Frank Metcalf

Driving around town it is difficult not to notice there are many streets in Ashland named after former landowners, or prominent figures that apparently left an impression worthy of eternal recognition. A few that come to mind are Tilton Ave, James Jackson Way, Homer Ave., and Metcalf Ave. Today’s story is about a member of one of those families: Frank Metcalf.

Where the street is most likely named after Frank’s uncle, Alvah Metcalf, who was a local businessman and one of Ashland’s first Selectmen serving six years over a seventeen year period, Frank also left an indelible mark on Ashland’s history.

Frank Johnson Metcalf was born on April 4, 1865 to John and Sarah Metcalf. The family lived on Pleasant Street near the mill owned by Alvah Metcalf. John was a box maker by trade, but this was not the path that his son Frank chose to pursue. Education and research appealed to him. After graduating Ashland High School in 1882, Frank attended the College of Liberal arts of Boston University graduating in 1886. Beginning his career in education, Frank first became principal of the Rolyston Academy in Vermont, moved on to an assistant principal position in Gainsville, Texas for 2 years, taught at the Ogden Military Academy in Utah, and finally returned to a teaching position at Leicester Academy in Worcester.

Seeking a more permanent position, Frank decided to change course and took the Civil Service examination. In 1893 he applied for and received a position as clerk in the record and pensions division of the War Department in Washington, D.C.

In a simple twist of fate, Frank was at the office working one morning when the floor collapsed sending him and as many as fifty other clerks into the basement of the building along with desks, filing cabinets, and other furniture. Tragically, twenty people were killed, and the rest severely injured. Frank survived, but spent a month in the hospital. He came back to Ashland to recuperate from July 4, 1893 until late November of that year. He spent the majority of that time confined to bed giving him plenty of time to write. He penned his unfortunate experience in a booklet called “A Summer Indoors.”

Frank eventually recovered and returned to Washington. He met Virginia Clabaugh at the Methodist Church he attended there and they were soon married. She was nineteen, and Frank was thirty. The couple built a house in D.C. and had five children.

Frank was always interested in Ashland’s history. He was also a very detail-oriented person. In the early days after Ashland’s incorporation, records were often missing or incomplete. Starting with Ashland High, Frank published “The History of the High School, Ashland, Mass.” After researching the available records and sending questionnaires out to former students, he complied a listing of attending students over the history of the school. The information collected was extensive and listed such details as family, residency at the time they attended, whether or not they graduated, where they currently reside, and whether or not they were still alive. Sounds like Frank was the 19th century version of Facebook.

His interests also involved the residents and the history behind their homes. He mapped out homes along the streets in town and commented on present and prior owners. He documented streets, the origin of the street names, and the dates they were accepted. Using census records and his own research, he painted the first comprehensive view of Ashland from the mid 1850s.

Frank was also very active in the Ashland Historical Society. He served as the Society’s historian, presented papers, and probably has one of the most complete collections kept at the Society to date. He particularly enjoyed hymns. He compiled lists of hymnal books, and wrote fifteen articles about hymn authors for the Dictionary of American Biography.

Frank lived a complete life. As he and Virginia approached their 50th wedding anniversary, Frank passed away at age 80 on February 25, 1945. His wife died shortly after on October 15. His personal library, which contained over 6,000 volumes, was donated to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.

Frank Metcalf may not be the first name that comes to mind when researching Ashland’s past, but his contributions will certainly make the trip more comfortable.

Many thanks to Kay Powers for her research used in today’s article.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
November 2012