As Women’s History Month ends, Sackets Harbor has quite a woman to remember. During her tenure at the country’s smallest US Naval station, Frances “Frank” Metcalf daily raised and lowered the flag for nine years. She assumed her appointment by the Navy Department after her husband Albert’s death in 1906.
In fact, her husband’s father Henry Metcalf, an English immigrant, accepted the first Navy Yard ship keeper’s role in 1862 after Commodore Bailey stepped down. Albert, assumed his father’s role in 1868 when his father passed away. The title of ‘ship-keeper’ evolved into ‘caretaker’ a decade later, but that didn’t stop his widow Frances from calling herself ship-keeper during her reign.
In 1908 she stated: “After Mr. Metcalf was taken away a department officer came here and offered me the place. I thought it all over and concluded that I probably knew as much about the work as anyone, and if the department felt that I could do the work I ought to take the place and so I did.”
In 1909, the Navy Department made extensive repairs to the structures and walkways. This flurry of activity included painting the brick houses of the Commandant and Lieutenant, shingling the stable and ice house, cannon shed and well house. Just a year later a newspaper article reported that Mrs. Metcalf entertained nineteen dinner guests at her Navy Yard home on New Year’s Eve. Today her residence, the Lieutenant’s House, is the state historic site’s headquarters.
In the summer of 1913, the New York Herald magazine section featured a lengthy story about Frances who said: “I’m just the ship keeper.” The article continued: “She has an especially keen eye for persons who may be lured by the attractive appearance of the battlefield to camp there and promptly warns off all invaders.” The journalist concluded: “Old Glory is thrown to the breeze each morning at sunrise and taken down at sunset.“ Her only duty was to raise and lower the flag. Her pay, $1.00 a day and free house rent.
May of that same year brought the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt to a new 100 tree memorial grove to dedicate an impressive granite monument to those from the Northern Frontier who served during the War of 1812. On the 100th Anniversary, Frances Metcalf must have been brimming with pride as the celebration swirled around her domain. Thousands attended. The Army’s Madison Barracks band played and all the village school students attended. The Daughters of the War of 1812, who had funded the costly monument, invited Frances to sit with them on the platform that day.
In 1915, after extensive repairs to the station, Frances almost saw the Yard’s closing, but Congress resolved not to abandon the historic installation. That year the New York Naval Militia assumed control of Navy Point for their summer training. Eventually in 1967, New York State took over the yard, conducted an archeological survey, and began a commitment of preservation and interpretation that continues today.
In 2003, Jeanne Fitzpatrick, the granddaughter of Frances Metcalf, donated to the state historic site the visitor’s log from the Lieutenant’s House. One signature stands out: Franklin Roosevelt from the 1913 monument dedication. And folded neatly inside the logbook is his letter of gratitude to Mrs. Metcalf. Her descendant related that an apron always covered her grandmother’s long black skirt and white blouse, “But” the granddaughter imagined, “I’m sure it was removed when FDR came to call.”
One hundred and three years ago, Frances “Frank” Metcalf lowered the flag at the Navy Yard for the last time. She retired at age 67 as ship keeper and died in April 1927. At her funeral in the community’s Lakeside Cemetery, New York Naval Militia officers honored her service. At the time of her death, a local poet wrote: “Why droops upon the staff today, The flag above the hill? The hands that flung its colors out, Today are cold and still… Whose uniform was loyalty, A veteran of the years.”
Photo: Frances Metcalf.