Who Was Arthur?

Arthur B. Holmes, September 25, 1916

Arthur B. Holmes, September 25, 1916

Arthur B. Holmes was my paternal maternal great grandfather. (Does that work? He was my dad’s mom’s dad.) He was born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1888, and grew up there as well. He went to Cornell, and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1911. He went on to become a successful architect, doing a lot of work also in Montclair, New Jersey, among other places.

From early on, he was an avid and talented photographer as well. I have many photos and albums that he took during the years he courted my great grandmother, whom he married in August of 1916, soon before the above photograph was taken.

Unfortunately, soon after my grandmother was born in 1918, Arthur’s wife, my great grandmother, died in the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Arthur eventually carried on, remarrying and having another daughter, who is my only living relative of that generation.

He was an architect his whole career. He worked for various firms, and then became partner in his own firm. He was a member of the New Jersey Society of Architects and the American Institute of Architects, and even traveled to Puerto Rico to do some work down there. He also spent some time working and living in Arlington, Virginia.

At the very end of 1945, as a civilian he joined the American military in Berlin, Germany, helping to rebuild the area, post-war. His observations are those of an educated and professional man, though he apparently knew how to occasionally let loose. By the time of his travels, he was divorced from his second wife. He was quite devoted to my grandmother, his daughter, writing her long, newsy letters on a regular basis.

The first letter that I will share tells the tale of his getting over to Germany. It is a fascinating look into the informality of it all, and his humor shows through from the start. Letters will continue on a semi-regular basis. He aimed to write them weekly, but some gaps are shorter, while others are longer.

Arthur was tall, intelligent, and amusing. I have evidence that he and his buddies went on adventures and documented them in “official” ways… I wish I had known him in person, but as he died in 1968 and I wasn’t born until 1973, alas, that was not to be. But I’ve gotten to know him much better through his letters, and, starting on January 1, 2016, I will share many of those with you all.


Welcome to First Person History!

Photo: Jenny Bristol

Photo: Jenny Bristol


History is my thing. Especially American history. It brings me great joy to immerse myself in primary sources such as census documents, photographs, maps, and, especially, letters.

This blog was inspired by my love of history, and of individuals’ experiences of history. What was life like “back then”? I want to know what people did at home, at work, in school, on vacation. The usual history that is taught doesn’t capture my imagination, but social history does. I discovered this fact in college.

With this blog, I will strive to share primary sources, first person accounts, and the personal side of history—what it was like to live during a certain time, in a certain place. I hope to eventually cover more general historical artifacts, but I will start with something personal.

We will begin with an interesting time in world history, the short time between the end of World War II in 1945 and the forming of two German states in 1949. I will cover my great grandfather’s experience in Germany in 1946.

Soon after V-E Day, various Allied governments probably had some kind of plan in place for helping Germany get back on their feet (or, rather, for guiding their recovery in an Allied-friendly manner). So our government, and others, sent over military forces, and plenty of civilians, to help rebuild.

My great grandfather, Arthur B. Holmes, an architect, was one of them. For a year, he sent my grandmother letters from his time over in Germany, and she kept them all. Her sentimentality now benefits us all.

Arthur’s time in Germany (and his journey over there) began almost 70 years ago, in the latest part of December 1945. I will be transcribing and posting his letters in “real time”, 70 years removed. The letters are approximately a week apart, but there are some longer and shorter gaps. Arthur was a gifted storyteller and writer, and his letters are alternately gripping, amusing, and blissfully mundane.

Stay tuned!