Standing proudly on Main Street in Penn Yan is the anchor building of the Yates County History Center, the Oliver House Museum, one of three buildings comprising the YCHC. The Center, formerly Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, is one of the oldest in NYS, has been actively collecting, preserving and interpreting history since 1860. Continue reading about us...

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From the Schofield Letters: Admiral Frank H. Schofield

It could be argued that there was a native of Yates County who went on to achieve greater national notoriety than Frank Schofield, but I would need an awful lot of convincing . . . and until about a year ago, I had never heard of him.

I taught American History in high school for 34 years, but I was constantly aware that I was not an historian. I didn't do what historians do until I got involved in researching my own family history .... locating and sifting through primary sources, analyzing, looking for themes and connections, cross-referencing and writing about my findings.

When I started as a volunteer at YCGHS, I was looking for a project where I could get into that type of historical research. I worked on a few small projects, but was looking for something bigger. I found it. One day in the summer of 2005, I went into the Oliver House and sitting on the floor were nine good sized boxes. I was told that they were filled with letters, etc. that had sat in a garage behind a house on North Avenue in Penn Yan for many years and that they belonged to the family of Admiral Frank Schofield. I asked what was going to happen with them and was told that they would be added to YCGHS collection and stored in the archives. I was curious about a naval admiral who would come from Yates County and went home and did some internet research.

I was impressed with what I found. Frank Schofield was born in the Guyanoga Valley in the Town of Jerusalem in 1869 and graduated from Penn Yan Academy in 1885. The only way that he could have gone to college was through a military academy since his parents were struggling farmers and had very little money. He took the test for West Point, received the highest score of anyone who took it that year in New York, but was not admitted because he was only 17 years old. Frank went to Annapolis in the Spring of 1886 and took their entrance exam, once again receiving one of the highest scores, and was accepted for admission that summer. Four years later he graduated near the top of his class at the Naval Academy. Through his career, he commanded a cruiser off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, capturing four Spanish vessels. Over the years he commanded various destroyers and battleships. During World War I he was attached to the Office of Naval Operations in London and helped to develop our anti-submarine strategies in the North Atlantic. In the 1920s, he was an adviser at international conferences which dealt with naval disarmament. He was appointed Rear Admiral in 1924 and Full Four-Star Admiral in 1929. In 1930 he was named Commander-in-Chief of the entire United States Fleet. He retired from the Navy in 1932. His career lasted 46 years, counting his years at the Naval Academy. He died in 1942 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. In 1963 the USS Schofield, a guided missile frigate, was commissioned ... named after Yates County's admiral.

Here was the in-depth historical research project that I had been looking for. I realized that if I didn't take this project on, those boxes of letters may very well sit in the archives of YCGHS for years ... unread. The first letter I actually read had a comment from Frank's wife which criticized Teddy Roosevelt for bringing the country to the brink of war. In another, Frank mentioned that he turned down a dinner invitation from Douglas Fairbanks in Los Angeles because he was "too busy." That's it . . . I was hooked.

There was a lot of national history in those letters in addition to personal history. I realized, to take on a project of this magnitude, I was going to need structure and self-discipline, neither of which comes naturally to me. I set aside every Friday from 9:30 am until 4:00 pm to work on the letters at the Oliver House. Thus, "Fridays with Frank." I started out by organizing the letters into separate boxes for each year. The condition of the letters varied. Some had been eaten at by mice over the years. Often I had to shake off the mouse dung and dead bugs (even a few live ones.) History isn't always pretty. The earliest year is 1886 and the most recent is 1931. The bulk of the letters are from 1886 into the mid-1920s. The letters were written by him and to him from various members of his family as well as friends (he was quite a ladies' man in his early years.) Now I am in the process of taking each year and organizing it by months and then reading the letters chronologically. As of this writing, I have completed six full years (1886-1891) ... about 1,400 letters. I estimate there are about 10,000 letters more to go.

In the process, I feel that I have gotten to "know" Frank Schofield as well as the members of his family and several of his girlfriends. I have run across some great references to life in Penn Yan and the rest of Yates County during the time period, written to Frank by his family. Frank himself was a very descriptive writer and provided detailed narratives for his family in Penn Yan of incidents on board ships as well as his ports of call. As I go along each Friday, I take notes and make copies of letters that are particularly effective. After each Friday session, I write a summary. I don't know what the end result of this will be, but it will be some type of publication ... if I live long enough.

I have been intrigued with the motivation and drive of Frank Schofield. How did the Guyanoga Valley produce the likes of him? His parents had just a basic education and consistently had trouble making financial ends meet. He joined the Navy against the wishes of his family. "Pa" wrote him at Annapolis ... "Frankie, haven't you had enough of the Navy? Don't you wish you was a farmer?" "Ma" wrote to him ... "Oh, Frank, where did you ever get you ambition to excel from? It must have been way back." One of his teachers at Penn Yan wrote him during his first year at Annapolis ... "You are not living the life I would have picked for you." His friends were shocked that he would leave New York at the age of 17 to pursue a career at sea.

For all that, Frank never hesitated and never looked back. He was determined to succeed and his self-confidence never faltered. I was reminded of my trip to Plains, Georgia a few years ago. Plains is the boyhood home of President Jimmy Carter. His situation was similar to Frank Schofield's, except that Carter's family had a little more money to work with and a father who provided community leadership. Plains, like the Guyanoga Valley, did not appear to have an environment that would produce such high achievers. But each young man had a special teacher in high school who recognized the seeds of greatness in their "gifted" student and encouraged him to go as far as he could with his gifts. For Frank Schofield, it was professor Henry Callahan, who was the principal of Penn Yan Academy in the 1880s. Professor Callahan wrote Frank while he was at Annapolis and told him that he was the best student that he had in his career. He also wrote ... "we all look forward to a bright career from you where it will be an honor for me to say 'He was my student.'"

My work on these letters has created a little excitement here at YCGHS. When I discovered that one of Frank's uniforms was available for sale from a dealer on the internet, an anonymous donor stepped forward to enable us to purchase it for our collection. From time to time, I will share some of what I have run across in the letters.

by Rich MacAlpine

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