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Learning more about the origins of Airlie, an interview with Harry Groome

Maya Angelou once said “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” Deep, right? At Airlie, we’ve been through a lot over the years, and are still striving to learn more about the humble beginnings of our property. While bits and pieces have come together through various sources of research, there has been something missing – the personal piece. Who was Harry Groome? Why did he decide to make a home in Virginia? More often than not, those intimate details are left out of public records. Fortunately, in fall of 2019 we received a call from Harry Groome, grandson of our founder, stating that he would be hosting a family reunion at Airlie over Thanksgiving. Mr. Groome was gracious enough to do a pre-visit phone interview so we could get a true sense of who our founder really was.

 

Airlie:
Mr. Groome, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself.

 

Harry Groome:
Thank you. I was a businessman for 35 years and retired as Chairman of SmithKline Beecham Consumer HealthCare and am now a full-time fiction writer and have been a longtime volunteer for the Nature Conservancy for over 33 years. I’m married with three children and five grandchildren. My oldest son is named Harry Connelly Groome and his firstborn shares the name as well.

 

Airlie:
Tell us what you remember about Harry Groome.

 

Harry Groome:
He was called “Groomefather” by the family! Unfortunately, I was only four years old when he died, but I vaguely remember a couple of trips to Airlie as a very young child traveling by train from Philadelphia. A lot of what I do know is recounted from family members. Harry’s daughter Susan – in other words – my father’s stepsister – had children who were a bit older and lived at Airlie through their teen years. Susan’s son Harry Groome Toland recalled that Groomefather was a loving and inclusive person and embraced his grandchildren.

 

Airlie:
Let’s back up. Can you tell us a little more about his early life and how he came to purchase Airlie?

 

Harry Groome:
Harry’s father, Samuel Groome, was raised in Maryland and moved to Philadelphia where Harry was born in 1860. He went to Protestant Episcopal Academy, graduating in 1876. He then enrolled in UPenn in 1880, but did not graduate college, “owing to the financial embarrassment of his father.” He owned property in Maryland with his brother John Groome, which first got him interested in the Mid-Atlantic region, but returned to Philadelphia in 1889. Soon after his return, he joined the Philadelphia National Guard, and served in a variety of roles. In 1897 he published a Military Handbook. Groome was Ajuntant of the Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, USA upon outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.  In 1899, he married Ann Wright and the couple moved to Virginia to purchase Airlie to raise horses. Airlie was his version of “living the dream as a gentleman farmer.”

 

Airlie:
What about the horses? Do you know anything about how he came to know Polo?

 

Harry Groome:
In 1892, Harry traveled with his friend, Owen Wister – American writer and historian – to Seven Springs Texas for a month. They stayed at a ranch and played polo in the afternoon and drank bourbon and played cards in the evening. Upon return, Wister penned several short stories which were eventually adapted into the novel, The Virginian. Side note: The Virginian is considered the first true fictional western ever written.

 

Airlie:
The property architecture at Airlie has always been of interest to us. Especially due to the House & Garden article. Can you share any details?
Harry Groome:
The stone bridge was designed by Philadelphia Architect Clarence Zantzinger. Zantzinger’s architectural credits include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., among many others.

We learned so much from speaking to Harry Groome and even got the chance to meet his lovely family during their time at Airlie. What’s more, they bestowed on us a family heirloom, which they thought belonged with us at Airlie. It reads “For Five Best Stalks Corn / Faquier County Fair / August 1921 / Won by H.C. Groome.”
Finally, we learned a few more fun facts about the Groome family:
  • Many of them are authors, following in Harry Groome’s footsteps! Check out Harry Groome’s website to learn more.
  • Harry Groome’s brother, John, was founder of Pennsylvania State Police – first ever state police force in United States.

Interested in learning more about Airlie founder, Harry Groome? Check out a previous blog about his presence in the community of Warrenton. Take a look at Our Story for more historic information about Airlie. Do you have any interesting stories about Airlie? We would love to hear them as we continue to piece together the timeline of Airlie from 1899 to present day.