NOTE: Our website contains breaking news and a sampling of what you'll find in our print product - published each Monday. For full content, subscribe to the Union County News today!
William Free continues family’s tradition of service
By ANNA BROWN
William E. Free III says many family members and friends have played important parts in his life, seeing him through the good times and the tough times.
“I've been in business for 24 years and I've been in the funeral service since 1975,” said the Union Community Funeral Home owner and operator. “By the grace of God, we are still here. It's always been about serving Union and the people of Union have been good to us.”
Being on Main Street in a business that serves others is in Free's genes. He grew up in the family's shoe shop business, watching how his father, William E. “Elmo” Free Jr., and his grandfather, William E. Free Sr., interacted with customers and made a living. His brother, Howard, still operates Free's Shoe Shop next door to the funeral home.
These days Free, affectionately called “Third” by family and friends, is looking toward the future, with renovations recently completed to the funeral home. The chapel, which seats 200, has been redesigned. It has been painted and has new lighting, new air conditioning, new drapes and a new ceiling.
Free is one of three children of the late Elmo and Juanita Free. He said his parents always encouraged him.
“My mother was my fifth grade teacher and she was very hard on me,” said Free. “They were a source of great support; my greatest supporters and greatest friends.”
He said he grew up being accepted and loved in a lot of different homes and always being welcome to eat at the table of Ada Sims, Floree Robinson, Lula Bates, Virginia Kelly, Josephine Ray and his in-laws, Son and Lillie Ruth Green.
Free and his sister, Eleanor Devlin, both graduated from Mather High School, he in 1968. After graduating from high school, Free earned his bachelor's degree from Benedict College in Columbia and his master's in guidance and counseling from South Carolina State College.
His first job was working 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 said as a young man he was a little apprehensive about going into a funeral home and he doesn't think he had ever been in one until it came time to ask his future father-in-law, Carrie “Son” Green for his daughter Carolyn's hand in marriage. Green was owner and operator of Carolina Mortuary.
“He chuckled, puffed on his cigar and said, 'If you love her, you can marry her,'” Free remembers.
Carolyn is director of multicultural affairs at South Carolina State University. Their daughter, Marti, who recently earned her Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University, is an instructor at American University in Washington, D.C.
Free 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 named it “Union Community Funeral Home” because it was a name that provided a sense of togetherness for the Union area. He assembled a group of professionals to help him provide services including James Foster, Anthony Smith, Shirley Browning, Frederick Gregory, Anthony Lipsey, his brother and his parents.
Aside from the business the funeral home does, Free also works as a licensed embalmer and funeral director for funeral firms across the state on 140 to 150 cases a year.
“We have the capacity to serve families of all races, creeds and colors in all capacities to provide the best professional service possible,” Free said. “I enjoy serving Union. Our family loves Union and we will continue to serve it and provide the best professional service possible.”
The funeral home offers pre-need services, traditional services and cremation.
Free said no matter what happened, he felt he always had the support of family and friends including the Rev. J. Archie Calhoun and Corinth Baptist Church, Norman Johnson, Leroy Morant, Margaret Berry, Mike Lopes, John Lesane, Caldwell Pinckney, Douglas Rhodes, Harriett White, Fannie Mae Means, Mildred Giles, Donald Wicker, Anthony Smith, Billy Duncan, Annie Pearl Smith, Shirley Browning, the late Annie Ruth Spears, the late James Foster his aunts, Maggie Wilson and the late Jessie Mae Sims and his sister, Eleanor Devlin.
“I'm still looking to the Lord for guidance,” Free said. “I want to see just what I'm supposed to do. I want the Lord to tell me which way to go. God always answers prayers and provides a ram in the bush.”
Ag + Art Tour highlights local farms and artisans
By KELSEY AYLOR
The nation's largest free farm and art tour is coming to Union County this weekend.
Showcasing rural life, the Ag + Art Tour has attracted more than 20,000 visitors since it began in 2012. Union's event begins with a kick-off dinner on Thursday and involves nine sites featuring local artisans, offering tours, fresh food and handmade crafts.
Libby Oliver, chairperson for the event planning team, said the Ag + Art Tour is a very exciting opportunity for farmers and artisans to show off their wares and for visitors to learn more about the rural life and the importance of homegrown food.
“This is our second year doing the tour, and we've been growing steadily since last year,” she said. “We've learned more about how to make this event successful and what mistakes to avoid, and because of that the farmers that are participating can see the potential of the tour and are very supportive of it.”
Oliver has been working on organizing Union County's tour for over half a year and has been helped along the way by vice chairperson Elise Ashby and committee members Louise Unti, Marsha Jordan and Curtiss Hunter. She said that through extensive meetings held anywhere from the tourism office to her front porch, the group has become very cohesive and close.
This year, the tour will feature sites including a ranch, a stone-ground mill, the local physic garden, a beer garden and smaller scale farms. Ashby said there is a nice variety and there is a little bit of everything for everybody on this tour. Each site will also have at least one or two artisans or musicians on site, selling their works or performing.
“There's so much that this event has to offer,” she said. “And as the tour grows, so does community participation. This truly is an opportunity for everybody to work together to grow everybody. And that is our ultimate goal, to grow the county.”
Both Oliver and Ashby said that in organizing the event, other organizations have gotten involved which has created a revitalized fresh food movement in Union. They have worked in conjunction with the library, the Eat Smart Move More campaign and the Catawba Fresh Market in order to show the importance of knowing where your food comes from.
“People want to know what goes into making their food,” said Oliver. “They like to know that there aren't a bunch of chemicals or growth hormones in it. And this sentiment isn't only specific to Union, it's running across the country.”
Ashby also thinks it's important that visitors to the tour sites get to experience farm life firsthand. Most of the sites offer hands on activities such as petting zoos, cow milking demonstrations and fruit picking to show how farms operate and function.
“It's so rewarding to see both the kids' and the adults' faces light up. They get really excited about this, about eating clean and getting dirty and about learning where their food comes from, and that is amazing,” said Ashby.
Oliver also said that she hopes the tour can inspire people to grow their own backyard gardens and show them that it is possible to make healthy homegrown food that tastes just as good as a junkier alternative.
“I think kids, if they had the opportunity, they would choose the fresh fruits and vegetables over the junk food. It's just that often, they don't have the opportunity,” said Oliver. “But if people plant their own food, that can be so meaningful. To create something - that can give a child a lot of self confidence, a lot of things in their life, rather than pulling up to a drive through window.”
Oliver said that through the weekend-long event, she hopes that people will understand what the purpose of the tour is: to promote farms in the area, to show people that it is possible to have a farm and make a living from it, and to inspire people to visit farms on the weekend as a fun destination for the family.
“If anyone is on the fence about coming out this weekend, I'd just remind them that it's free. You have nothing to lose - just get in the car, pick an address and drive out there. It's a great opportunity because a lot of these sites normally charge, but this weekend you can go whenever you want at no cost.”
One such site is Oliver's ranch, Hereford Hills, where she raises grass-fed beef and pasture pork. This weekend the ranch will open a new country store that offers grits, jams and jellies, fresh dairy products and meats, many of which are supplied by the other sites like Olivia's Way Gardening or the Jackson Farm Garden.
“Working to organize the tour has been wonderful because it's an opportunity to meet other farmers and to collaborate with them. We're creating a new family, a new team that supports each other,” said Ashby. “We can only grow, we can only get bigger and better.”
Oliver and Ashby are planning for sustained growth for the tour. Ashby, after serving as the vice chair this past year, will take over as the chair for Oliver, who will continue to serve as a committee member. They want to continue spreading the word about the tour so it can become even bigger.
Oliver said they want to include more artists, more craftspeople and more farmers in the future. She said it has been especially difficult in the past finding local artists, often because many who create arts or crafts don't think of themselves as such.
“We want to encourage people that you don't have to be a professional artist to create. We're just looking for people to think outside of the box, people that make something with their hands or who play music,” said Oliver.
Ashby extends that idea to farming itself, saying that it doesn't matter the size of the farm for someone to get involved.
“You could grow 17 rows of tomatoes, or you could grow a single plant. It doesn't matter. If you love planting flowers, that's fine too. If you are involved with agriculture or art in any way, we encourage you to reach out to us, to try and participate.”
Through the collaboration between the many farms, the tour hopes to bring an inviting and positive atmosphere to the city and to the county.
“We want people to see that Union is a place to come, a place to live, raise their children and to enjoy because it does have more than just its past reputation,” said Oliver.
The tour will kick off with a Farm to Table dinner at the Veterans Park Lodge at 6 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $25 per person and are available at Sanders Garden Center. The dinner will be buffet style with all products coming from the participating tour sites, as well as a complimentary glass of wine or beer from a local winery or brewery. There will be live music provided by Freddie Vanderford and transportation available from the parking lot.
All of the sites on the tour will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more about the sites, including addresses, contact information and schedules visit http://www.agandarttour.com/union.
(Posted June 20, 2016)