The Matrons of Berea College were essentially housekeepers. From the 1860s until the 1920s, their duties included practical, day-to-day tasks that needed to be done for the students living under their care.
Origins of the Position
The earliest matrons at Berea worked in the boarding hall, which was primarily a dining hall but included a handful of female students residing in the attic. The first of these matrons was Mrs. E. P. T. Wheeler, whose term lasted from 1866 to 1867. Like Mrs. Wheeler, most matrons served for short periods of time, usually from one to five years. Most were unmarried or widowed, but some were married during their term. It was not unheard of for the college’s Steward (a male employee who oversaw inventory) and Matron to be a husband-wife pair, as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. William Hart in the early 1870s.
A matron, according to her commissioning contract in 1903, was not only assigned to teach “Domestic Science.” Like all other officials of the college and in keeping with its Christian mission, a matron agreed to give “instruction in the English Bible and in other studies.” On a more concrete level, one woman who served as matron in the 1890s listed her duties as including:
By the 1930s, the role of the matron had evolved to be primarily concerned with food service, while the remaining duties on this list were allocated to others, such as “Teachers in Charge” or student monitors.
Managing the college food service could be a daunting task. Miss Abbie Merrow, considering the possibility of accepting the position of matron in 1899, had a variety of questions and anxieties. “I notice that the Hall accommodates nearly one hundred ladies also table board for about as many young men,” she wrote to President Frost. “About how large on average is there? or in other words, is the Hall full?” She also had questions about student workers in the kitchens, menu decisions, and the budget allowance, which was not large—“Again I have consulted some of our leading cooks, as to what it [sic] is possible to do on amount allowed for bill of fare. One of them writes that body and soul could scarcely be kept together on the amount. Possibly one dollar and a half might keep life going.” Merrow, in fact, very nearly turned down the position. In the end, though, she served as matron of Ladies Hall from 1899 to 1901, and later she served in other matron and administrative positions at Berea as well.
Residential Expansion (Ladies Hall)
In the school year 1870-71, it became clear that the boarding hall did not have sufficient living space for the female students, given that by then nine women were crammed into the relatively ramshackle building’s attic. Recognizing its spatial limitations for women’s housing, the institution constructed Ladies Hall to serve as the primary college women’s residence. Completed and occupied in 1873, it also included a new dining hall. As the campus grew, more matrons, as well as assistant matrons, became needed for various buildings. For example, Mrs. Anna Rice was the first matron of Model Cottage, Miss Mary J. Baker was the first matron of Gilbert Cottage, and Miss Jean Cameron was the first matron of Boone Tavern.
Even while juggling their many logistical concerns, matrons found time to develop relationships with the students and with the Berea community. The Berea Citizen, describing Thanksgiving dinner at Ladies Hall in 1903, related that Clark Hinman gave a toast to the matron, Sara Hoag, in the form of an ode. When Mrs. Hoag accepted a position elsewhere, the Citizen described the reception that was held to honor her before she left. According to the writer of the article, the matron “had endeared herself to the hearts of her intimate friends and to those who simply knew her as the obliging matron of Ladies Hall.”
List to about 1920 (if not otherwise noted, Matron of Boarding Hall/Ladies Hall)
Mrs. E. P. T. Wheeler, 1866-67
Mrs. Mary G. Blaisdell, 1867-68
Charlotte M. Blake, 1868-69
Mrs. Wm. Hart, 1870-73
Mrs. Mary A. Winslow, 1873-80
Mrs. H. S. Woodruff, 1880-84
Mrs. Julia A. Gerry, 1884-87
Mrs. E. A. DeVore, 1887-89
Mary E. Levering, 1889-Feb. 1890
Mrs. Martha J. Gillmer, Feb. 1890-92
Ella J. Sweezy (m. M. L. Lum, 1912), 1892-97
Mrs. Anna Rice, Matron of Model Cottage, 1893-94
Helen Smith (m. J. K. West), 1897-98
Mrs. Carrie Martin, 1898-99
Mrs. Frances E. Newton, Matron of Model Cottage, 1899-1900
Abbie S. Merrow, 1899-1901; Matron of President’s House, 1903-09; of Model Cottage, 1909-13; of Country Homes (Foundation), 1916-at least 1919
Mrs. Sara L. Hoag, 1901-05
Mary J. Baker, B.L. (m. Rev. N. J. Young, 1906), Matron of Gilbert Cottage, 1902-03
Jean Cameron, 1905-10; Matron of Boone Tavern, 1911-1917
Mrs. Margaret Golden, 1910-12
Ruth C. Sperry, Matron of Boarding Hall, 1914-at least 1918
Irene Moffit, Matron of Boone Tavern, 1917-at least 1919
Evangeline Merrill Ritter (m. Henry Alexander Ritter, 1918?), Matron of Boarding Hall (Vocational), 1916-1918; Boone Tavern 1918-20?
Eva M. Fisher, Matron of Commons, 1916-at least 1921
Mary Elis Cocks. Ph.B., Acting Matron of Boarding Hall, 1918-at least 1919
Jessie S. Moore, Boone Tavern, 1920?-at least 1921
Elizabeth Brownlee, Matron of Ladies Hall Dining Rooms, 1921-at least 1922
Mrs. Margaret Golden, 1900-01; 1908-10
Lou Flanery (m. Meredith Gabbard, 1904), 1903-04
Laura Click (m. Fred Turner, 1912), 1904-05
Mrs. Margaret Ogg, 1905-06
May Reese, 1906-08
Margaret Creech (m. Boyd Williams, 1911), 1910-12
Jessie S. Moore, 1912-14
Ruth C. Sperry, 1912-14
Matilda Kuster, 1914-at least 1916
Grace Finch, Assistant to Matron at Commons, 1917-at least 1919
Cassandra Eva Seale, 1917-1920?; Boone Tavern, 1920-1921
Elsie Cora Byard, Assistant Matron at Commons, 1919-1920?
Anna Wallace, Assistant to Matron at Commons, 1918- 1919