Matherites Featured in Union County News

Free's Shoe Shop Celebrates 100 Years in Business


In 1921, William E. Free Sr. borrowed $300 to start Free’s Shoe Shop in downtown Union.

“His Mama told him he would never pay it back,” William E. Free Jr. said in a 2000 interview. “I guess $300 seemed like half a million back then.”

The shop, and the Free family, survived good times and bad, including the tumultuous time of desegregation. The shop moved several times before locating to its present site on West Main Street across from the Union County Courthouse.

Free Jr. said it was hard for a black businessman like his father to hold on to a spot on Main Street during those times.

“If somebody else came along and wanted his place, he had to leave,” he said. “But he didn’t give up wanting to be on Main. He was determined he wasn’t going to be on a side street.”

The business has been at its present location since 1948 when Free Jr., a World War II veteran, had it constructed.

Today, Howard Free, Free Jr.’s son, continues to operate the shoe shop and his youngest son, William E. Free III, operates Union Community Funeral Home next door. When the threat of COVID declines, they, with their sister, Eleanor Free Devlin, said they hope to have a birthday celebration for the shoe shop.

William E. Free III, called Third by family and friends, said he and his siblings think it is quite an accomplishment that the shoe store has remained open this long.

“I think it is remarkable, unbelievable,” Third said.

“It was remarkable, to get through some of the Jim Crow things we had to go through, some of the racial tensions,” Howard said. “We were probably the only place in town that never had any segregation at all as far as people coming in, sitting down and getting services done. We were always an integrated business.”

Free Jr. who was 82 when he passed away in 2004, was one of four children of Free Sr. and his wife, Maggie Smith Free. He said his father learned the shoe trade from S. From before going into business for himself. Free Jr. went to work at the shop when he was a little boy, shining shoes in what was then a much busier downtown Union. People took a lot of pride in their shoes, he said, and they bought them with expectations that they would last a long time.

“I would leave out at 7 in the morning and it would be 9 before I would stop (shining shoes),” Free Jr. said. “My Daddy believed in us working. I started shining shoes as soon as I was tall enough to stand up at the stand, for 5 cents a pair. My father had four chairs in the shop for shining shoes.”

Free Jr. graduated from Sims High School and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University, where he earned a two-year degree in shoe repairing, brace making and leather repair.

“My father wanted me to do better than he did, but I didn’t see how I could,” Free Jr. said. “It was his desire that we would operate this shop for 100 years.”

Free Sr. retired in 1964. Free Jr. said he had a lot of good memories of the two of them working side by side in the business.

“The type of shoes we were working on then were good shoes and they were a pleasure to repair,” he said. “We had so much work to do we would hardly talk to each other during the day. He would always tell people I was the best shoemaker.”

Free Jr., who retired in 1987, did all the orthopedic work for the shop, making braces and special shoes for handicapped people or people with foot problems. He said this work was sometimes sad, but interesting.

Free Jr. and his wife, the former Juanita Hill, married in 1946. He put his wife through Benedict College, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. The Frees had their three children in five years and Mrs. Free also went on to earn her Master’s Degree. She retired as an elementary school science teacher and guidance counselor. She passed away in 2009.

Howard, Eleanor and Third earned their undergraduate degrees from Benedict College. Howard, who is now 73, returned to Union around 1985 to work with his father in the shoe store and Free Jr. retired in 1987. He later went back to work when Third opened Union Community Funeral Home in 1992.

Howard said he went to work in the shoe shop when he was around 6 years old, sweeping the floors and doing other jobs. After graduating from college he was a school teacher, worked in insurance with Deering Milliken and was a buyer for Westinghouse in Pensacola returning home to work with his father. He worked daily until around five years ago when he had to cut back to part time. His wife, Gayle, donated a kidney to him several years ago.

He said “everything” about the shoe business has changed since he went to work.

“Equipment, the type of shoes you are wearing, everything has made a 100 percent metamorphosis,” he said. “It had got to the place you couldn’t fix a lot of shoes because of the material. There is an art work to it and there will always be some work to be done. We not only fixed shoes but also horse saddles, belts and things for the mills, covers, orthopedic work, gun holsters for the sheriff, items for the fire departments. We were a multi-faceted business.”

Eleanor, 72, said she loved working in the shop and making deliveries to customers and running other errands on Main Street.

“I would go to the bank, sometimes it took me quite a long time because I would go by Harry From’s and Wilburn’s and Fincher’s,” she said. “Sometimes I got in trouble because I didn’t come back quick enough. I did wait on customers but there was a lot of things I didn’t know. I would take in shoes, and sometimes get the ticket and give customers their shoes back. I remember a lot of the customers who came in that worked in the hospital, that worked at the school with my Mom. I remember people calling very early in the morning at home, wanting to know what time Mr. Free was coming in. I remember the people who worked at the bank (Arthur State) and having a good relationship with them. I also remember going in (Kerhulas News) when I was going to the bank with a deposit.”

Third, who is 70, also grew up working in the shop. He remembers the times when the shop had contracts with the mills to sell steel toes and work shoes to employees.

Third graduated from Mather High School in 1968. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in Columbia and his master’s in guidance and counseling from South Carolina State College. He also worked in job development and counseling with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. He later worked for the South Carolina Department of Youth Services and the South Carolina Commission For the Blind. He retired in 2005 after working 28 years for the state. 

Free’s wife, the former Carolyn Green, is the daughter of the late Carry “Son” Green, who owned and operated Carolina Mortuary. He said over the years he found himself being asked to help out at the funeral home more and more. He furthered his education at Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Science where he earned degrees and got licenses in funeral directing and embalming. In 1992 he decided to go out on his own with a new funeral home in what was already an established market. He said he named it “Union Community Funeral Home” because it was a name that provided a sense of togetherness for the Union area.

Free also is a licensed embalmer and funeral director for funeral firms across the state.

Eleanor also graduated from Mather High School and earned her Bachelor’s from Benedict College. She also attended Princeton Theological Seminary and earned a Master’s from The University of South Carolina. In her career she has been director of drug treatment for the Lexington/Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, worked for DHEC for 28 years. She left in 1999 when her husband George’s job took them to Georgia. She now is retired and volunteers with Covenant House, a homeless shelter for youth and other organizations.

Eleanor said she and her siblings learned a lot from working in the shoe shop and being around their parents.

“During that time racial issues hadn’t gone away,” she said. “We were taught to respect all people and we are all the same and we should be kind and generous to everyone. I remember when my Mama integrated the school system. That was hard. But to watch her persevere and to watch my father and my grandfather maintain that business during that time, it taught me that if you want something and want to continue it bad enough, you stick to it. And let the teachings of our Master and Savior be instilled in us and carry us through.”