A Piedmont  Awakening by David Sobotta

Growing up in the fifties and sixties in rural North Carolina was a little like having one foot in the past and the other just about ready to step into the future.  My mother Blanche’s family, the Styers, lived in and around the hills north and west of Winston-Salem since the Revolutionary War.

Mother’s grandfather Abe Styers ran Styers ferry which crossed the Yadkin River from Yadkin County to Forsyth County.  Forsyth County, the home of Winston-Salem, was destined to be a county that pulled itself into the manufacturing boom of the second half of the twentieth century.  Yadkin County would remain solidly agricultural.

Mother was born on a mill pond in the heart of Yadkin County in 1910.  It was a time before electricity and when horse drawn buggies were more likely to be found on the dirt roads than those new  Model T Fords.   Her mother, Sallie Shore Styers,  died in the 1917 flu epidemic.  By  the time my mother was eight years old she was cooking for the family.

That presented some challenges since she was too small to lift the heavy cast iron pan used to bake biscuits each morning from the flour mixed up weekly by one her older female relatives.  Fortunately her older brother Henry would help her with the pan after he had taken care of bringing the wood inside and starting a fire in the stove.

While life around a millpond in the early part of the twentieth century might sound idyllic, it was actually a lot of hard work, and a life that didn’t leave a lot of time for play.  While Walter, mother’s father, was a miller, most of the rest of the food for the large family with six children had to be grown and preserved on the spot.

There was no yard to mow, just some bare ground to sweep around the house with homemade brooms made from the readily available broom straw.  Preserving food for winter was a skill mother  and her sisters never lost.

The stories of watching men cut blocks of ice from the pond during the winter and haul the loads of ice with teams of horses to their sawdust  insulated ice house in the ground seem hard to believe in our warming world.  Yet life was very different then.  They kept their milk and butter cooled in a spring house which was little more that a small building with a roof set on top of a spring flowing out of the ground.

Mother had places to go and things to do in her life so it didn’t take much time with her new stepmother before she left home as a teenager for the big city of Mount Airy, NC.   Eventually she got a license as a beautician and had her own shop on Main Street.  She even claimed to have spanked Andy Griffith when he was misbehaving in her shop as she did his mother’s hair.

When she was in her nineties she used to joke that she had walked by Snappy Lunch for most of her long life and never  tasted one of their pork chop sandwiches.  We bought her one, and she declared that she had not missed much.

While mother made it out of Yadkin County, her sisters never did.  With the determination that only a true southern matriarch demonstrates,  she was determined that her nieces and nephews would have a taste of life beyond the red dirt fields of Yadkin County.  She was the only one of the sisters  to learn how to drive as a teenager.

I’ve been told many times by cousins that they never would have enjoyed much of a Christmas without my mother.  She was famous for braving the muddy roads to get back to her sister Mollie’s house.  I remember her stories of getting stuck and having to knock on the door of a farmer’s house to be pulled out.  

Yet mother wasn’t the only irresistible force operating on the Piedmont of North Carolina.  Tobacco was becoming a cash crop that could lift whole families out of the fields.  Jobs were also appearing in the factories of Winston-Salem.  Manufacturers found out quickly that the farm trained families of the Piedmont had strong work ethics and could be counted on to do exceptional work.

I entered the story in 1949 as the son of a wealthy furniture manufacturer whom my mother refused to marry after my birth.  He was a widower much older than my mother but for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, she went back to Yadkin County to live with her sister Mollie shortly after my birth.

When I was three, we moved to a new home in Lewisville just west of Winston-Salem and not surprisingly just across the river from her sisters in Yadkin County.  We went to Lewisville because it did not have a beauty shop and because we could live on Styers Street not far from my one-armed Uncle Joe who had lost his arm in a water powered sawmill accident.

Until she got into her eighties my mother could work most people under the table.  I was sure that she never slept.  In the fifties everything had to be ironed, and mother was always up before the crack of dawn to get her work done before her customers started showing up at the beauty shop that was attached to the back of our house.

Lewisville was a great place to be growing up in the fifties.  Our Baptist church was just across the road from us, and Beck’s General  Store was only two houses away from us on Shallowford Road.  One time before either one of us went to school, Linda, the daughter of the Becks, and I were found taking an unsupervised bath together.  It was not a big deal in those days.

School was within easy walking distance if I cut behind the church.  More importantly there were what seemed like vast forests between us and the not so distant Yadkin River.  We would roam those forests with a freedom that only can be imagined today.  There were streams to dam and forts to build.  We didn’t leave many stones unturned looking for lizards and crawfish.

After school it was pickup football in the winter and baseball  with whomever we could find in the summer.   Television arrived in the mid-fifties to some neighbors, but it failed to capture us since the fields and forests had far more to offer.  There was no air conditioning until the sixties, but we didn’t notice.  In the summer we played capture the flag at night, watched the fireflies, and often ran in bare feet on oiled dirt roads behind the truck spraying for mosquitoes.

When I went to first grade, my teacher was a cousin who had been teaching first grade at Lewisville since before records were kept.  You might fool some teachers, but not the one who helped invent first grade and who was closely related to your mother.   The only choice was to do well and walk a straight line.

Mother desperately wanted me to go to college.  Yet she refused to make it easy for me.  Her cousin, Uncle Joe’s daughter, was fond of paying her sons the unbelievable sum of one dollar for each “A” that they brought home on their report cards.  I was told early and often  that  the good grades that I was earning were for me, and the payment would come later and not from my mother.  Not too long after my fifth grade year, I started helping mother with her books and writing her checks.  It was all about growing up and helping to pull your own weight.

Mother worked long hours.  Saturday mornings, she would do the hair of family members for free.   I learned how to cook and probably how to overeat when cooking for myself was the only way to get dinner.   Before I was ten, I was grilling half chickens on a charcoal grill.  While mother worked hard,  there were a couple of things that were sacred.  One was a Saturday afternoon off, and the other was two weeks of vacation each summer.

About once a month my dad would roll into town on a Saturday afternoon.  He would come bringing welcome groceries.  Most of all I remember the sliced  boiled ham that he would stop and buy at a country grocery store.  Prepared meats were something of a wonder in those days before supermarkets.  Until  I was over ten years old, I didn’t even put two and two together and figure out that the man in the beige and tan colored Cadillac was my dad.

Other Saturday afternoons we would take off to Winston-Salem. In the first years at Lewisville, we took a winding two lane road to Winston-Salem where a whole world of modern life to seem to unfold.  First there was a Sears and a number of other stores including Bocock-Stroud and Sportsman Supply.  Then along with the first four lane roads came the Thruway Shopping Center and the first supermarket.

Our big treat on Saturdays was to go out to dinner.  Sometimes we ate in the car, but there were a couple of restaurants where mother would go inside for a meal which in her case most often revolved around onion rings which she loved.  I can even remember the first Burger King when it opened near the mall.

While mother wanted me to go to college, she had not abandoned her nieces and nephews.  Most of the nieces spent some time at our house in Lewisville.  Lewisville was closer to the new world that would be modern North Carolina.  There were even swimming pools within driving distance, and I am pretty sure that mother’s old 1952 Ford helped at least some of her sister’s children to learn how to drive.

When I was twelve, I joined Boy Scouts with five other boys from Lewisville.  There was no troop in Lewisville, but a year after we started going to scouts, we ended up forming our own troop.  Troop 752 became a wonderful troop.  We had the luxury of camping in a nearby area that would one day become a subdivision.  Many Thursdays we would plan our Friday and Saturday night camping trips.  In the summer, we would go to Camp Raven Knob, home of Lake Sobotta, named after my father.

Scouting became a big and important part of my life, and my mother became a favorite driver for those of us who were the founders of troop 752.  She was always willing to take us anywhere the troop had planned an event.  She also got the reputation of being a better driver than any of the male drivers.

As I was falling in love with scouting, mother’s nieces and nephews were finding roles in the new world outside of Yadkin County.  There were jobs at Western Electric, Reynolds Aluminum, and of course the tobacco plants.  One niece even married a young man who was going to college at NC State.  After graduation, he helped build the first four lane road in the area.  I can still remember being taken for a ride on it well before it was open.  He was the first family member who I knew who had gone to college.

Yet the rides that I remember the most were the magical ones that took us from the Piedmont of North Carolina to the coast of North Carolina.  Mother would load up the blue 1952 Ford with nieces, a picnic lunch, and home grown tomatoes for sandwiches, and we would head east to the coast.  I don’t think there could be anything as magical as going to the beach with a car load of teenage girls in the fifties.

The beach in the fifties was a world of neon, boardwalks, strange shops, and above all sand and water.  We would have a cottage with no air conditioning two or three blocks from the water,  but the location didn’t matter.  In the fifties you didn’t go to the beach to sit in a room and play computer games, watch television, or listen to your iPod.

You went to the beach to be outside, meet people, have fun, and even get a tan.  If you were a teenage girl meeting boys was at the top of the list.  If you were a preteen boy, fishing and playing in the waves were all that mattered.   There were dances at night on the boardwalk, and it was a world we could only imagine for most of the year.

Those trips to the beach planted the seed of a life long love affair with the Carolina coast.  There were no multiple short vacations in the fifties.   People took two weeks and worked the rest of the year.  Vacations were all the more special because they only came once a year.

Life stayed on an even keel in Lewisville until the spring before my eighth grade year.  I was chosen to participate in Forsyth County’s first gifted student program.   That summer  I spent several weeks at the Graylnn estate in Winston-Salem learning how to type and how to play tennis.  It was a special time being with a lot of other smart rising eighth graders.

The next winter mother somehow figured out how to drive me before work twenty miles to school for the special classes.  She coordinated her customers so that she could be there in the afternoon to pick me up.  It was a great year, but it was the first step on a long journey that would eventually take me to Chattanooga, Tennessee and then to Cambridge, Massachusetts and on to St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia.

While I was in the special classes my ninth grade year, mother and my father got together and decided that I needed to be sent off to military school.  So in the fall of 1963 just after doing a day hike of 20 miles on the Wilderness Road, I was driven to McCallie School, and scouting started to fade in my life.

Even now I am not sure it was the right decision for me, but it was one that I eventually made the best of and which probably helped me take my next step which was to Harvard College.  That I got in a car in the fall of 1967 and drove myself to Harvard is something of an endorsement for mother’s decision to send me off to school.

I managed to survive at Harvard without a parental visit until graduation in 1971.  To have gone to Harvard in the late sixties and early seventies meant that you went through some tumultuous times.  After  an illness my sophomore year put me in the hospital where I received a draft notice, I ended up having to carry an extra course for my last two years at Harvard so I could finish my college education on time to keep the draft board happy.

A couple of months prior to my graduation, the Army decided  that they didn’t want me anyway because of a problem  with my eyes.  The change of heart came too late.  The pressure of the draft and a thesis with an extra course at Harvard was too much.  I gave up on the thesis and law boards, and finished my degree that summer.  I still graduated with honors, but I needed a change and a place to figure out who this person was who had such deep ties to the Piedmont of North Carolina but had ended up at Harvard.

At the same time I had fallen in love with coastal Nova Scotia after a Thanksgiving trip the previous year.  With graduation from Harvard, I got $6,500 from my mother which allowed me to buy a farm with a house and barn with 140 acres on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

In August  of 1971, I took the Bluenose Ferry from Bar Harbor and immigrated to Canada.  My American citizenship fortunately followed me to Canada.  After remodeling the 200 year old home in Nova Scotia with the help of college friends,  I stayed in Canada for sixteen years.

I married a wonderful young lady from Mount Airy, NC and watched all our children be born in Fredericton, NB .  Twenty miles north of there in a locally famous snow belt, my wife and I built Tay Ridge Angus, a commercial cattle breeding operation with over 200 head of cattle.

In October 1981 we successfully dispersed our cattle herd, and the next part of the journey began.  It eventually took us back to Nova Scotia where we lived in Halifax, and I worked for Apple Computer in a sixteenth floor glass walled office overlooking Halifax Harbour and the fort called the Citadel.

The job with Apple which lasted nearly twenty years would  take us to Columbia, MD in 1987 and then to Roanoke, Virginia in 1989 where we would perch on a mountainside for over twenty years before deciding to chase that dream of living along the North Carolina coast.

The journey that took me, the son of a single mother , who didn’t finish school  from Lewisville to Cambridge and on to Nova Scotia before bringing me back to North Carolina and my roots is a much longer narrative than this article.  It is full of many twists and turns.  Then there are the secrets learned alongside the life lessons that my mother who died in the spring of 2004 taught me.

That journey is also a vindication of my mother’s  belief that hard work will have its rewards.   That her  son finished his career at Apple sitting in a Senate hearing on computer security with one of Apple’s executive vice presidents is a tale in itself.   The amazing lady who grew up along the shores of a small millpond in rural Yadkin County would be pleased  that the full stories will soon be told.