War veteran Harry H. Holt Sr. helped land Langley Field


Two of the city's economic engines - Langley Air Force Base and NASA Langley Research Center - probably wouldn't be here today without Harry H. Holt Sr.

Holt, clerk of courts for Elizabeth City County, led a local effort 90 years ago to sell 1,659 acres to the federal government, which was looking for a new airfield site.

"Why couldn't Hampton secure this air post?" Holt asked, according to an account he wrote years later. "It would be sure to improve the realty values here and - with the incidental purchases such a project would entail - all lines of business could look to it as a boon."

He carried out the plan in 1916 with a group of other local businessmen, including Hunter Booker, Nelson Groome and Frank Darling. After looking at about 15 sites, the federal government picked the Peninsula site, paid the partnership $290,000 and started work on Langley Field.

Holt was motivated throughout his life by his family's hardscrabble existence after the Civil War. That's according to Wythe Holt, the court clerk's grandson and an emeritus professor of legal history at the University of Alabama.

"He was not going to be poor," Wythe Holt said. "He actually went out and did what he thought was the best thing to keep poverty away: industrial development, civic development."

Harry Holt Sr.'s father had returned from his service in the Civil War with just his Confederate Army-issued cloak and uniform. He died from alcohol poisoning in 1877, when his son Harry was about 4 years old. But he did work for a time as an assistant court clerk for Elizabeth City County, which decades later became part of the city of Hampton.

That job served as "one of the few ways that you could claw your way back to some kind of prosperity," Wythe Holt said.

Another major influence on Harry Holt Sr. was his time at Virginia Military Institute. He played three sports and became one of the first scholarship athletes in the country, Wythe Holt said. His education at VMI, along with his service in the Spanish-American War, helped him get elected as clerk of courts.

The position, which he held for about 30 years, also made him a local agent for the state Democratic machine, run at that time by U.S. Sen. Thomas S. Martin. Martin or an aide then tipped off Holt that the federal government was searching for a new airfield site, Wythe Holt said. The court clerk and his partners bought options on local land, and the gamble paid off.

"He was just a very shrewd investor," said Wythe Holt, who remembers his grandfather's storytelling in the years just before the ex-clerk's death in 1953. Wythe Holt also described his grandfather as hardworking, charismatic and a frequent speaker before civic groups, as well as "a man of his time" in terms of his racial attitudes.

In any case, the Langley land deal wasn't the only time Harry Holt Sr. played his cards right. He suspected that the Hampton Bar, always at least a few feet underwater, could one day prove valuable, perhaps for docks. So he bought up some of that underwater land, Wythe Holt said, and years later the Holt family was paid well when the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel went in.

Wythe Holt said his grandfather could never have imagined today's Air Force base and NASA center, but Harry Holt Sr. nonetheless had a vision for this part of Virginia. "He saw the lower Peninsula not as a sleepy place for farms and forests, but as a place business would develop - and where the land would be developed," the grandson said. "He was never surprised at progress."

Copyright © 2018, CT Now