A River Runs Through It

Five generations of the Hobbs family have called Baldwin’s Mill home

By Matt White | Photography by Briana Brough

The water is the kind of cold that makes you gasp even though that’s the worst thing you can do. It looked so inviting from the shore, a woodsy Chatham swimming hole, perfect for a quick dip on this 80-degree, late spring afternoon. And few spots in Chatham are as enticing as the pond at Baldwin’s Mill, the home to the Hobbs family since 1941 – calm and deep, covered in April sunshine as a serene waterfall cascades over its dam.

But diving in is a quick reminder – too late – of a stormy cold snap just days before that filled Terrells Creek with frigid rain, now trapped in this pond. You thrash at the water, worried your arms will soon go numb. All the while, just a few feet away, Taylor Hobbs, a Pittsboro architect and the fourth generation of Hobbs to swim here, floats on his back, smiling.

“Feels great,” he says, his face bobbing above the water, his breath conspicuously unforced and even. “Just what you need to wash the day off.”

This water is in Taylor’s bones, just as it is for his father and business partner, Grimsley T. Hobbs Jr., standing on the small patio nearby, also with a big smile. They are smiling because, well, they know how cold it is.

There’s precious little the Hobbs don’t know about Baldwin’s Mill after almost eight decades here. Once a trading village, today the property is a Hobbs family retreat just off the Haw River. Grimsley’s grandfather, Richard Junius Mendenhall Hobbs, or R.J.M. a UNC professor, bought the spread in 1941, and the family has restored and added on to the site, piece by piece, often by hand, over the years. Today, three generations of Hobbs live in four homes along the gravel road that splits the property, ending at a three-story grist mill that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chatham is covered in the Hobbs’ fingerprints. As architects, Grimsley and Taylor – who is actually Grimsley T. Hobbs III but has always gone by Taylor – led the rebuild of the Historic Chatham County Courthouse and designed the Agriculture & Conference Center. Taylor’s wife, Catherine, is a realtor and community outreach leader for the Chatham Arts Council.

Grimsley and his wife, Dottie, live in a house next to Taylor, Catherine, Emma, 14 and Griffin, 12. Another set of grandchildren, Jonah, 6, and Jack Knutson, 3, visit often with their mom, Dr. Katherine Hobbs Knutson, Taylor’s sister. Grimsley’s sister, Louise Hobbs, and a cousin, Gretchen, live onsite while Grimsley’s mother, Lois Ann, comes down from Chapel Hill regularly.

“One of the nice things is she’s presided over this transition between the generations,” Grimsley says.

At the heart of their property is the mill itself, a hulking, three-story timber building. Painted brown with a red roof, the mill is the spiritual center of the Hobbs’ property, at once a family gathering spot, a multi-generation tinkering hobby and a working piece of history. Believed to date to 1790, the mill came with stories of square dances held on its open floors, and the Hobbs have used it for weddings and kids’ parties. A birthday celebration for Emma and Griffin turned the main floor into a toddler’s maze while bluegrass musicians played at Lois Ann’s 96th.

The original trading crossroads grew around the 200-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall dam across Terrells Creek. The water powered both the main grist mill and a saw mill, with a blacksmith and a general store in nearby buildings. Farmers from around Chatham brought harvests to be milled, paying the owners with a share of the results.

Though dozens of mills dotted Chatham’s three rivers through the 1800s, their time had passed by the time R.J.M. bought the 10-acre spread. Over a series of summers, he put his sons to work restoring it. Almost 80 years later, the restoration is both long complete and never quite done. In the rafters, boards cut smooth with modern saws share space with planks still hewn with axe marks – proof they date to the mill’s origin. Still, it’s more a living building than a museum. The work itself – the constant improvements and maintenance, the fusing of old boards and old methods with new – is the Hobbs’ true heirloom, a tradition passed from generation to generation. It’s little wonder that after R.J.M. and Grimsley Hobbs Sr. spent careers as college professors, the next two generations became architects. Even when Grimsley Sr. moved his family to teach at a college in Indiana, they lived in a mill.

“It’s a fascination,” Grimsley says. “It’s just something my family was always attracted to.”

The mill is fully functional: Water from the pond runs down a narrow stone channel to turn an 18-foot water wheel, powering massive gears in the floors above. When the full machinery runs, the building sways.

Back at the pond, the cold water will warm as spring becomes summer, and by August, the dry months will drop the water below the dam’s top, turning it too thick to swim. But the seasons will change again, and Grimsley sees future Aprils when generations of Hobbs still to come will catch other unwitting visitors in a dip in the pond that’s a bit too cold for comfort.

“I grew up here, Taylor grew up here,” Grimsley says. “I want Emma, Griffin, Jack and Jonah to grow up here.” CM

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