Kathryn Holt Springston lives, breaths, eats and sleeps Arlington.
A former employee of the Smithsonian and the National Park Service and a lifelong Arlingtonian, she is one of the foremost authorities on the county’s past.
She has authored several books about Arlington including "Cherries, Characters and Characteristics: A History Of Cherrydale" and "Crandall Mackey: Arlington Hero."
In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Springston talked about the hidden past of the county and how it affects the future, as well as the former reputation of a certain Arlington high school.
Arlington Connection: How long have you and your family been in the community? What brought you here?
Kathryn Holt Springston: My parents came here in 1941 from Minnesota. My father was an engineer with the Navy Department. I was born at the Columbia Hospital for Women in D.C., but have lived in Cherrydale since birth.
AC: How did you develop such an extensive knowledge of Arlington?
KHS: I have always loved history. My father loved history and genealogy (he wrote a history of the small town in Minnesota he grew up in) and some of that naturally rubbed off on me. The story is that I was just a few months old when I was first taken to the Smithsonian.
A great deal of my knowledge (and a lot of inspiration) came from one of my best friends, Laurence Donaldson, a much older gentleman whose family had lived in the D.C. area since the 1700s. Laurence loved to take me around and show me things — houses his grandfather had built (especially the Kit homes), places he had been when a young boy (he was born in 1906), etc. I loved to listen to these stories.
I also met many of Arlington’s more prominent and historically significant "old timers" (such as Crandall Mackey, Frank Ball, and Eleanor Templeman) when I was young and enjoyed listening to their tales of the old days.
I have always loved to read, and really enjoy the detective work involved in research! I’ve spent a great deal of time researching at the Archives, the Library of Congress and at the Richmond Transfile (records transferred to Richmond in the 1950s from Arlington County). And I really enjoy the records that the County holds in the Virginia Room and the County archives. Old newspaper accounts and old diaries are also great tools. I have a pretty good assortment of original research material in my personal collection that I have gathered over the years. I never stop looking for new material either; there has to be more out there!
People say I’m a walking encyclopedia of Arlington’s history and I’m constantly trying to add tidbits of history to those archives in my head.
AC: What interests you about the county?
KHS: Arlington can boast of a complete timeline of our Nation’s history. We have everything here from the earliest Native Americans, to visits by Captain John Smith, through the Civil War, past the two World Wars, and up to the present day. Whatever your favorite period in history, we have it here. Arlington also is unique in that we are a county, not a city and have so many distinct communities, each of which have there own peculiar characteristics!
AC: What is one thing that most people don't know about the origins of Arlington County?
KHS: There are so many "tidbits" of history that most people don’t have a clue about. People often don’t know we were a part of the Federal District of Columbia from 1791 until 1846 or that Captain John Smith was the first European to set eyes on our county. They don’t know that we were part of several Parishes of the Episcopal Church of England during our Colonial Days. They don’t know that Arlington is a county. They think that Arlington House was owned by Robert E. Lee. They don’t know the controversy surrounding the construction of the Pentagon. Etc, etc!
AC: What one factor — i.e. transportation, immigration, technology or something else — had the biggest influence on Arlington in the last 50 years?
KHS: It has to be immigration. Immigration was a main factor throughout our whole history! The Native Americans that lived here left because there were too many settlers moving in. Then the small farms disappeared because the railroads and trolleys were bringing in more and more people. Later [there was] the build-up of the Federal government (beginning during World War I) and the need for more houses for all those workers. And still later, [there was] the change in national demographics as our American population changed from young families with multiple children of the 1950s to young single professionals, and continuing to our happy mix of ages and lifestyles of today.
Non-native born peoples have always been a strong presence in Arlington. It is not something that just happened in the past 50 years. Arlington has always been, as a writer expressed it in the 1850s, "tolerant of those who are different".
AC: Do you have any family in Arlington ?
KHS: My 91-year-old physically challenged (confined to her wheelchair) mother lives with my husband, our 16-year-old son and myself, along with our dog, cat, turtle and fish and my husband’s pet flying squirrels!
AC: Where did you go to school?
KHS: Cherrydale Elementary, Stratford Junior High, 6 weeks of Washington-Lee and then to H-B Woodlawn, a.k.a "Hippie High."
AC: What is your current profession?
KHS: I am a consulting historian, and I still lead occasional tours for the Smithsonian, (where I worked for over 26 years) and I write, having finished several books in the past few years.
AC: What is your favorite book?
KHS: I have so many. Among the top are "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien; "Elbow Room" (written in 1876) and "Homer Price."
AC: When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up?
KHS: At one time (when I was about ten) I wanted to be a scientist. Then when I was in my late teens I decided to be a gardener, but one who specialized in recreating historic plantings.
AC: If you could take a road trip to anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
KHS: Minnesota , Illinois , Ohio , Missouri and Iowa , where our family came from. I want to do more research on our family tree!
AC: What are your concerns for the community?
KHS: I hate losing all the old houses and other structures to what I see as gross over-development and lax zoning laws that allow too large structures to be built on too small lots, dwarfing existing houses and changing the character of our neighborhoods. I also worry that our government is too large and disconnected from the people, as evidenced by many recent decisions. I fear that we are losing our unique character, and special features that have made Arlington so wonderful. We are becoming too homogenized.
AC: Is there anything about Arlington that you would like to see changed?
KHS: I would like the County Board to be more responsive to what the people want, and not make their decisions based on increasing our tax base and giving the developers what they want! I would love to have a Historic Designation that has some teeth in it that to protect our remaining housing stock and I would love it if people here would become more environmentally concerned!
AC: What do you think Arlington will be like in the next 50 years?
KHS: I think Arlington will be a more built up, "city-like" rendition of its present day self. I think the social and racial diversity that is and has been so much a part of who we are will change as housing prices and taxes continue to rise. I fear that most of our historic and unique houses will be obliterated, and much history will be paved over as it has in the past. Remember that our County government is not really concerned with historic preservation. They voted in the 1950s and 1960s to bulldoze Civil War Forts. They destroyed the irreplaceable Victorian Courthouse, and don’t offer any incentives to those who own older houses to preserve them!
AC: Do you foresee radical changes in Arlington or do you see current trends continuing?
KHS: I think Arlington will continue to develop as it has. The trends toward massive houses on little lots, more and larger high-rises, less environmentally friendly programs, even less concern for communities, higher individual taxes, and less services are trends that are too firmly ingrained to be easily changed. But, that is called "Progress."