaster Country in the 1700s, and Simon built a fortune despite the poverty of his ancestors.

According to a family history from Lancaster County,

Donald Cameron, then an old man, and his two sons, Simon and John, and their wives (McKenzie sisters), came to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about 1775. They are reported to have been on the same ship with Colin McFarquhar, who was headed toward his pastorate at the Donegal Church, Lancaster County.

They had been farmers in Scotland, and when they settled at Donegal they farmed parts of the 240 acres which were the glebe lands of the Donegal Church. Later they farmed Pastor McFarquhar's lands, about two miles north of nearby Mount Joy.

Both Simon and John took the oath of allegiance in 1778, and both fought in the war of the Revolution.


However, it was not until 1872 that Simon Cameron was able to return to what he named Donegal and purchase the estate and transform the red-brick farmhouse that was built in 1805 into a magnificent estate. It is located between Mount Joy and Elizabethtown and is today a country inn and restaurant sitting on just 15 acres of land.

At one time, Cameron had amassed 1,200 acres. When Miss Mary passed away, it was divided into six different parcels. Because of an intellectually challenged child of Simon Cameron, the building was eventually given to Elizabethtown College before being purchased by a Lancaster County culinary expert named Betty Groff.

Simon Cameron

That is what it is today, and if I return to Pennsylvania, I would love to spend a weekend in that Donegal home.

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