Blowing Rock Rustic Accessories
Although we just acquired these two rustic accessories, a mantle clock and a magazine holder, their styles are familiar to us. In the past dozen years, we have owned four lamps and a hat rack by the same hand.
All were made near the mountain resort town of Blowing Rock, North Carolina in the 1920s-1930s by a man whom collectors and museum curators for years referred to simply as “the Blowing Rock artist,” based on the location name he inscribed on some of his pieces. Both the range of unique rustic wares he produced and the story of how his identity was ultimately uncovered are intriguing enough to delve into before describing these two most recent additions to our inventory.
Works from the Blowing Rock Artist’s Oeuvre
This tall rustic sculpture was the first Blowing Rock piece we owned. It is a tree-like sculpture that incorporates a lamp, a clock, a magazine holder and a pencil holder (visible in the photo approximately mid-way up the base trunk). The sinuous, vine-like accents are the roots of rhododendron and laurel shrubs which grow abundantly in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains near Blowing Rock. “Blowing Rock NC” was punched into the top of the pencil holder.
A year later we acquired this very similar sculpture that was not marked, but is clearly by the same maker. In addition to a clock, lamp, magazine holder and pencil holder, this piece also includes a cylindrical vase forming the right arm.
This artist seems to have been quite fond of pencil holders, which were also incorporated into this pair of table lamps.
The top of the pencil holder on one of the lamps shown in this close-up was stamped “Blowing Rock NC.”
Finally, this hat rack not only includes a plate punched with the Blowing Rock place name,
it has a second plate that says “ALT 4300 FT.”
Presumably the altitude refers to the elevation of the town of Blowing Rock, or to its renowned Blowing Rock cliff, although today the town’s elevation is listed at 3,600′ above sea level and the cliff at 4,000′.
The cliff is famous for affecting the strong wind currents that come from the gorge below it so that snow blows vertically upward rather than falling downward. It is also famous as an overlook onto stunning Appalachian Mountain views.
The cool mountain air and magnificent mountain vistas in the Blowing Rock region began attracting well-to-do tourists during the “rusticator era” of the 1880s. The upscale tourist economy became Blowing Rock’s main source of revenue and employment in the late 19th century, as it still is today. Thus the Blowing Rock artist was well situated to make a living selling his rustic creations to tourists during the first decades of the 1900s.
Discovering the Identify of the Blowing Rock Artist
In an article for Voices, the newsletter of the North Carolina Folk Art Society, L. A. Rhyne chronicles his quest for the identity of the Blowing Rock artist on behalf of North Carolina’s Asheville Art Museum.
His story begins in 2002 when he picked up on a lead published in a 1995 article claiming that the artist was a Mr. Gragg who once lived in and sold rustic wares from a log cabin on Highway 221 between Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain. So Rhyne started knocking on doors in that area where he eventually met several Gragg family members, but none remembered a relative making rustic pieces, nor did they recognize any of the Blowing Rock creations they were shown in photos.
After another year of research that resulted in dead ends, Rhyne drove to Boone, NC to meet with the editor of the local newspaper, The Blowing Rocket, who ran a photo of a Blowing Rock piece. His contact with the newspaper editor led Rhyne to five more people who knew of the log cabin on Highway 221. But he did not make any headway until he happened to stop at an antiques store between Boone and Blowing Rock in late 2003. The antiques dealer who was in his eighties at the time, told Rhyne about “a Dobbins man” who had been dead a long time, but who once had a “factory” on Highway 321 where he made and sold “rustic stuff.” The man’s full name was Charles J. Dobbins.
After an initial fruitless visit with Stella Dobbins, the widow of Charles Dobbins’ son Joe, Rhyne got a follow-up phone call from her saying she had just remembered a cupboard hanging in her garage that her father-in-law had made that “had twigs nailed on it.” So Rhyne returned to Stella’s house, and as soon as he saw the hanging cupboard he recognized all of the characteristics of the Blowing Rock artist’s rustic work. Even better, the piece was stamped in ink on the back, “C.J. Dobbins, Patterson, NC” and “Made in Caldwell County, 1933.”
In early 2004 Rhyne visited Doug Dobbins, Charles Dobbins’ grandson. When he showed him photos of the Blowing Rock artist’s creations, Doug immediately remembered seeing similar pieces at his grandfather’s shop on Highway 321. Doug’s father Joe Dobbins had once told him that his job as a boy was to use a punch to stencil “Blowing Rock NC” on to his father’s creations. Thus the identity of the Blowing Rock artist as Charles Dobbins was established.
Charles Dobbins (1876-1955) was born in Mt. Holly, NC, but was living in Blowing Rock by 1907 according to voter registration records. He went to college in Boone and became a teacher for a while. His granddaughters recounted that he also “doctored,” meaning that he was an herb healer in the community.
Dobbins had a shop in a log cabin on Highway 321 in Patterson, about 10 miles south of Blowing Rock, that tourists would pass en route to the mountain resort town. The “factory” where he made his wares was behind his retail shop, across a gorge where he had built a swinging bridge for traversing from his workshop to his store.
Charles Dobbins lived in Patterson until 1952, which is also the year that Highway 321 was relocated. Dobbins moved to Sawmill, NC where he lived for the final years of his life.
Charles is buried, along with his son Joe, in the cemetery at Nelson’s Chapel Baptist Church in Lenoir, NC. Thankfully, his rustic creations live on.
Two Blowing Rock Accessories
In addition to large, functional sculptures such as floor lamps, Dobbins’ intriguing and distinctive rustic wares for the tourist trade included smaller pieces such as this clock and magazine holder.
Although this mantle or table clock (19.5″ w, 9″ d, 22″ h) is not stamped, it is clearly Charles Dobbins’ work.
The twig-adorned clock face surround is a figured burl slab, a material he also used to frame the clocks within his taller creations.
Dobbins’ clocks always sat on on a shelf behind the burl facing. The other two clock/lamp sculptures we’ve owned had an old alarm clock sitting on the back ledge, neither of which functioned any longer.
Presumably the clock that once sat on this shelf also no longer worked, as it was replaced by an owner in recent years with a modern, functioning, battery-operated clock that was placed in the original clock face opening rather than on the shelf.
The magazine holder (12″ w, 11.5″ d, 21.5″ h) has a similar front and back half-round slat construction as the magazine holders that were incorporated into Dobbins’ floor lamp/clock creations.
It also has sinuous rhododendron root and twig accents.
A burl slab on the front of the magazine holder is stamped “Blowing Rock NC.” Note that the “C” in “Rock” is reversed, which is supporting evidence that Charles’ young son Joe was assigned to imprint the place name using letter punches, as reversing the letter “C” is not an unusual mistake for children to make.
Together these two accessories demonstrate not only Charles Dobbins’ artistic and woodworking abilities, but also his marketing savvy. He made rustic wares that gave tourists not only concrete reminders of the place where they sought a mountain respite from their city lives, but also which would be functional (sometimes multi-functional) back at home.
Given that the names of rustic artists are so often lost in time, we are grateful for the persistence of an appreciator of southern folk arts in uncovering the identity of Charles Dobbins as the creator of these iconic rustic wares.
Rhyne, L.A. (2004) In Search of the Blowing Rock Artist. In Voices: The Newsletter of the North Carolina Folk Art Society, Vol. 11.