Dear Ace: Why is Free Union called Free Union? The name seems a little grandiose for what’s sort of a one-horse town, don’t you think?—Crozet T. Robot
Crozet: Yeah, sounds kinda like it should be home to a few Montana militiamen, doesn’t it? But Virginia has plenty of weird town names, though a lot of ‘em have changed over the years. Front Royal used to be Helltown, for example. Roanoke was Big Lick. Bridgewater? Dinkletown. The best has got to be Strasburg, up by Front Royal. Back in the 1700s, it was called Funktown. Bootsy Collins would be proud. But Free Union is still Free Union. What’s that about?
Free Union was once called Nicksville—before major postal confusion created the change.
It actually turns out that, like Funktown, Free Union wasn’t always Free Union. According to Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society records, Albemarle County borders were redrawn in 1761, establishing some towns in the process, and what’s now Free Union became part of the county. Only a few members of the Maupin family lived there until a free African-American named Nick set up shop as a blacksmith in the area in the early 1800s and a community grew around him. The villagers started calling the place Nicksville.
So how’d Nicksville become Free Union? In 1837 Nicksville, the Free Union Church of the Brethren was founded, so named because it was a union of four denominations: Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist and Scientologist. O.K., O.K., Presbyterian. Anyway, 10 years later, the area got postal service and gave its official postal designation as Free Union as to avoid confusion with Nixville, which was another Albemarle town back then. It seems that the choice was somewhat random, and everyone still called the place Nicksville until well into the early 20th century. But eventually, folks started using the name their mail was addressed to, and “Free Union” overtook “Nicksville.” Good thing, too; apparently, for the first few decades, Free Unioners had trouble with that idea and failed to pick up mail addressed to Free Union, spawning possibly the most sarcastic classified ad ever placed. A blurb from a September 19, 1865, issue of the long-defunct Charlottesville Chronicle implores the citizens of Free Union to pick up their packages from the post office: “Are the people of Free Union dead? Or are they merely taking a snooze? Do they know that the City of London has been destroyed by a sudden influx of the sea, and two million of persons drowned?” And Ace thought he was acerbic.