Left to right, John Sobotta, Clara Sobotta, Blanche Styers (Sobotta), David Sobotta, Blanche Sobotta, Glenda Sobotta
This piece was written for Sobotta Manor, the wonderful Bed & Breakfast located in our family home and run by Robin and Junior Hester.
Mr. John Sobotta was one of Mount Airy’s most prominent citizens. He retired as the vice president of National Furniture Company. It is believed that Mr. John as he was often called by friends had a career that was possibly the longest in the American wood working industry.
The Sobotta family of four brothers, mother and father arrived by ship in America on April 27, 1880 and settled in Muskegon, Michigan. After his father died, Mr. John went to work in his first furniture factory at age of 14. He first worked in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then in Indiana where he proudly became a citizen of the United States on October 24, 1896.
After that he moved to Atlanta where he met Clara, the lady who would become his first wife. He liked to tell the story about someone approaching him in Atlanta to invest in a carbonated, sugared drink that they hoped to bottle and sell. He used to chuckle that he was certain people would not buy it. Then he would quickly say that he was very wrong since the drink was Coca Cola. After going to night school to finish his education, he moved to Mount Airy in January 1904. He chose Mount Airy because he saw an opportunity and the furniture business was just getting going there. He joined National Furniture, just three years after it was established.
Mr. John was also director emeritus of Workman’s Federal Savings and Loan. He served at Workman’s Federal during the bank crash of the twenties. Blanche, his second wife, liked to complain that the day before the banks were to close, he told her that her money would be fine. Of course he knew it would not be and she lost most of it. He always maintained that it was better to have done his duty than to let her withdraw her money. He was also a great benefactor to the Boy Scouts, helping to build the John Sobotta Scout Hut at the First Presbyterian Church. He received the Old Hickory Council Silver Beaver Award for the role he played in the establishment of Camp Raven Knob where Scouts still swim in Lake Sobotta.
The current brick house is built on the foundation of the original wood-framed house that caught fire in the late twenties. There was extensive smoke damage to the house but much of the furniture was sent back to factory for refinishing. After the family moved in with neighbors, the decision was made to build a new home on the same spot. Instead of laying-off National Furniture workers during the depths of the Depression, Mr. John put them to work building his new home.
The home had the first circuit breakers installed in a Surry County house. The roof of custom tile was produced in Pennsylvania. The marble slab by the fireplace came from Italy. The gutters were made of copper. It you look closely you can tell that the doors and much of the woodwork are solid walnut. The paneling in the breakfast room came from shipping crates that Mr. John liked and had refinished in the factory. Mr. John himself designed the original formal gardens that became one the second Mrs. Sobotta’s passions. For many years the area behind the garage was a large vegetable garden that produced much of the family’s food in the summer. Mr. John continued working at National until he was 86 years old. He had a stroke the next year. After that he required 24 hours a day nursing care until his death 13 years later.
Clara Sobotta – The first Mrs. Sobotta joined Mr. John at 200 Pine Street shortly after he moved to Mount Airy. She and Mr. John were married in Atlanta. The street address of the house was changed to 347 West Pine sometime in the twenties. Clara was of German descent. She traveled widely in Europe after the World War I. She and Mr. John had one child who died shortly after birth in Atlanta. It is believed that this event might have caused the severe depression that led to her death. The second Mrs. Sobotta, Blanche, first came to Mount Airy in the mid-twenties to care for Mr. John’s mother, Jeanette, who lived to be almost 100 years old. It was also said Blanche saved the life of Clara who attempted to commit suicide.
Blanche Sobotta (August 22, 1910 to March 20, 2004) in the words of her son David…
It’s hard to describe mother, they broke the mold when they made her. She was the matriarch for a large extended family that still talks with wonder about the magnificent home on Pine Street that she ruled for so many years. We have been able to trace her Styers family (mother’s maiden name) to Samuel Styers who it is believed fought in the Revolutionary War with the NJ Militia and came to North Carolina just after the Revolutionary War. Samuel and his wife are buried in the Abbot’s Creek Primitive Baptist Cemetery in Davidson County south of Lexington.
Blanche was born August 22, 1910 to Sallie Jane Shore Styers and Thomas Walter Styers who was a miller. She spent her early years on a millpond and by the age of nine was cooking biscuits for the other five children because her mother had died of the flu. Blanche left home at an early age and moved to Mount Airy, NC when the town had a population of 150 people. She spent most of her years in Mount Airy at 347 West Pine Street where she became an accomplished gardener and nurtured the wonderful gardens that can still be seen each spring.
For many years Blanche was a beautician on Main Street in Mt. Airy and later in the fifties on Styers Street in Lewisville, NC , not far from the original location where her Grandfather Styers’ ferry crossed the Yadkin. Blanche was a renowned cook, famous for her fried chicken, pound cakes, and the peanut brittle that appeared during the holiday season. Many visitors pushed back from her table only to find she was already working hard to prepare the next meal. She came back to Mount Airy in the early sixties to make certain that Mr. John was properly cared for after his stroke. A few years after the death of Mr. John in 1974, RJ Berrier, Mount Airy’s best known newspaperman who was famous for his Mount Airy after midnight column, moved into the upstairs at Pine Street so that Blanche could continue to live in the home. For years Blanche and RJ hosted an annual Pine Street Christmas party that became famous for Blanche’s homemade eggnog.
More information about Blanche is available at this story, A Piedmont Awakening.
After the death of RJ in 2000, Blanche moved to Roanoke to live with her son David and his wife, Glenda.
Mr. John, Blanche, Clara, are all buried at the Sobotta Family plot at the Oakdale Cemetery in Mount Airy.
ABOUT THE RECENT OWNERS - DAVID & GLENDA SOBOTTA
David lived in the Pine Street house from 1963 until 1971. He went to McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee for high school and graduated from Harvard. After his college graduation in 1971, he took a gift of $6,000 from his mother and father and bought 140 acres and a 200 year-old farm house on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. He immediately began renovating it in the summer of 1971 with the help of some college friends. David like many others in the sixties and early seventies felt the need to get back to working with his hands much like his father had. In June of 1973, David came home to Mount Airy from Canada after attending a college roommate’s wedding in Massachusetts. In an effort to keep him home in Mount Airy another day or so, Blanche arranged a blind date with Glenda Haymore, whose mother, Reva, was one of the nurses taking care of his dad. David cooked lobsters for Glenda at Pine Street that first date. Later that evening they had their first kiss under the trellis in the garden below the large azalea bed. The next day they drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway in his mother’s 1973 Mercedes That same Mercedes was in the garage thirty-one years later when the Pine Street house was sold.
Within a couple of days David had proposed to Glenda near UNC-Greensboro where she was teaching. They were married eight weeks later in Mount Airy on August 4, 1973. Glenda’s mother’s family, the Snodys, have been in North Carolina, on their Chestnut Ridge farm in Westfield for even longer than the Styers family.
Glenda joined David in Nova Scotia where they lived until moving to the hill country north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. There they built Tay Ridge Angus, a well-respected source for purebred bulls for the herds of New Brunswick farmers. In 1981, the herd of over 200 head was dispersed, and shortly after that David went to work as a computer sales person for the province’s first Apple dealer in September of 1982. For more of David and Glenda's life in Canada, check out A Taste for the Wild, Canada's Maritimes. By November of 1984, David was working for Apple Computer and the family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, before moving back to the United States in 1987. David spent twenty years with Apple, and for most of it, lived with his family in Roanoke, Virginia, but worked out of an office in Reston, Virginia, where he was director of federal sales for Apple.
You can read about David's sales career at Apple in The Pomme Company, one of the only insider books ever written about Apple.
Since leaving Apple in 2004, David has been vice president of development at G3 Systems, vice president of sales and marketing at Webmail.us, and has written four books.
He is currently vice president of sales and marketing for WideOpen Networks of Blacksburg, Virginia. He assumed that post August of 2013. David and Glenda, celebrated their 41st anniversary in 2014. They live near Emerald Isle, North Carolina, which happens to be the subject of their popular travel guide, A Week at the Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. David and Glenda have three children, Erin, Michael, and Kathryn. They are also blessed to have two grandchildren, Nicole and Corbin.
David and Glenda sold the Pine St. property in 2004, but they continue to own property, part of the original Snody farm, in Westfield, North Carolina. Their North Carolina heritage is a big part of their lives and was one of the reasons for writing The Road to My Country, a story about the changes in North Carolina.
They still have the barrel table that was the first piece of furniture that Mr. John made. They also have a beautiful small desk (desk in left corner of this picture) that is a nearly perfect example of his veneer craftsmanship. It is beautiful but perhaps not as unique as the petticoat table built by Mr. John and currently on loan to the Hesters as a display piece for their Sobotta Manor Bed and Breakfast. While David had a touch of his dad’s woodworking in him, he was more comfortable building barns. He has reported that the two large cattle barns he built in the seventies in Tay Creek, New Brunswick, are still standing as of 2015. David is more recognized as photographer, writer, gardener and naturalist. During the warm weather months, David, can be found in his kayak trying to outsmart red drum in in the White Oak River.
Both David and Glenda have carried on the tradition of Blanche’s cooking. Some of their recipes are included in their book, A Week At The Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. Some family recipes have been shared with the Hesters including the Sobotta Family Sourdough Waffle recipe. The Sourdough that the Hesters use in the recipe also comes from the Sobotta family.
It was long a tradition among relatives of the Sobottas that the spirit of Clara Sobotta wandered the halls of 347 West Pine Street. The tradition was so strong that Blanche’s sister Mollie would sleep in Blanche’s room on the sofa when visiting instead of sleeping in a guest room.
David often stayed in the Pine Street home by himself, both before and after Blanche’s death. He was perhaps the only family member willing to do that. He claims to have only noticed the upstairs hallway was much warmer after his mother’s death. According to David if Clara’s spirit was around, Blanche likely sent her on her way, so sleep well.
More information about David is available at his homepage.
Please enjoy the newspaper article below, originally printed in July of 1961, as it tells the story of Sobotta Manor.
JOHN SOBOTTA FINISHES 72-YEAR CAREER IN FURNITURE BUSINESS By Jack Bennett - Winston-Salem Journal July 17, 1961 Page 3
Mount Airy – One of the longest careers in the American wood-working industry ended this spring in Mount Airy when John Sobotta retired from the National Furniture Company.
He spent 72 years in furniture manufacturing in Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina, 57 of those years were spent in Mount Airy
Mr. Sobotta, 86 stepped down April 15 as vice president of National Furniture Co., where he was in charge of manufacturing.
The nest day, on April 16, he left on a seven-week trip to Hawaii, British Columbia, and Michigan. In the latter state he visited his younger brother Otto, and other relatives and friends.
Mr. Sobotta has another brother, Julius, who lives with him here. All three brothers are in their eighties. Mr. Sobotta’s wife died 17 years ago.
“It took me a week to catch up on my mail,” Mr. Sobotta said this week in commenting on his return from Honolulu.
He was interviewed in his large English- style house on W. Pine Street. The tall brick structure, erected in 1932, was the first house in Mount Airy equipped with copper pipes. Much of the interior woodwork around the doors and windows was done in walnut, which is his favorite type of wood. The house is topped with a tile roof.
“This house was built during a time when there was plenty of labor,” Mr. Sobotta said. “Quality is not as good as it used to be. And Frank Hines (the contractor) looked after it”.
He showed the large back lawn with its many varieties of flowers, shrubbery and trees. “You should have seen the roses when they were in bloom.” He said, the place attracts squirrels, rabbits, and many kinds of birds.
Born in Germany, A native of Germany, he moved with his family to Michigan in 1880 when he was five years old. He grew p at Big Rapids, Mich. (north of Grand Rapids) and got his first job in a furniture factory when he was 14 years old. Except for a six-month period, he was associated with furniture until this year.
At the age of 19 he left Michigan and went to Indianapolis. Attempts were being made to unionize the factory were he worked. "I wouldn’t join a union, so I decided to leave and went to St. Louis for six months.
The next five years he lived in Atlanta, Ga. where he was assistant superintendent of a factory. “I was 28 years old and was interested in getting a job as superintendent somewhere. A salesman told me of a job in Statesville and one in Mount Airy. I decided on Mount Airy.”
"The salesman told me to keep the information quiet, that he might lose his job if they found out he told me of the openings and caused me to leave. But they told me in Atlanta that my job would be open for six months and that I could return if I didn’t like Mount Airy.
He went with National Furniture on January 1, 1904 just three years after it had been established by Alfred E Smith, John Banner, Charles Whitlock, and Jesse Rather, all of whom are now deceased.
Most of the original group were tobacco manufacturers who had decided to go into the furniture business.
Mr. Sobotta said that after he had been with the firm two years, he bought half of Mr. Banner’s one-fourth interest and later on bought the remaining stock owned by Mr. Banner.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith also purchased the stock held by the others. He was the father of J. Raymond Smith who now heads the firm.
During his long career many improvements have been made in furniture manufacturing, Mr. Sobotta said.
“For instance, at first, there was one kind of sandpaper. Today there are so many it’s hard to keep track of them. And animal glue was used in those days; today there are resin glues.”
“At the time I started, we were making ash and oak and a little maple. A cycle comes along and they’ll make mahogany or walnut in greater proportion than cherry. My preference is for walnut.”
“When I first started, they were cutting dovetails by hand.”
Asked if he had any hobbies, Mr. Sobotta replied; “None whatever. I never felt I had time for golf. I used to play little cards at night.”
Commenting on his job, he said, “It was never work to me. It was a pleasure to wake up in the morning and know I was going to the factory. I never had to push myself.”
I was raised a Lutheran, “Mr. Sobotta said. ”When I cane to Mount Airy they had none so I joined the Presbyterian Church."
“It was a wooden frame building on the edge of the sidewalk. It had just one room-one of the smallest churches in Mt. Airy.”
Just before World War l the First Presbyterian Church erected the present handsome edifice of Mount Airy granite at South Main and Church Streets. Mr. Sobotta has been active in supporting the causes of the church.
A year or two ago, his substantial contribution led to the construction of the attractive Boy Scout building at the church. The members voted to name it the John Sobotta Scout Hut in his honor.
For a number of years Mr. Sobotta has been one of the chief benefactors of Boy Scouting in this area of North Carolina.
One of his chief interests has been the 1133- acre Raven Knob Bob Scout Camp in the upper part of Surry County. “There’s nothing up there that Mr. Sobotta hasn’t had a hand in,” said a high official of the Old Hickory council this week.
Lake Sobotta, the 27-acre lake at Raven Knob, bears his name. He paid for the dam, the gates to the reservation and a substantial portion of the ranger’s home at Raven Knob.
Mr. Sobotta is a sustaining member of the Trust Fund of the Old Hickory Council and is a member of Silver Beaver, highest honor in scouting.
He is also active in financial and civic organizations. He is a director of Workmen’s Federal Savings and Loan and the Surry County Loan and Trust Company. A Mason, he is member of Granite Lodge and has belonged for some 30 years to the Mont Airy Kiwanis Club.
Mr. Sobotta, who was succeeded in the manufacturing post by John Geiger, his nephew, had a habit over the years of being at the factory “before the whistle blew.”
But in recent years, I had John there so I was a little later, "Mr. Sobotta said.
Mr. Sobotta said he thinks young people today have a difficult task in getting ahead, in establishing their own business.
“Some of them can, I suppose. Times have changed. But that’s progress.”
“I’m looking forward-not backwards”