Curry Holden, historian, archeologist, and director of the Museum of Texas Tech University, was born in Coolidge, Texas, on July 19, 1896, one of three sons of Robert Lee and Grace (Davis) Holden. In 1899 the Holden and Davis families moved to Colorado City, and in 1907 the Holdens moved to a farm near Rotan, where Curry finished high school in 1914. He obtained a teacher's certificate from Stamford Junior College in the summer of 1914, but failed to find a teaching position, being told he was "too young and too spindly." In 1915 he took over the Pleasant Valley one-teacher school, with forty-seven students in nine classes. He organized a literary club and basketball teams. In April he took his students by wagon to the county seat for an Interscholastic meet. His students entered every event, including athletics, and won the county championships. Holden was inspired by a speech given by Professor Joseph A. Hill on Texas history at Stamford Junior College and took Hill's courses at West Texas Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon during the summers of 1917 and 1918. In 1918–19 Holden served in the Eighty-sixth Infantry at San Antonio. He then obtained a job as principal at Rotan High School. In the fall of 1920 he entered the University of Texas, where Eugene C. Barker became his mentor. From 1923 to 1929 Holden alternated college with teaching. He was a history instructor at the University of Texas (1924, 1927, 1929), and briefly taught at Southwest Texas State Teachers College. He took graduate courses at the University of Colorado (summer 1925) and at the University of Chicago (summer 1927). He earned three degrees at the University of Texas: B.A. (1923), M.A. (1924), and Ph.D. (1928).
In 1923 Holden organized and chaired the history department at the newly established McMurry College in Abilene. He encouraged students to collect and preserve family and regional historical resources, including newspapers, for a "History Factory" and a small museum. He drew on the newspapers for his doctoral dissertation, published in 1930 as Alkali Trails. He also launched a course at McMurry in the field of archeology and with students inspected sites on the Canadian River. In 1929 he joined the faculty of Texas Technological College to teach history and anthropology. He remained at Tech in various positions for more than forty years. In 1936 he became the chairman of the history and anthropology department; in 1938 he was named dean and director of anthropological, historical, and social-science research. Holden built the fledging museum at Tech into a distinguished regional institution, the Museum of Texas Tech University. As dean of the graduate school, 1945–50, he initiated an accredited graduate program in four doctoral fields, including history. Holden completely retired in 1970. He received the Distinguished Faculty Emeritus Award of the College of Arts and Sciences and was named 1965 Distinguished Director Emeritus of the Museum at Texas Tech University (1937–65).
He was a skilled instructor who built student interest in anthropology with dynamic lectures and annual field schools. His 1930 and 1931 excavations in the Panhandle documented the pueblan architecture of Saddleback and Antelope Creek phase ruins on the Canadian River. In 1932 he directed a field school at the Tecolote ruin near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and in 1933, 1935, and 1937 he uncovered the Arrowhead Ruin, including a rare D-shaped kiva. Holden's students excavated and restored this Early Glaze-period pueblo ruin located east of Santa Fe. In 1950 he directed excavations at the Bonnell Site near Ruidoso, on a mesa ruin similar to the Antelope Creek Site on the Canadian River. Holden also investigated prehistoric sites across far-western Texas. In 1937 he found evidences of Southwestern prehistoric culture at Murrah Cave on the lower Pecos River; in 1938 he investigated Blue Mountain Cave west of Odessa; and in 1940 he probed Fingerpoint Cave in Borden County. His most significant archeological discovery occurred near his home in Lubbock. In 1937 in Yellow House Canyon two students found a flint point which Holden recognized as of Paleo-Indian age. It was on the bank of a small natural lake that the city was dredging to open an ancient spring. Holden played a crucial role in the fifty-year struggle to preserve and investigate the site. Subsequent excavations there established benchmarks that tied human culture to natural history in the geologic strata. In 1989 the site was designated the Lubbock Lake National Historic and State Archeological Landmark. Holden led archeological field trips to Mexico in 1934, 1936, 1938, and 1940. In the spring of 1934 Holden took students on an ethnohistorical expedition to study the warlike Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico; Texas Tech sponsored a second expedition in 1935, Holden published a report, Studies of the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico, in 1936. Basically an ethnographic account, it contained articles by the expedition's specialists in related fields. Holden contributed five papers that touched on marriage, child-rearing, education, household economy, and Fiesta de Gloria Easter ceremonies.
He also collected a substantial legacy for Texas Tech in the fields of southwestern art history and indigenous culture. In 1935 he organized the West Texas Museum Association and sought funds from the Texas Centennial Commission for a regional museum on the Tech campus. He led supporters from sixty-seven West Texas counties on a "march on Austin" with a petition for $160,750 ($25,000 was allocated) for a museum. With private funds and university matching, the building was dedicated in 1950, coincident with Tech's twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. The museum focused on the Southwestern region with exhibits on history, science, and art. Artist Peter Hurd was commissioned in 1952 to paint a fresco in the entrance rotunda, depicting life on the South Plains, 1890–1925. In 1955 Holden and other supporters organized the Southwest Collection and Archives, which contained West Texas ranch records he had collected over the years and other valuable materials. In 1965 Holden launched plans for a new museum building, which was dedicated on November 11, 1970. The museum complex included a Science Training program, the Ranching Heritage Center, and Windmill Plaza.
Curry Holden authored or coauthored more than twelve books and forty-two articles and pamphlets in professional and commercial journals. Four works focused on the Yaqui Indians. Hill of the Rooster (1956) was his only novel. It treats the life of a woman called Chepa during the Yaqui rebellion of 1926–27. Yaquis praised the book as the most accurate portrayal of Yaqui life at that time. Holden also wrote Teresita (1978), which describes the life of Teresa Urrea, a Mexican folk healer. Holden's Yaqui interpreter, Rosalio Moises, recounted his life for A Yaqui Life (1971), which Holden and his daughter, Jane Holden Kelley, coauthored. Other books written by Holden include Alkali Trails (1930), Rollie Burns (1932), and Spur Ranch (1934).
Holden received many honors. In 1972 Texas Tech named the first museum building Holden Hall, the first such honor accorded a living member of the faculty. A bronze bust of Holden by Lubbock sculptor Glenna Goodacre was unveiled in the rotunda. Holden married Olive Price on August 9, 1926; she died in 1937. They had one child, Jane (Kelley), who became a professor of archeology at the University of Calgary in Canada. Olive Holden assisted Curry Holden in development of the anthropology program at Texas Tech and helped design and construct an adobe house near the campus. Holden married Frances Virginia Mayhugh on March 26, 1939. She received an M.A. in history at Tech in 1940 and served as associate director of the museum from 1940 to 1965. She founded the museum's Southwestern Art Collection and the Women's Council of the West Texas Museum Association. Holden and wife Francis continued building adobe houses in Pueblo-revival style. These buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and are designed as state archeological landmarks and Lubbock historic landmarks. William Curry Holden died in Lubbock on April 21, 1993.