Visit these Museums in Penn Yan to Celebrate the County’s Bicentennial
April 7, 2023
Yates County was founded on February 5, 1823. Over the past 200 years, so many things have changed as the towns have developed and adapted to changing times. Yet so much still remains the same. The population for one. At the time of its founding, roughly 20,000 people lived in Yates County. Today the population remains steady at just 24,000 inhabitants. The county also retains its stunning Finger Lakes landscape and laidback lifestyle. And this year, they are ready to celebrate. The Yates County History Center has renewed museum exhibits and planned bicentennial events throughout the year. Additionally, the main museums in Penn Yan pride themselves in sharing stories from the past 200 years… and then some.
A special thank you to the folks at Finger Lakes Countrysides for inviting me to spend a weekend in Penn Yan learning about its unique history.
The Museums of the Yates County History Center
Located in the heart of Penn Yan, the Yates County History Center is comprised of 3 distinct buildings, each showcasing a different aspect of the village’s history. Admission to the museums is FREE, but a $5 per person donation is encouraged. You can choose to wander through the buildings at your own leisure, or request a guided tour. I highly recommend a guided tour, as you will discover so much more than you might find on your own. Plus, guided tours always provide extra nuggets of history with interesting stories.
Also, kudos to the history center with their creative use of their Facebook page. They are constantly sharing photos, relics, and stories unique to Penn Yan’s history. The amount of detail and interesting facts that they share is pretty astonishing.
The Oliver House Museum
The main building on the campus is the Oliver House Museum, a true testament to the village’s history. The house was built on Main Street in 1852 by Dr. Andrew Oliver as a wedding gift for his son, William, who also planned to be a doctor. Remnants of William’s medical collection reside in the house to this day.
William’s daughter Carrie was the last resident of the house. With no future generations to pass it on to, she deeded it to the village, who later turned it into a museum. Now the museum houses multiple floors of the Oliver family’s belongings along with an ever-growing collection of artifacts owned by the historical society.
Various rooms are themed around the treasures that they display. There are rooms dedicated to the indigenous people of Yates County, Penn Yan’s historic sports teams, Keuka Lake, war uniforms, and more. I also highly recommend meandering through the house’s attic. It is a true treasure trove, stack floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall of the most incredible collection of items. (It’s very reminiscent of Burn Brae Mansion’s “Attic of Curiosities.”)
Oliver House Museum Artifacts
I have to say that I was blown away by the both rarity and shear quantity of the items on display. Some of the most interesting items include…
Uniforms, weapons, and ammunition from nearly every war the US has participated in.
The original medical desk used by the Oliver family doctors, including a logbook of patients.
A scale replica of the “Yates” steamboat.
An original poster announcing Penn Yan’s Emancipation Celebration in 1905.
A truly impressive collection of historical books.
The Scherer Carriage House Museum
Located right next to the Oliver House Museum is another member of the history center’s campus: the Scherer Carriage House Museum. Inside, you’ll find the stories and artifacts about one of the most unique individual’s in Penn Yan’s history: the Publick Universal Friend.
Jemima Wilkinson – The “Publick Universal Friend”
Let me tell you the story of the first non-binary preacher in the United States. I’m guessing you’ve never heard about them, AND you’d never expect it to have been in the 1700s. But all of that is true! And they are the main exhibit of the Scherer Carriage House.
Jemima Wilkinson was born a Quaker in Rhode Island in 1752. At the age of 24, she was shunned from the church and soon after fell deathly ill. During the illness, Jemima believes she died and that God entered her body to use it as a vessel.
Considering themselves to be “reborn”, they dropped their gender and given name and instead became known as the “Publick Universal Friend”, an evangelist who preached to anyone who would listen. Thus began the Society of Universal Friends, a group based on free will, abolishing slavery, and abstinence. Living in Philadelphia, they amassed approximately 200 followers, who came with the Friend to New York to establish the town of Jerusalem.
The Friend had a significant impact on the community, and the state of preachers in the US, being the first non-male preacher of such stature.
At the in Penn Yan, NY, artifacts from the Friend’s life are on display – including the historic coachee they used to travel from Pennsylvania to New York. Visitors can learn about the unique lifestyle of the Publick Universal Friend and the impact they had in history.
*Note that the signage in the museum is currently being updated to accurately represent their non-binary pronouns.
The L. Caroline Underwood Museum
The last of the three history center museums in Penn Yan is the L. Caroline Underwood Museum. Much like the other two, this one is dedicated to a specific person – L. Caroline Underwood. Caroline was a beloved teacher, collector, and supporter of local history. It was her wish to have her house turned into a museum. She even had specific items she wanted on display. And that’s exactly what the L. Caroline Underwood Museum does to this day.