In her 99 years, Lois Ann Hobbs owned two mill houses, biked across the world and raised six kids
By Jessica Stringer | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Lois Ann Hobbs has perhaps the best view of the Carol Woods gardens from her corner room at the retirement community. It’s where she commonly eats lunch with other residents. Someone walks by every so often, and the 99-year-old waves. “This is really an awfully good place for me, because I can be so active,” she says. “I sweat regularly. I have access to all the [workout] machines.” Lois Ann also swims laps at the pool every week.
Another benefit of her apartment’s location is its proximity to the kitchen where she regularly bakes bread – so frequently, in fact, that King Arthur baking company got wind of her passion and mailed her bags and bags of flour. She sends visitors, including me, home with a loaf or two.
Lois Ann loves her Carol Woods community. “We have a lot of interesting groups that [focus] on the environment and on peace and justice and all these things that I’m interested in,” she says. “So I don’t feel like I’m isolated. Even with the virus, we kept meeting on Zoom. So I feel like this is probably the reason that you can stay pretty active if you want to.”
The New Jersey native first came south for summer school in 1942, back when Chapel Hill served as the location for a U.S. Navy preflight school. “I was ready for another adventure,” she says. With so many young men in the area, her calendar was full. One particular date, then an officer, Gerald Ford, would later become president. (“He had a beautiful convertible,” Lois Ann recalls.)
But it wasn’t until her last week in town that she met her match in Grimsley Hobbs Sr. “He started telling me about spending the summer restoring Baldwin’s Mill with his father out in Chatham County,” Lois Ann says. “And I thought, ‘What an adventure.’ And he was 6 foot, 5 inches tall and good-looking, so that didn’t hurt. Then he began telling me about being a Quaker, and I was already a pacifist. I said, ‘Well, that’s what I believe.’ We had a lot in common. We got married the next year.”
After World War II and a few moves later, the couple landed back in the area with Grimsley pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Duke. “That’s how we happened to end up at Gimghoul Castle,” she says. For four years, they served as the caretakers of the iconic castle, living in an apartment in the tower with their two kids. “We didn’t have to do anything in terms of taking care of it, except once a year, turn out all the lights so they can have an initiation [for the Order of Gimghoul].” During this time, Lois Ann worked as a social worker in Pittsboro while Grimsley finished his dissertation.
They then moved again for Grimsley’s teaching job at Earlham College in Indiana. “That’s when we bought the mill and had that adventure,” she says. “We bought it for $1,600. The pigeons were living in it, and the windows were boarded up.” She points up to a framed print that reads, “Audace sempre audace!” “It means, ‘Be daring, always be daring,’” she says. It’s a phrase that sums up her experiences and attitude over 10 decades. “It’s doing the hard thing – not necessarily risking your life – but doing something that is challenging.”
Making that mill livable and restoring it was hard work on top of raising their kids, who now numbered six. “We did all that work ourselves,” she says. With an abundance of cornmeal and whole-wheat flour, she found her lifelong hobby of bread-making. “That was the obvious thing to do with all that flour and all those hungry children,” she laughs.
They lived there for 15 years before moving back to Baldwin’s Mill in Chatham County, the home to the Hobbs family since 1941. “We built another house out there,” Lois Ann says. “We’ve built several houses now out there. And we have our children living there, some grandchildren living out there, even great-grandchildren out there. And a cousin.” Today, the three-story grist mill just off the Haw River is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lois Ann also lives up to her favorite saying in part by traveling whenever possible, whether it’s a long stay in Greece with Grimsley or training for a year for an Outward Bound trip spent climbing and repelling. At 53, she was the oldest out of the group of women in their 30s. Lois Ann estimates she’s been to 45 countries. “I started going on bike trips [in 1995] after my husband died in 1990,” she says. “A friend and I [rode] down the Seine in France with a group.” Accompanied by friends, she took other trips in her 70s, including biking along the Hudson River and from Munich to Vienna. “Take advantage of it when you can,” she advises.
She’s even gotten her grandchildren in on the fun, driving down the California coast with one of her granddaughters and visiting Venezuela with a grandson. “The most interesting thing is being friends with your grandchildren,” she says. “I think there’s the fact that you have that distance and time [between the generations, so] you are able to see each other in a different way than you do your parents [or your own children].” Ever the doting grandmother, Lois Ann can’t help but be grateful for her youngest travel companions. “One of my children [once] said that I am always bragging that my grandchildren are perfect,” she says laughing. “[That] I see nothing wrong with them.”