Her Heart Was With the Boys
During the early years of Davidson College, faculty wives and women of the town opened their homes to the students. According to Davidson historian Cornelia Shaw, they were “no inconsiderable factor in making the life at Davidson what it is. They have done their full part in the social furbishing of many a callow youth…fitting young men to grace that society in which their intellectual attainments would place them.” In addition to adding some social polish to the students, women took students into their homes when they were sick, and they comforted them when they were discouraged. According to Shaw, “Many a lonely heart has been solaced and many a discouraged student stimulated by these kindly ministrations.”
One of the foremost of these foster mothers arrived in Davidson around 1862. Her name was Julia Minnis Holt (1832-1912), the daughter of John R. and Laura Boone Minnis of Hillsborough (Orange County), North Carolina. Julia married William A. Holt in Orange County, North Carolina, on January 1, 1855. In 1857, they had their first daughter, Laura. William pursued the study of medicine, and in 1860 they were living in Graham in Alamance County, where he was working as a physician and she was teaching at the female seminary there. In 1861, William entered the Confederate army as a surgeon. The Holts decided to settle in Davidson, which had no physician, and in 1862 Julia came to town to arrange housing. Accounts of her activities differ. Some sources say that she bought an already existing house next to the Helper Hotel (now the Carolina Inn) and directly across from the college campus. Shaw reports that she selected an empty lot in that location and erected a house, now known as the Copeland House. Her reputation as a teacher preceded her, and she opened a school for students from the surrounding areas in the old Masonic Hall. While it is not known how long the school remained open, presumably it closed when Dr. Holt returned from the war. They soon added a son, William E. Holt, to the family. The Holts became active members of the Davidson community. Around 1870 they put a large addition onto their house, and during the 1870s, Mrs. Holt ran a boarding house for students there. In 1875 they welcomed a second daughter, Julia A. Holt. Dr. Holt died in 1886.
It is for her close relationship with generations of college students that Mrs. Holt is most remembered. According to Cornelia Shaw, “Long after she ceased taking student boarders, she helped the college men in countless ways. Hers was the hand of the ‘comrade kind’ that guided them around many dark turns in the path of their college life. Hundreds of them remember her with gratitude.” Her obituary, published in the Charlotte Observer, noted that “Mrs. Holt is remembered by generations of students, who have through all these years, even into the session of 1912-13, enjoyed the hospitality of her home and fireside. A motherly, warm, Christian heart beat always within her breast and her kindliness to all of her wide acquaintance was almost proverbial.”
This tribute was echoed by a Davidson College student: “On the night of the twenty-first of December, Mrs. Holt died…The boys, whom she loved so well, and for whom she had done so much, were back with loved ones at home…It is not for her remarkable mind that we shall most remember her. Few women could equal her in gift of mental power, it is true…We shall miss her most because her heart was with the boys. The boys of fifty years ago, like the boys of today, were objects of her unfailing kindness. She tried to make them happy and at home. Her monument is her gratitude and from every section of our Southland and from many foreign lands, her foster-sons pay the true and silent tribute of grateful love. Men of silver lock share with us the loss of a friend whose place will not be filled.” William and Julia Holt are buried in the Davidson College Cemetery.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.