1850 - 1876

Caroline Cutler Metcalf

Caroline Cutler Metcalf

Mrs. Caroline Cutler Metcalf was one of the few truly historically influential members of the Wheaton community. Hired in 1850, at age 41, to replace Margaret Mann, she remained at Wheaton for 26 years, providing superior leadership. Her dedication was unprecedented.

Born in 1809 in Medway, MA, Caroline C. Metcalf was the daughter of Calvin Plimpton and Caroline Cutler. She began teaching in her hometown at age 16. A fellow Medway student who entered Amherst College but withdrew for health reasons, Albert Metcalf persuaded her to become the first assistant in a school he managed in Auburn, NY. They were married on 25 September 1835, but failing health compelled him to relinquish his school, and less then two years after their marriage, Albert died of consumption on 11 August 1837. The young widow then taught in Machias, ME, before becoming the assistant teacher at Miss Southwick’s boarding school in Smithfield, RI, in the 1840s. She was teaching in East Boston when she was discovered by Wheaton trustees, Deacon William King, and Albert Barrows, and asked to become the principal at Wheaton.

Trustee, Reverend Jacob Ide, said of her:

She came here in 1850, bringing her superb presence, bringing character, bringing ability, bringing electricity. She made the seminary’s interest her own from the moment she took charge of it. She prayed for it, and worked for it, and watched over it, with a solitude that was rewarded with immediate, permanent, and invaluable results.”

He added:

Her executive power was something wonderful. No one ever questioned it…. The secret of her remarkable power… was tact; a quick and accurate judgment of character, and a singular ability of moulding it into accordance with her own. She had an uncommon amount of that unpurchasable, untransferable quality called common sense.”

Mrs. Metcalf was tough, resolute and strong-minded. If other efforts failed, it was not uncommon for her to threaten resignation to persuade the Trustees to agree with her requests, which included making changes in the management of the boarding house, the hiring of teachers and personal vacation.

During her tenure, she significantly strengthened Wheaton’s faculty, curriculum, and enrollment. By 1854-1855, Metcalf had completed Elizabeth Cate’s plan to increase the regular course to four full years, and in the year 1870-1871 she added a preparatory year as well. She also inspired rapid and significant growth in student enrollment. By 1854-1855 there were 226 students attending Wheaton.

Mrs. Metcalf was an innovator in education, hiring a full-time physical educator, her niece, Ellen Plimpton, to strengthen the Seminary’s conviction that physical activity should be a part of a woman’s daily routine. She also created teacher training and correspondence courses, which proved helpful for alumnae and students planning to become teachers, since this was one of the few careers open to educated women during the 19th century. In the 1870s, she also agreed to register young men from Norton in the regular Seminary program. This unusual step was taken because Norton lacked any other means to prepare young men for entrance to college, and because one of Laban Morey Wheaton’s young cousins, Laban E. Wild, needed preparation for Brown University. Although none earned a Seminary certificate, in each year from 1874 to 1878, some four to eight boys attended the Seminary.

Mrs. Metcalf had a special knack for discovering and keeping excellent educators, seeking teachers with character and originality who would be devoted to their pupils. These teachers, such as Lucy Larcom, Mary Jane Cragin, and Clara Pike, were responsible for establishing impressive educational programs in literature, math and science that became widely recognized as innovative and inspired departments across New England.

Trustee Rev. Albert H. Plumb wrote of Metcalf:

During the twenty-six years of the principalship of the vigorous Mrs. Metcalf, Mrs. Wheaton was in ardent sympathy with the spirit and methods of that strong religious personality. In those days, as more or less ever since, the young ladies enjoyed the privilege of feeling the impress of many persons of remarkable religious experience and power of service, who were invited to visit the school and address the students, — returned missionaries, Christian workers, lay and clerical, men and women, some of whom are still remembered for their able and convincing exhibitions of the reasonableness of the religious life. The ruling thoughts of those personal friends of the Principal made the fact evident to the listeners that no mere system of ethics is a sufficient foundation for character, inasmuch as morality is incomplete without religion.”

Paine, p. 264-5

Mrs. Metcalf retired in 1876, moving across the street to “The Cottage” to live with teachers Ann E. Carter and Maria Mellus. She remained in close communication with the school, frequently visiting Eliza Wheaton and being visited by alumnae. She died in 1888. The Boarding House was named in her memory in 1901, and when it was replaced by two new residence halls in 1932-33, one was renamed Metcalf Hall.