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All News & Views, 175th Anniversary

The Day My Life Changed Forever…

William Metcalf


William Metcalf

By Kim Schutte Holbrook

On a beautiful summer day in 2015, here in the Twin Cities, while sitting at my kitchen table I picked up my latest copy of the Wisconsin Magazine of History when a name on the cover caught my eye – “William (H.) Metcalf”… A name from my father’s family – in fact, my Dad’s name was William Metcalf Schutte.  The article was about famous 19th century Wisconsin Dells photographer H. H. Bennett and his mentor and benefactor, William H. Metcalf.  As I kept reading, the words jumped out at me –there were so many coincidences with my own family history that I knew I had to be related to William Metcalf, described as “the Milwaukee industrialist and art aficionado.”  The article continued…“The Unitarian Church of Milwaukee had its origins in the Metcalf’s parlor.”  I was absolutely stunned!  I was born and raised a Unitarian (rare in the 1950’s), growing up in the Fox Valley UU Fellowship.  That is the moment that I knew I was reading about my family and my church home.  My Wisconsin roots.  I continued to read with renewed intensity.  The rest of the article focused on Metcalf’s twenty-year friendship with photographer H.H. Bennett, who became famous for his stereoscopic views of the Dells.  William, having made his fortune in the shoe and boot industry on Water Street in Milwaukee, lent H.H. Bennett the money to build a state-of-the-art photography studio and later forgave the loan and gifted it to Bennett.   In 1998, the Bennett family donated the studio to the Wisconsin Historical Society and in 2015 the H.H. Bennett Studio celebrated its 150 anniversary and continues to operate as a museum.

After reading the article it took my husband Charlie & I just 2 days on to find out that William Henry Metcalf was my Great Great Uncle on my father’s mother’s side of the family.  But who was William H. Metcalf and what was his life like in early Milwaukee and in the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, I wondered?

William was born in New York City, son of a famous portrait artist who died when William was only 13 years old.  To support his mother, he went to work in New York City and while there made a friend with whom he would be partners in one of the most successful businesses in early Milwaukee.  He loved all forms of art, including photography and had one of the best collections of paintings in the city, even building an art gallery in his home.

Both William and his wife Caroline were very involved with the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, from its inception.  In fact, they both were instrumental in the early success of the Church and were active members for over 50 years.  They even helped plan and pay for the building that is your religious home.

In 2016, I traveled to Madison & Milwaukee to continue my research, which eventually lead me (last April) to walk into First Church – an incredible and emotional experience for me – seeing the organ that William donated to the Church and so many more surprises!  I have been impressed at the amount of information there is regarding these two founders of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.  I hope that you join me when I share some of what I have discovered (so far) about William and Caroline Metcalf, whose legacy can still be observed throughout the Church building, in a discussion about their interests, involvement in their church community and their lives in early Milwaukee at the Forum on Sunday, February 12, 2017.

Kim Schutte Holbrook

Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

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