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Yates County’s Home Guard (1917-1919)

Yates Past - November 2005

Armistice Day. Those of us in the older generations know that was the day that the truce was signed to end the Great War of 1914-1918....the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Then we found out that the War to End All Wars was not to be and there were more wars to now we recognize it as Veteran’s day. As we recognize the contributions of our military veterans this month, it is a good time to also recognize a little known military unit right here in Yates County during the first World War....Yates County’s Home Defense Corps.

Shortly after the Congress declared war against Germany on April 6th 1917, National Guard units were called to active service leaving individual states with no means to deal with civil unrest, prison riots, strikes, natural disasters, etc. In New York, Governor Charles Whitman authorized each county to organize a Home Defense Corps. Yates County responded quickly as the first meeting of the Home Defense Committee was held on April 24, 1917 and plans were laid out to raise a Home Defense Corps to protect life and property in the county and, in an emergency, be called into service elsewhere in the state by the governor. Members served without pay unless called into state service and membership did not affect their eligibility for the draft. Active recruiting of men between the ages of 16 and 64 was held in June and within a week, there were 71 that had signed up. The youngest was 17 and the oldest was 62. The summer of 1917 was spent organizing the unit. The county legislature appropriated funds for supplies, located a place for them to meet on a regular basis (the basement of the Masonic Temple on Jacob East Elm), and appointed William E. DeMelt as Captain. DeMelt was Superintendent of Schools in Penn Yan at the time. His Master Sergeant was Oliver Warner who was the principal of the Liberty Street School. Funds for the unit were raised in the community by, among other things, selling red, white, and blue “Home Defense Corps” buttons to school children for 5¢. By late August the men of the Home Defense Corps started having weekly meetings and in early October they started to have weekly drills at the Masonic Temple which was being referred to as “the Armory”.

My Great grandfather, Clarence Fox (age 57), joined the Home Guard as did his son Dudley Fox (my grandfather). Father and son shared a two-family house on Head Street in Penn Yan (now North Avenue), worked together in the finishing department at the Walker Bin Company on Lake Street, and joined the Home Guard together. Like many old-timers, Clarence Fox kept a daily journal noting the weather, coming and goings of the family, notable events, etc. Through his journal, I was able to follow the development of the Home Guard. It included 56 men and three officers. Drills were held “downstreet” in Penn Yan at the Armory on Wednesday evenings. In October of 1917, the Home Guard became a part of the New York Guard and was designated as Company O of the Fourth Infantry Regiment. When that happened, they tightened up the age requirements and put limits of 18 to 45. Clarence’s notation on October 23rd 1917: “Discharged from the New York Guard....TOO OLD” He continued to attend drills as a spectator and followed his son’s participation in the unit. Notes were made of a 4-day drill of the entire regiment at Binghamton in July of 1918. There was another 4-day drill at Hornell the next month. In September, 1918 they drilled at the Yates County Fairgrounds in Penn Yan before Governor Whitman. Dudley was eventually promoted to Corporal and then Supply Sergeant.

In May of 1918, Company O was combined with another company down in Corning and became a platoon in Company C. Captain DeMelt was demoted to Lieutenant since he was then just a platoon leader. There was a major outcry from the Yates County people about that and in July the decision was reversed by the New York Guard because of strong support, financial and otherwise, given to the company by the people of our county.

Company O never saw any kind of real duty. There were rumors in the local papers that they might be used to guard the Mexican borders but that never materialized. The closest they came to an assignment was 14 of their members were sent in the fall of 1918 to guard the aqueduct which supplies water from the Catskills to New York City. The company marched in parades, held close order drills, and provided military escort at the funerals of soldiers from Yates County. They continued to hold weekly drills even after the Armistice was signed in November of 1918. Their last drill at the Armory was in March of 1919 and the company was mustered out of the New York Guard that same month. ALL our county’s veterans.

by Rich MacAlpine

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