The Man Behind Pi Beta Phi’s Holt House


Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.

Monmouth has long been a Republican town, but a few of its most influential citizens during its early years were in fact Democrats. Among them were banker and industrialist Judge Ivory Quinby, newspaper publisher Alexander H. Swain, attorney James W. Davidson, plow inventor J. Howard Pattee and the subject of today’s column, “Major” Jacob Holt.

Like Quinby and Davidson, Holt established a local reputation for his service as a mayor of Monmouth (serving four terms), but he is today remembered nationwide as the former owner of a house at 402 E. 1st Ave., where the first women’s fraternity, Pi Beta Phi, was founded in 1867.

Holt arrived at Monmouth relatively late in life—at the age of 50—but his backstory is fascinating. Born in Plattsburg, New York, in 1803, he was the grandson of a Tory sympathizer. Although his parents, who hailed from Massachusetts, were supporters of the cause of the American Revolution, family loyalty was greater, causing the Holts to migrate to Ontario, Canada, at the outset of the war.

Following the war, Holt’s mother became homesick and persuaded her husband to return to the United States, settling in Plattsburg. For nine years, Holt’s father prospered, but then a series of reversals reduced the family to poverty.

After only brief periods of irregular schooling, Holt set off at age 14 to seek his fortune in the Mississippi Territory. He wandered to New Orleans and as far west as the future site of Kansas City, taking jobs as a peddler, steamboat crewman, shopkeeper, school teacher and tobacco trader. Eventually, he accumulated a small fortune and returned to New York, where he bought a farm and a house for his parents.

Holt became a law student and in 1827 was employed at West Point military academy, where he served as postmaster and later as purveyor of the local hotel. Although he never enlisted in the Army, it was apparently at West Point that Holt acquired the honorary title of Major. He eventually returned to Plattsburg, where he built a house on a farm called Holt Hill and in 1837 married Sarah Grant, a native of Canada. In 1847, President Polk appointed Holt collector of customs, and three years later he was elected to the New York State legislature.

After being defeated in the election of 1852, Holt decided to return to the West, where he owned land in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. Family lore says that during a brief stop in Chicago, Holt was approached by an old settler who admired his well-polished Army boots and offered to trade a strip of lakefront land for them. Not impressed with the prospects for the city’s future, Holt declined the offer and continued on his way.

Holt decided that Warren County offered great promise and in 1855 located in Monmouth with his wife and six children. In 1856, Holt purchased the two-story house on East 1st Avenue that had been built by William Rodgers in the late 1840s. He immediately enlarged it with additions to the east and north.

Holt also purchased the dry goods store of Azro Patterson on East Broadway and was elected mayor in 1858, the same year his wife, Sarah, gave birth to their seventh child, Susan. Sarah died of typhoid fever the following year, leaving him a widower with a large family.

During the Civil War, Holt donated money and horses to equip a Union regiment, and saw his only son, Alexander, enlist in the Army, rising to the rank of colonel. Following the war, Holt remained a Democratic activist, writing letters to newspapers attacking what he considered unjust policies of abolitionists in Washington during the Reconstruction period.

It was during this time that two Monmouth College students—Libbie Brook and Ada Bruen—took a room in the Holt residence, where they made plans to form a local women’s fraternity named I. C. Sorosis. Decades later, after the fraternity had achieved national fame as Pi Beta Phi, that circumstance would result in the home being rescued from the wrecking ball.

Holt was reelected mayor in 1874, 1875 and 1877. During his second term, a fire engine house was built, and the city purchased its first chemical engine with hose and hook and ladder attachments. In 1875, the Major Holt Engine Company No. 2 was organized in his honor.

Following his death in 1880, Holt’s five unmarried daughters continued to live in the family home, along with male boarders. Eventually, Susan was the only remaining sibling, living alone in the big house, which began to deteriorate. She would eventually become a ward of the county and die at the County Home in 1944 at the age of 84.

Meanwhile, at Pi Beta Phi’s national convention in 1938, the purchase of Holt House was first proposed. There was little enthusiasm for the project, as alumnae who had visited the home were well aware of its state of decay. But through the efforts of a neighbor, the house would be saved.

Monmouth Review Atlas publisher Hugh R. Moffet had lived next door to the house for many years and was aware of its historical significance, especially because his daughter was a Pi Phi. When it was put up at auction in a delinquent tax sale in 1939, he purchased Holt House for $1,100. Although much of the furniture had been removed, a locked storage room on the second floor was found to contain neatly labeled bundles of books, magazines, newspapers and sheet music, dating to the 1830s.

After an engineer from Galesburg determined the house was structurally sound, a Holt House committee was formed in 1940 and a thorough renovation was undertaken.

One of the last living links to Major Holt was a longtime Monmouth schoolteacher named Fannie Bradford, the daughter of his daughter Caroline. Among the family heirlooms that Fannie presented to the restored home were large oil portraits of Major and Mrs. Holt, painted between 1837 and 1839.

Major Holt, his wife and five of their children are buried in Monmouth Cemetery.

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