A West Point Plebe, Circa 1930 – Part 3

Letter from John L. Schaefer to Dorothy Wilson
Letter from John L. Schaefer to Dorothy Wilson, continued


July 8, 1930

Dearest Dorothy,

I just received your letter this noon and was sure glad to hear from you. I am through here if it can possibly be arranged. I have not received an answer from my aunt as yet but as soon as I do I will take action and will let you know just what I do. I will do something definite this week end. I will either clear out of here for home or go somewhere else to see if I can make my way in the world.

I don’t think you will have to worry about coming down here this summer as I have my mind set on leaving here. I will not stay because I was not made to be a soldier and it would ruin me to stay here. No I can’t being separated from you and I don’t intend to be unless you do not want me after leaving here. I am going to swear off all military as soon as I can clear out of here. The riding I get is not bothering me but I didn’t like all the rest of the work.

About the key, I do not know what to say for certain but I think when we came home from the lake and stayed at your father’s place that I gave him the keys. I would not say for sure but I am positive that I have not got them. I am most positive that your father has them. I hope that you have found the keys by now. I hope I will be home soon to help you finish the cottage. I would like to stay out there a couple of weeks when I get back to be away from the city people.

I hope we can go swimming together soon. Even though I come home I do not intend to give you back “my heart” that I took from you. Yes I say “my heart” because it is mine now. Maybe soon we will be able to canoeing, and have all the other good times to-gether. Maybe my trouble is that I left my heart back with you but I doubt it.

I have thought over the question of leaving from every angle I have even prayed but I seems I am fixed on going home. I am going to write another letter home to-day to let them know I am set on quitting this place.

I love you, honey – you know I do and I will be home to you soon if you will accept me. Please write soon.

Your sweetheart is
Lonesome & blue, and needs
Comforting arms. Will he 
Get them

John L.

P.S. I’ll teach you to paddle soon, Love & kisses John L. 

John was a big fan of canoeing, it seems. Which lake was he talking about? Lake Erie is the most likely, I think. Buffalo is situated right on Lake Erie, which has played a huge role in its modern development. The 1930 edition of the Polk City Directory says of this topic:

  • The first steamboat on the Great Lakes sailed from Buffalo in 1818
  • The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made Buffalo an important stop on the New York route to the West
  • One-fifth of the grain in the United States comes through Buffalo, which has 29 grain elevators and is the “greatest grain storage center in the world.”
  • Buffalo is a big mill city, even bigger than Minneapolis
  • Buffalo is the second largest inland port in the United States and is one of the 10 largest ports in the world 

Another high point in Buffalo’s history is the invention of the buffalo wing. According to the National Chicken Council, the spicy-hot buffalo wing originated in the city in the 1960s, missing John et al by a few decades.

What’s missing from this letter? I would have expected to hear about the Independence Day celebrations at West Point, for one. As an invaluable military fort, I would have though that there would have been quite a bit of pomp and circumstances on the nation’s birthday. Perhaps there was, but John was too forlorn or worked up to write about it, instead concerned about the fastest way out of West Point–and where Dorothy’s dad’s key went.

A West Point Plebe, Circa 1930 – Part 2


July 6, 1930

Dearest Dorothy,

Well we have had our first bit of freedom to-day. We were allowed to walk along the Thayer road for about a quarter of a mile. It sure was some freedom. Bauer, a friend of his and myself went to-gether. We were gone for about 1 hour and thought it was wonderful to be free for a few minutes.

I am still in doubt as to whether I want to stay or not. It is not as nice as I expected. Think there is 534 days until I get home for my first vacation if I stay and 708 days till my long furlough. That is a terrible long time and I doubt if I will be able to stick it out. I wish you were in Goshen now so you could come over to see me each week-end. Kreuger hasn’t been over to see me yet but I suppose he will be soon. We have been kept pretty busy of late and we will no doubt be busy all the time from now on.

I am going to send you a little book called Bugle Notes but know to us as the Plebe Bible. We have already had to learn everything on pages 134 & 135, abo [sic] the Alma Mater, The Corps, and the Plebe Prayer. Not counting many other things not entered. You will I hope enjoy this book more than I do as it means only work to me. Well maybe I will be home with you soon. If this was not such a bad time to get work I would quite [sic] and go to work somewhere away from home so I could make something of myself before I get home.

I feel terrible to think I am not getting along as I expected to. I hate myself for thinking of leaving but I am afraid that is what I will do before long. Things aren’t as I hoped and I doubt if I can stand up under it all. Yes others have and I could but now that I am here I don’t see any future when I finish and without a future work I can’t have you so there is no need of staying. If my first year was up it wouldn’t be so bad but this way well I can’t.

Please write soon sweetheart. I miss you so and how. I long for a letter from you. I am going for a walk alone now to just walk and dream that you are at my side. I wish you were. You must come down soon. Imagine Doris Wittig will be down soon again. Well since [?] Write soon. Maybe I will be home before long.

Your sweetheart

John L.

Bugle Notes is a compendium of information that any new cadet at West Point would need, so I’m not sure why John is sending Dorothy his copy—or perhaps he’s found himself a spare copy. Here is a listing on the antique website Worthpoint for a 1930 copy of Bugle Notes.

In his letters, John is always pleading for visitors. From Buffalo, West Point is about a 350 mile drive on modern interstate highways. It’s not clear how long the trip would have been before the interstate, but it would have been a tedious journey on various country roads and U.S. highways through the Allegheny Plateau, over the Finger Lakes, and through the Catskills and down into the Hudson River Valley. The development of the nation’s interstate highways is the work of another West Point alumnus from the class of 1915, Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his administration as the 34th president of the United States, President Eisenhower implemented the Interstate Highway System, with construction authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. 

Instead of driving, it is far more likely that that visitors from Buffalo would have traveled to West Point via train. Buffalo is positioned on Lake Erie, right next to the Canadian border. It had long been a center of industry and shipping, both by water and rail. By 1930, the New York Central Railroad—a cooperative of several different regional railroads—enabled trips from Chicago to Florida. Several trains left Buffalo and arrived in New York City each day on a “water level route” trips, along the water of the Great Lakes and the Hudson River, instead of the interior land routes offered by other rail companies. The trip to West Point would require a transfer in Albany and a trip on the West Shore Rail Road. Timetables can be viewed on this PDF on pages 23 and 24 for the New York Central Railroad from Buffalo to Albany, and page 56 for the West Shore Railroad for the trip from Albany south to West Point. It would have been a long, but scenic, day of travel. Today, Amtrak operates the Empire Service route, which stretches from Buffalo to New York City, right along the same stations that John and Dorothy would have seen in their travels to and fro. 

John seems to be having a hard time at West Point. It’s not clear what is troubling him, except that he misses Dorothy and hates school. Keep in mind he’s only 20 years old. Even though he’s been at a military school before, the structure and discipline of West Point seems to be getting to him.

A West Point Plebe, Circa 1930 – Part 1

The first letter in the series from John L. Schaefer at West Point


West Point, N.Y.
July 2, 1930

Dearest Dorothy:

We just have about two minutes till time for more work. I just want to let you know I love you and always will. The address is changed as follows:

Cadet John L. Schaefer
4th Company
New Cadets
West Point, N.Y.

Please write soon. They are just riding us to death and how I will tell you more about it as soon as I get time. I hope I’ll see you soon but they talk as though I won’t be able to see any one for a month or two. I sure miss you and a year and a half of this will make me or break me. I will see write more later.

Your sweetheart


This letter is part of a collection I picked up at an antique store in April 2019 in Savannah, Georgia. In July, it will be 80 years old.

The handwriting is definitely masculine, and the writing paper is heavy. A bit of research using census records shows that the author of the letter, John L. Schaefer, is 19 years old at the time of its writing. Dorothy is 20 or 21. They are from Buffalo, New York, a city of over 570,000 people, according to the 1930 Polk City Directory. The same directory shows Dorothy living at home with her parents and her occupation as a teacher. John does not live with his parents—he may be living with an aunt and uncle—and his occupation is listed as a student. 

John writes from United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. West Point is the United State’s oldest military academy. When John was a cadet, it was an exclusively male school. Now, West Point admits women. 

Census records show that Dorothy is part of a family of six. She’s the eldest of four children and was born in 1909 in Buffalo. She graduated from Masten Park High School (now known as Fosdick-Masten Park High School) in Buffalo in June 1926. Here’s her senior yearbook photograph and quote:

Yearbook entry of Dorothy Wilson in 1926 high school yearbook

John had a tough childhood. He was born in 1910 to a jeweler father, also called John, and his mother Anna. John and Anna were married in May 1909. By 1925, he and his brother Arthur were orphaned, losing their father in 1923 and mother in 1925. John also had a brother, Frank, who died very young. After their parents’ passing, John and Arthur moved in with their aunt Mary and uncle Adolf nearby.  Here’s a photo of a very young John from the Buffalo Courier, November 2, 1913:

John L Scahefer as a young boy holding an American flag for a parade.

What’s not clear to me is how John and Dorothy know each other. As we’ll find out later, John has been away for a few years at a different school. Were they in school earlier together? Did they attend church together? Grow up in the same neighborhood?

An appointment to West Point is a big deal. It’s extremely competitive, and a candidate must have a nomination from a federal lawmaker, or have specific ties to the Academy. These days, students who are appointed to any of the military academies are often announced in newspapers because it’s quite an accomplishment. Archival newspaper searches turned up no such announcements made, which could be attributed to an incomplete newspaper collection–one would definitely expect to see his name in print when accepted to a prestigious institution like West Point.

At the time that these letters were written, the United States was in dire straits. The stock market crash of October 1929 (Black Tuesday) led to the Great Depression, and nearly 25% of working people were unemployed. Banks closed, and because there was no FDIC insurance on deposits, people’s money just disappeared. President Herbert Hoover was criticized as being too slow to act, relying on states to voluntarily step up and develop assistance programs. An appointment to West Point, where he was guaranteed an education, room, board, and clothing–basically, anything he needed–must have seemed to be the best deal available to young John.

A note to readers: We only see John’s side of the story in this series. Keep that in mind as you read what comes next.