In late August, Mike Maupin spent his last day at Maupin Brothers, the Free Union general store that’s been his livelihood for 49 years. His family has owned and run the store since 1928, and Maupin’s been there for more than half that time. The store provided for the changing needs of the rural community: seeds for the garden, feed for the animals, staples for the kitchen, tools for the endless work of country life, treats for the children, shoes for the horses and fuel for cars, trucks and tractors.
It was a long, hard day, the last day, and people stopped in to thank the Maupins—Mike and his wife, Margaret—for their long service to Free Union. “They were here when we ran out of ice for our daughter’s wedding, or grain for the horses, or gas for the mower in the last hour before a week of rain,” said Debbie Miller, who came by with her husband, Larry, to say goodbye.
The store has filled other needs, no less important although less tangible, said Margaret. For 92 years the people of Free Union found a place to escape the isolation of country life and exchange news, messages and support; or just swap stories and enjoy a game of horseshoes in the summer, checkers in the winter. Until the very end, people left messages and packages at the store for each other.
Talking about old stories about the town, the people and the store, Mike and Margaret remembered Junior and Albert Morris, two brothers who hauled pulpwood and lived nearby. “They had the best stories.” Margaret said, “but when they died, their stories died with them.” In a turn-about, they told a story about Albert. He paid the store only once a year, figuring that’s the way it was done.
Other veteran storytellers hung out at the store: “You should have seen it during hunting season,” said Alex Rucker, who’s been a patron since 1995. “The parking lot was full of pick-up trucks, just hunters smoking and swapping tales. It’s a real, classic country store.”
“I’m probably more emotional about it than Mike,” Margaret said. She and Mike’s cousin, Donna Fitzgerald, met at the store during its final few days to remember its past. For the first several decades of its life, Maupin Brothers was across the street from where it now sits on the west side of Free Union Road. Cecil and Gabe Maupin were the original Maupin brothers, but Cecil remained at the store long after Gabe left, and was followed by three of his sons, Kemper, Galen and Garland, the second generation. And in that generation, there were plenty of Maupin Brothers: Cecil and his wife, Ora, had eight sons and two daughters.
Kemper outlived Galen and Garland by several decades, and worked there for 65 years—in fact, until the day he died. Garland’s wife, Marguerite, remembers doing payroll, and Kemper’s wife, Della, kept the books and worked in the store for decades, Other brothers came and went: Raymond, Larry and Milton, along with assorted children and cousins. As the next generation came of age, Mike worked beside his parents and uncles and, for a time, so did his brother, Tim. Kemper’s death and then Della’s were blows to the Free Union community as well as to the family. Both Maupins expressed gratitude to employee Nancy Ward for her help in the store at that time and afterwards.
Most family members pitched in when needed. Margaret, a special education teacher, said she helped out from time to time, as did their fourth generation children, Brennan and Raleigh. So did Donna Fitzgerald, who had various tasks in her childhood, including sweeping the floor, and a year-end review of receipts.
Fitzgerald, Garland’s daughter and Kemper’s niece, remembers a bit about the old store across the road. “They had live chickens in a coop for sale,” she said. “People would exchange chickens for groceries.” Her brother Barry, who worked in the old store for a time, would let the chickens out, much to Kemper’s frustration. Sometimes, the loose chickens would be nabbed and then brought back for barter or sale. Some of the kids did the same thing with soda bottle returns. In a 1950s version of recycling, a customer might pick up an empty bottle from the bin, collect the deposit, then pick up some more empty bottles from the bin to return again.
But mostly, all the transactions were made in good faith, and the business operated on trust. All three generations of Maupins extended credit without charging interest and sometimes, when times were hard, they just never collected. And people didn’t forget.
“Sometimes, years later, they’d come in and pay their bill,” Mike said. “Of course, there were also some that never did pay.” There was at least one woman they didn’t charge at all, just gave her what she needed for the week. The store offered free delivery, even of huge loads of hay and fertilizer. Outside, there was always free air for tires. Craftspeople placed their wares in the store, usually paying no consignment charge on a sale.
In the 70s, Free Union, like other rural areas, experienced an influx of young people fleeing suburban life. “Mom and dad always liked hippies,” Mike said. They befriended a few, said Margaret: one lived in a chicken coop, some lived in tents, some in tiny structures that seemed barely habitable. They moved on, but never forgot. More than one returned, older and wiser, to thank the Maupins for their kindness.
This was in keeping with the spirit of the community, which took its name from the Free Union Church, a cooperative of the local religions. The faithful built and shared a church, alternating Sundays, since no one denomination could afford a building. The “Free Union Church” served the congregations until each was able to build its own. When the town (then known as Nixville) needed to be renamed because of confusion with another town, it took the name of the church. Another religious landmark is Mt. Amos Baptist Church, which served Free Union’s Black residents.
Mike’s family had a long association with the Church of the Brethren, and counted at least one Brethren minister among its numbers. He said the decision to sell beer and wine in the “new” store was upsetting to his father’s pastor, but the men discussed it peacefully and remained friends. However, he said, in earlier days, his father and uncles told him that the good people from all the churches had a fondness for Hadacol, one of the best-selling patent medicines of all time. Hadacol was a mix of vitamins, honey, calcium and 12% alcohol, with just enough hydrochloride acid to speed its digestion. Nationwide advertising claimed it cured everything from cancer to illiteracy. Before Hadacol was discontinued in 1950, a case of 48 bottles would come into Maupin Brothers and sell out immediately.
The humble merchandise that provisioned a rural community sounds nostalgic now: there were stretchers for pelts, horseshoes, fabric and thread of all kinds, boots and overalls, penny candy for children, oysters and oranges at Christmas. Nails and dried beans––pinto and navy––were sold by the pound, horse collars and harnesses hung from a beam in the back. It was also a place where people could bring pelts, mostly raccoon, and ginseng to be exchanged for cash when the buyers came through. Herring was scooped out from a barrel, a job that gave the shopkeeper a frozen hand. A practical joker, later killed in Korea, figured out a way to trick the people who sat on the counter near the wood stove. He used metal strips heated in the fire to make the counter top burning hot. The joker was an accomplished boxer, so those who got burned didn’t want to confront him.
Milton “Pete” Maupin, at 90, the last survivor of Mike’s father’s generation, now lives in South Carolina. For a time he worked at the store and, in a phone call, remembered cross training, Maupin Brothers-style. He might be tinkering with a car in the morning, then when a hungry customer approached, he’d go inside to cut bologna and cheese, a fine lunch for a working man. Sardines and crackers were another lunchtime favorite in downtown Free Union. Pete remembers his dad, Cecil, as a benevolent man who thrived on serving the community. “We were in a good business,” he said.
Pete remembers his brother Kemper (Mike’s father and the storekeeper for 65 years) as one of the toughest men he ever knew. Wounded at Anzio during World War II, Kemper later ran a truck off the road and survived. Kemper suffered a heart attack in Deltaville but, disdaining the hospitals near the Northern Neck, drove all the way home before seeking treatment, again surviving. The man was tough but fair, a larger-than-life local figure who practiced frugality in his own life but proved generous to struggling families as well as hippies, and supported church efforts to improve the lives of Free Union’s people.
Pete was a character, too, his niece, Donna, remembered. No one knows why he was born with the name Milton but always called Pete. One of Pete’s adventures was especially thrilling to his young nieces and nephews. Commissioned by Garland to deliver hay to the circus encamped near downtown Charlottesville, Pete found himself at the campground with mud over his wheels and no way for him to get his enormous load anywhere near the hungry elephants. In the end, one clever elephant worked for its dinner, pushing the truck to its destination, then, after it was unloaded, pushing it back to solid ground with its giant elephant forehead.
Pete had the same generous spirit as all the Maupins, and perhaps word got around to Free Union’s young people. He recalls driving a truckload of bananas and stopping along the way to pick up a boy bound for a swimming hole. Later, he saw, all the bananas were gone.
In researching the store, Margaret found that the store was a major local employer during the 1940s and 50s. In later years, big box stores, on-line retail and the decline of the small farm took a toll on the store’s profits, but the family business was never all about the money. “We made a living, not a killing,” Margaret said. Like Cecil, Galen, Garland, Pete, Kemper, Della and all those involved with the store over nearly a century, the Maupins say they feel gratitude for the chance to be a vital part of the place they call home. “We have the best folks who live out here,” Margaret said.
Both Maupins are hopeful that the part of Free Union they recently sold ––their store and an additional property between the store and Free Union Road––will be used for the continued benefit of the community, where they plan to remain.
Mike Maupin is a quiet man who would rather listen than talk, but over the years he became the one man in town who knew most about what was going with everyone. With only one day off each week and one week off each year, he also got to know the town’s children, and liked seeing them learn the value of money by making their own decisions about what to buy. Once, he saw a toddler take its first steps to investigate the candy rack. He said he’s ready to retire and rest, but Margaret’s not so sure. “He’s used to seeing people all day, every day. I know he’ll miss it,” she said.
This account is not intended to be a full history, and the Gazette regrets any inaccuracies. The public is invited to share memories, photos or old documents having to do with Maupin Brothers or the town with Mike and Margaret at their Free Union home.