Dobson receives preservation award
LAKE CITY – At its best, historic preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present so people can shape the future they want to live in. The board of Central School Preservation (CSP) in Lake City is pleased to present its 2021 Preservation Champion Award to Lynn Dobson, founder of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd.
“It’s an honor to receive this award,” said Dobson, who received an art-glass sculpture with a personalized, metal plaque denoting his award from CSP. “My preservation efforts have helped me learn more about the history of Lake City and some of its prominent citizens, which has been a fascinating, rewarding experience.”
Dobson grew up on a farm near Lanesboro and attended school in Glidden. After earning his degrees in art and industrial education from Wayne State College in Nebraska in 1971, Dobson established his own pipe-organ building company in Lake City in 1974.
By April 1988, Dobson purchased a large, dilapidated Victorian home at 500 West Main Street in Lake City.
“The bank was auctioning the house, and I bought it for $14,000,” said Dobson, who noted that the home had sat empty for a number of years. “A tree had grown up beside the house, a branch had rubbed the shingles off the north side of the roof, and water had run through the house from the attic to the basement.”
Since the water pipes had not been drained properly, they leaked everywhere when the water was turned back on. The back porch had fallen down and was gone. The front porch had rotted out and collapsed to the point that the porch roof had pulled bricks in the wall above it out of place.
“The only other bidder at the auction had planned to cut the house up into apartments,” Dobson said. “They likely would have spent as little as possible to make it livable and milk any profits from it before until the house fell down.”
During the summer of 1988, Dobson and his friends reroofed the house and rebuilt the porches as a sign to the community that this house wasn’t going to be torn down.
“Over the next 10 years or so, we restored the house from top to bottom,” Dobson said. “I remember the excitement in town as we undertook this project, and the relief people expressed that such a prominent part of the town’s past was being preserved.”
Restoring an iconic piece of Lake City’s past
The home was originally built by General Cass Smith, the youngest son of Peter Smith, who founded Lake City in 1856.
“From the abstract, we found that General Cass Smith had built a house on the same site in 1889, so we assumed that this house dated from then,” said Dobson, who noted that the home’s architectural style supported that assumption. “However, we later learned that after a short time, Smith wanted a bigger house but liked that location, so he moved the old house to a different site and built his new, bigger place on the same corner lot.”
When Smith built his first house, he bought a book of house plans, which was common in those days.
“When he built the new house, he used the same book of plans,” Dobson said. “That’s why the house had every appearance of being older than it really is.”
A serial entrepreneur, Smith started a number of businesses in Lake City. After founding a company, he would find a manager to buy the business. Then Smith would move on to start yet another business.
“In 1896, Smith built the building that housed my pipe-organ shop,” Dobson said.
By the mid-1970s, Dobson had acquired this former John Deere building at 200 N. Illinois St. and began repurposing the building to house his pipe-organ factory. This property, which was known as the El Posco Block in the early 1900s, once housed the Lake City Electrical Concrete Post Co., which manufactured and sold patented, wire-reinforced cement fence posts, blocks, tile and sidewalks.
While General Cass Smith and his family invested in various Lake City businesses through the years, they didn’t live in their stately, 2 ¢-story brick home on Main Street all that long. In 1908, Smith and his family moved to Los Angeles, California.
“Smith’s great-grandson visited me while I was restoring the house and sent some family photos of when the Smiths lived in the house,” Dobson said.
Smith sold his Main Street home to John W. Jacobs and his wife, Bertha. Mr. Jacobs was a Lake City native who practiced law for 44 years and served as Calhoun County’s drainage attorney for many years. His wife was a professor of language and literature in the Woodbine Normal College, prior to her marriage.
Jacobs, a Republican who served in the Iowa Senate from 1909-1913, was also Iowa’s longest-serving lawyer with the Iowa Bar Association. Jacobs gave countless hours of service to local civic organizations, as well. He served as mayor of Lake City from 1898-1899 and 1918-1919 and helped bring the first water and sewer system to Lake City.
Jacobs lived in his home on Main Street until he passed away at the McVay Hospital in Lake City in 1964. Many years later, the Jacobs’ two daughters, Catherine and Jean, came to visit their childhood home. “They were in their late 80s at the time I was restoring the house,” Dobson said. “They provided photos of when they had grown up there. In particular, they had a picture of them standing on the front porch, which gave me the exact appearance of the porch railing details.”
Leaving a legacy
After Jacobs passed away, the house would have three more owners before Dobson bought the home and restored it. Dobson owned the home from 1988 until July 2015, when he sold the home to Jerry and Bonnie Snyder.
Next, Dobson renovated the 100+-year-old building at 103 Center Street in Lake City the summer and fall of 2015 and moved into his new apartment there in November 2015. He lives just a block from Lake City’s historic town square. In 1996, he envisioned rebuilding the town’s bandstand and supported the Town Square Restoration Project.
Just a few blocks west on Main Street, the elegant Victorian home he painstakingly restored years ago still stands as a reminder of the value of historic preservation. “The process of restoring that house was a true labor of love,” Dobson said. “I’m proud that I have been able to contribute something to the continuing history of the community.”
All these efforts exemplify the heart of a historic preservation champion and inspire others to see the possibilities in their local area. “Lynn has done so much for Lake City through the years,” said Darcy Maulsby, president of the Central School Preservation board. “We congratulate him for preserving Lake City’s rich history and highlighting the small-town charm that make this such a great community to call home.”
For more information on Central School Preservation, visit www.historiccentralschool.com.