When you search for a family that has its roots deeply embedded in the soil and community of Norwich, it’s hard to find a better example than Fred, Paul, and Abbie Metcalf. Without fanfare, the three siblings supported the village of Norwich in a medley of ways for most of the 20th century.
The Metcalfs grew up on a farm on Dutton Hill Road, named after their maternal great-grandfather Daniel B. Dutton, who purchased the land in 1834. The farm was also worked by their grandfather, John Dutton, and their father, Otis Metcalf. Otis came from South Royalton to work for John Dutton in 1886 and married the farmer’s daughter, Hattie, three years later. After they married, the couple moved to the Jericho district of Hartford, where Paul and Fred were born, but they returned to work the Dutton farm in 1901 after the death of John Dutton.
Fred was born on January 4, 1890, and was ten years old when his family moved to Dutton Hill. From a young age, he enjoyed the beauty of his home. He was the first in the family to spot a rainbow and talked of the eastern hills as “my hills.” “One night when I was seven,” Abbie recalled, “Fred saw Haley’s Comet in the sky. He woke me and took me out to see it.”
Along with his fondness for nature, Fred had an early interest in music. His mother had a reed organ when he was a boy, and Fred used to stand on one foot to reach the keyboard and pump with the other foot. As a youngster, he vowed to the Congregational church organist in Norwich, “When I grow up, I’m going to play that organ.” As Fred grew older he learned to play the organ at his grammar school and had a few formal lessons.
The only person opposed to Fred’s musical pursuits was his father, who once cracked, “Fred might amount to something if he’d let the damned music alone.”
Paul and Fred attended Norwich grammar school and began high school in Hanover. Fred would have liked to pursue additional musical training but when their father couldn’t find hired hands to help with the farm work, he took them out of school.
When Fred left school he didn’t abandon his education. According to Abbie, “He had his nose in a book all the time… and did all the farm work, roofing, and carpentry and helped mother.”
“Fred was a fellow who really didn’t like the farm,” wrote longtime neighbor Fred Johnson in a remembrance of Fred. “(He) did his job and filled his place. At the same time, he had this artistic side of him that he was trying to develop and keep alive.”
According to Abbie, “He always said that the only use he had for a horse was to hitch him up and go to church or a concert over to Hanover. He didn’t care especially for horses but he knew how to handle them as much as anybody needed to.”
After their father died, Fred and Paul split the chores on the family’s 150-acre farm. Fred cared for the cows, worked in the field, and did house chores. Paul tended the horses, managed the machinery, and gardened. Fred did most of the cooking and “gained a reputation for his biscuits.” For over twenty years he baked a loaf of bread that was used in the communion services at the Congregational church.
In addition to his work on the farm, in 1915, Fred started to play the organ at Saint Barnabas Church, where he played until 1950. In 1920, Fred became the organist for the Congregational church, a position he held for 48 years. The dollar Fred received for each service he used to pay for harmony lessons at Dartmouth with the chairman of the music department, Dr. Phillip Clapp.
Sundays were active times for Fred. The Episcopal service was at 9:30 a.m. and the Congregational service began at 11:00. When he finished with his first job, he’d fly across the common and arrive just before 11:00, toss his overcoat onto the front pew, and start the music going once more. In addition to the organ he also played the flute and the piccolo with the Norwich Band and sang with the Handel Society at Dartmouth for 40 years.
Along with playing music, Fred enjoyed writing, which most of the time meant writing sermons and composing music for the church. His best-known piece is the Christmas carol, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem,” which is still sung at the Norwich Congregational Church during the Christmas season.
When he stepped down as organist in 1968 he savored his time on Dutton Hill. “My music and my house and my work outdoors are all the things I have time for,” said Fred. “If I play the organ now, I do all that’s in me.” Fred died on December 6, 1980, just a month shy of his 91st birthday.
Paul was born on July 28, 1893, and established himself as the farmer in the family. He enjoyed the work, especially gardening and driving the horses. “When father took hold of the lines, the horses knew somebody was in charge who knew just what to do,” Abbie said. “Paul always wanted to be as good a teamster as his father. And he was, almost.”
But while he worked on the farm he didn’t neglect his civic duties. During World War I Paul was a member of the Vermont National Guard and during World War II he was a member of the Aircraft Warning Service, which set up lookout towers around Norwich. He was a long time member of the Root District Riding Club and often rode a horse in the Norwich Fair parade. But cutting firewood, chopping ice, haying, and running a dairy farm kept him busy every day.
“While words rarely escaped his drooping mustache,” Paul left a clear sketch of himself in the diaries he kept during the 1930s. The diaries were matter of fact, with no soulful introspection. Yet they revealed a man who was precise, thrifty, hard working, devoted to his family, and loyal to his community. They captured the rhythm of the seasons and are true historical treasures. Each entry began with a weather update and then succinctly hit the highlights of the day.
Saturday, February 17, 1934: Fair Sawed wood awhile. Began hauling ice. Ernest Fitzgerald’s truck is hauling it from Armstrong’s over to the foot of the hill. I hauled 3 loads, 21 cakes up the hill with Spike and Gyp and the mules. It is 21’ thick.
Tuesday, December 25, 1934: Cloudy snowed an inch or two. Had a Christmas tree this afternoon. Aunt Abbie came up. Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Jewell came up this evening. Abbie gave me some slippers and Fred gave me 5 dollars.
Friday, October 15, 1937: Cloudy. Moved some hay in the horse barn… Put up the haying tools again. Pulled the beets & put them down cellar. Picked the Hubardstone apples. 1 bu. Apples, 2 bu. beets.
Thursday, June 27, 1938: Rain. Had the last of my upper teeth out. 5 of them. $5. Hoed a row & a half of corn. Had peas for supper.
Tuesday, October 4, 1938: Fair. Fixed fence above the corn. Chased Mary’s cattle out twice. Patched the horse barn roof some. Went to a chicken pie supper at Grange Hall and choir meeting.
Tuesday, March 7, 1939: older, windy, squalls. Went to town meeting in the new Town Hall.
After a busy life on the farm, Paul died on October 11, 1966, at the age of 73.
While Abbie sang the praises of her brothers whenever she could, she too led a vibrant life. On July 21, 1903, one week before Paul’s 10th birthday, she was born in the house on Dutton Hill, where her mother was born 40 years earlier. She was named after her father’s sister, a trained nurse, who made sure that “Little Abbie grew up strong and healthy, after recovering from a rattle in her lungs the summer she was ten. But plenty of fresh air, day and night… As well as a pet collie with whom to explore the farm helped in the recovery of her health.”
Abbie attended the Norwich public school and Hanover High School and then veered away from her rural upbringing and attended Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where she graduated in 1927. During her college summers she waited tables at a hotel and often came home to work on the farm. “Father needed me to drive (four horses) for haying and paid me $100.” In 1930 she attended the Columbia School of Library Science and finished in 1931, “the year before it was decided to issue a Master’s Degree.” She was a librarian at the North Adams Public Library in Massachusetts for the next ten years.
In 1941 Abbie returned to Norwich. Her parents and her aunt had all died and “Fred and Paul were glad to have me home!” But it became clear quickly that there was not enough to keep Abbie busy on the farm. After a short stint at the Howe Library, she went to work as a librarian at Dartmouth’s Thayer School for the next 26 years. When she retired from Thayer she became the librarian at the Norwich Public Library for nine years, while being the curator of the Norwich Historical Society. With her “extra” time she was a clerk at the congregational church. As for the farm, although for 50 years the Metcalfs sold milk to H. P. Hood in Boston, when she retired they only pastured cows on their land. “We’ve kept the stables cleaned out in minus 40 degree weather as much as we wanted,” Abbie said. Abbie died on July 23, 1990, at the age of 87.
A short time before Abbie’s passing, 300 items from the Dutton house and barn were auctioned off. A 200-year-old high chest of drawers – a highboy, made from yellow birch and white pine, woods native to the area and held together with wooden pins rather than nails – was put up for bid. The highboy, judged by the auctioneer to be in almost perfect condition with no broken legs or signs of repair, was sold to the Shelburne Museum for $22,500, about $50,000 today. It’s easy to see the extended devotion Fred, Paul, and Abbie had for the Norwich community. But the highboy was an obvious clue as to how the siblings cherished the Metcalf ancestry and their family home on Dutton Hill.