Wheaton College Founding Documents
These images and documents reveal the symbiotic relationship between Wheaton Female Seminary and the Wheaton Family. Indeed, the fortunes of the former relied upon the continuing prosperity, interest and patronage of the latter.
Judge Laban Wheaton, the patriarch of the prosperous Norton family, agreed to found Wheaton Female Seminary in memory of his favorite child, Eliza Wheaton Strong, following her death in 1834. He drafted, in his aged cramped hand, an Act to establish a seminary in the town of Norton. The idea for the school came from his daughter-in-law, Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, who was married to his one surviving child, Laban Morey Wheaton. These two took over the actual establishment of the Seminary. They consulted with well-known educator Mary Lyon, then teaching at Ipswich Academy. Miss Lyon developed the first curriculum and rules, and hired the first principal and teachers. Mary Lyon even visited Wheaton Seminary periodically to teach and rest between trips to raise funds for her own seminary that would open in 1837—Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
The Wheatons were able to found and support a Seminary in Norton because of their diverse investments in farming, land, rental properties, banking, and manufacturing. Norton and the surrounding communities were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, powered by water and steam. Cotton and saw mills, iron and copper forges, nail-cutting, straw hat and clothing manufacturing, stores, banks, and taverns, post master and justice of the peace, all came under the purview of the Wheaton men.
And Eliza Baylies Wheaton also described herself as an "entrepreneur". When her husband died in 1865, she took over his investments, sold the mill, but kept the dairy herd and churned her own butter if no servant was available for the task. She was a canny investor, a generous philanthropist, and considered herself to be responsible for sheparding the family fortune in order to maintain the Seminary. Unlike Mary Lyon, Mrs. Wheaton did not appear to understand the importance of creating an endowment, but rather paid for needed improvements and repairs, covered end-of-the-year expenses, and made gifts to retiring teachers and principals.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Wheaton was a forward thinker, and understood that in order to survive, Wheaton Seminary needed to change. It was her suggestion to hire one of the Trustees, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Valentine Cole, as the first male President when A. Ellen Stanton, the last female Principal, retired in 1897. And when Dr. Cole told Mrs. Wheaton that he would only accept the appointment if he could transform Wheaton into a four-year Bachelor's Degree-granting college, she agreed. Because she died in 1905, she did not see the completed transformation in 1912, which included a remarkable expansion of the campus.