By Phil James
His name was Nick, a free African American, likely born in the late 18th century. His adeptness as a blacksmith and the service that came to be expected by passersby who stopped at his roadside forge led to a small village slowly growing up around his stand. Into the early 20th century, several generations of locals and travelers routinely called that place Nicksville.
For succeeding generations who have known no need of a village blacksmith, we are indebted to the poet Longfellow, who, in 1839, memorialized such a smith as Nicksville’s own. The poet wrote, in part:
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands…
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low…
In the very early 1800s, the area’s small population center was two miles west of Nicksville at a place known as Thompson Neighborhood. That locality featured a store operated by Thomas Fretwell and a schoolhouse. “Fretwell’s Store,” according to early historian Edgar Woods, “was the place for holding elections for Overseers of the Poor for the northwest district of the county.” A tobacco house belonging to William S. Thompson was given some rudimentary improvements by the Methodists and Baptists, and came to be known as Garrison’s Old Meeting House, named after a Baptist minister.
By 1833, denominational preferences had led the Methodists to establish nearby a separate house of worship that they named Wesley Chapel in honor of English hymn writer and preacher Charles Wesley, who, along with his brother John, was credited with the founding of the Methodist movement in the mid-1700s.
The Baptist believers, labeled at that time as Old Side or Regular Baptists, migrated toward Nicksville, and, in 1833, joined with the Albemarle Baptist Association, their church name then being called Free Union.
The crossroads at Nick’s blacksmith shop had become a convenient point of rendezvous for many. A joint decision was made by four denominations—Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal, and Presbyterian—to maximize their collective lots by pooling their resources to support a church building. A two-acre tract was donated by the Burruss family in 1837, “being the lot of land on which a house for religious worship is now built, and called Free Union.”
The deed further stated that each denomination was assigned one Sabbath or Lord’s Day every month to use the building for religious services. Trustees representing each of the denominations were appointed to govern the use of the building by other Christian groups.
A decade later, in 1847, progress had made the village eligible for a post office designation. To avoid confusion with another Albemarle County village called “Nixville”, an official name change was deemed necessary. The name Free Union was chosen, borrowed from the local church assembly that represented a cross-section of the community; thus the hamlet’s original name and its namesake were lost to all but those who had known their origins.
As did similar churches of its day, the customs at Free Union Church included separate entrance doors for males and females as well as separated seating. The inclusion of both Black and White members on the church roles was also customary, Blacks usually being the enslaved property of White church members. Records for the Baptist congregation in 1859 noted 110 members: 69 White; 41 Black. Following the Civil War, the tradition of mixed-race congregations ceased in most churches, as African Americans finally were allowed to assemble together freely under the law.
Over time, the various Free Union Church partners grew to be able to support their own individual places of worship, leaving the Baptists as the only church group still using the 1830s brick structure. In 1971, legal papers were drawn designating Free Union Baptist Church as the sole owner of the property. Through the ensuing decades, they have proven to be faithful stewards of the building and property, ensuring its availability to succeeding generations.
Longtime Free Union businessman E.J.T. “Eddie Tom” Maupin (1870-1958) told writer/historian Vera Via that Nick’s blacksmith shop had been located on the corner opposite his store and garage at Free Union. At separate times, several store buildings had been located on Nick’s former site; the last one (today a private residence) was occupied for many years by Cecil Maupin and his three sons, the well-known “Maupin Brothers” of Free Union.
The wagon road from Nicksville to Thompson Neighborhood to Free Union has known the steady march of history, each step of which deserves to be recalled and retold.
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