One day, a northern Jackson County resident finds himself in need of a tool to complete a project at home.
Rather than making the drive to Brownstown, Seymour or Bedford, it would be nice to travel just a few miles to buy what he needs.
Well, he’s in luck.
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He can go down the road to Fritz Hardware in Freetown and find what he needs.
While he’s in town, he also could grab lunch at Cafe Maria and an ice cream cone at Twist ‘n’ Twirl and look around at The Wood Cobblers and More and S ‘n’ D Whistle Stop.
On his way back home, he could stop by Granny’s Corner to pick up some natural jams and jellies or local maple syrup or honey and buy a handmade gift for his wife. And he could swing by Robertson Country Market for locally raised meat and produce.
That’s just a sampling of the businesses that have sprung up in Freetown in recent years.
Buildings that once were empty or dilapidated have been remodeled and filled with merchandise. The business owners see more people driving through town and feel the community is “alive and worth the drive.”
“It’s just neat to see some life in a little rural town. It really is,” said Larry Courtney, who runs The Wood Cobblers and More with Russell Fritz. “People come by and see things being fixed up, and that instills a sense of pride in the town. It helps improve the the looks of the town, and it makes you feel good because it looks inviting for people. People like that little town, hometown flavor.”
Locating a business at the intersection of two busy highways, State Roads 135 and 58, proved to be a good move for Shirley Lookingbill and her husband, Jim. They operate Granny’s Corner, which sells knitted, crocheted and other handmade items among its merchandise.
That business, which opened in August 2012, has had visitors from surrounding counties, other cities and states and even foreign countries.
“I absolutely love the people I meet,” Shirley Lookingbill said. “To me, that’s the neatest thing, is learning different interests that the public has. It has just been a lot of fun. It really has. I enjoy it a lot.”
Knitting and crocheting are hobbies she and her sister learned at a young age. Later on, Shirley Lookingbill began making period design clothes for dolls and sold them at festivals.
Through her full-time job as a nurse at Seymour Place, she was talking to her co-workers about her hobby of making doll clothes. Their interest spurred Lookingbill to bring some of the dolls to work.
“The people just went crazy, and they bought them all,” she said. “Then I couldn’t make them fast enough. I’d go in with eight or 10 dolls, and they’d be gone within an hour, and they would be like, ‘When are you going to have some more?'”
Lookingbill thought having her own doll shop would be a good idea, and her product line expanded from there. The next step was to find a location for the store.
A 100-year-old building that once housed Freetown’s first gas station and automotive repair business and later was a motorcycle shop and a photography shop wound up being the right fit.
“We were going to buy a building in Vallonia to open up a shop,” she said. “Driving back and forth every day (from Freetown) and seeing this building, finally, it’s like, ‘We ought to just do something in Freetown right here close to home.'”
Lookingbill also offers free crochet classes at the store. She just prefers people to purchase the yarn and needles from her.
She’s happy to see the business become a success.
“I was determined and I’m still determined to keep the business open,” she said. “I don’t want to close it. Something really drastic is going to have to come along to close the doors. It never occurred to me that you’re going to fail.”
Venturing down State Road 58 into the heart of Freetown, a stretch of buildings houses Fritz Hardware, Twist ‘n’ Twirl and S ‘n’ D Whistle Stop, which have all been around for eight years. The newest addition there is The Wood Cobblers and More, which opened in April.
Russell and Donna Fritz own the building and are a part of the hardware store, ice cream shop and woodworking shop, while Donna’s sister, Diane Gillian, runs S ‘n’ D Whistle Stop, an antique and gift store.
Eight years ago, the Fritzes turned the rundown buildings into thriving businesses.
“For a long time, people didn’t come through (the downtown area). They went the other way because of the way it looked,” Russell Fritz said. “The fact that (people have) cleaned up the town and made it look better, people want to come through here.”
The Freetown and Pershing Township Museum and Cafe Maria opening in that area also have drawn people into town, Russell Fritz said.
The museum, which features historical items of Freetown and the township, opened in 2010. An annex was added this past year.
The Fagan family of Oolitic opened Cafe Maria in March. Before they remodeled the former grocery store building, it had sat empty for a year.
Dan Fagan and his wife, Kim, saw the building for sale while dropping one of their daughters off at a church camp in Freetown.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Dan Fagan said of starting a restaurant. “I’ve wanted to do this since 1982, but it just never worked out. An opportunity came, the Lord opened the doors up and we were able to step into this building and turn it around.”
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, featuring subs, salads, chicken, tenderloin, fish, burgers and more. Cafe Maria also offers family nights with special menu items and live music.
“We’re just trying to get the community involved, get people involved, get to know more people and get more exposure for us so we can grow in the community,” Dan Fagan said.
The Fagans said they are grateful because the business keeps growing, and they are seeing repeat customers.
“They said it became a ghost town and was kind of quiet, but we opened up, and people started coming through here,” Kim Fagan said.
“I think we brought that back, that little spark of glimmer and hope,” Dan Fagan said.
The town’s newest business is Robertson Country Market, which opened in April along State Road 58, a block from Granny’s Corner.
For several years, Matt Robertson had lived across the road and sold produce. But since he also has raised hogs, he decided to combine the two interests and open his own shop, selling produce, local pork, steaks and more.
“You’ve always been able to buy food straight from farmers, if you want to buy a whole hog or whatever and fill up your freezer,” he said. “But now, I offer the conveniences sort of like shopping at an old-time butcher shop. You can come in and get what you need at a reasonable price.”
All of the meat, eggs and produce found in Robertson’s shop are raised by him or other local farmers.
“It’s kind of twofold,” he said. “There are people wanting to buy local from people they know, and then there are a lot of people that are starting to realize that some of these chemicals and stuff that have been put in food for years are starting to have some adverse health effects.”
Going into Robertson’s store now, everything but produce can be purchased. Locally grown fruits and vegetables will be available starting in June or July.
“A lot of people grow produce and sell eggs, but there are not that many small butcher shops around anymore, and there are not that many places you can buy directly from a farmer in a setting like this,” he said. “I think that’s what sets me apart.”
All of the business owners agree they are excited to see the variety of offerings now available in Freetown.
“The townspeople are trying real hard to hang onto Freetown,” Shirley Lookingbill said. “We lost our school (in 2010). Once a town loses its school, it kind of loses a main artery. Everybody is working real hard to try to keep the town going. They are trying to keep it clean and get it fixed up.”
Donna Fritz said the influx of businesses is good since more people are moving to that area.
“Hopefully, there’s enough businesses here now and enough new people moved in that everybody will want to feel proud of their little town,” she said.
“As long as you can come here and take a tour through the museum, buy an antique or an ice cream cone or a wood product, go have dinner at the cafe and come down to Granny’s and pick up some honey or a knitted shawl or sweater, what more could you ask?” she said.
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Businesses: Fritz Hardware, Twist ‘n’ Twirl, The Wood Cobblers and More, S ‘n’ D Whistle Stop, Cafe Maria, BNR Design Inc., Woodlawn Freetown Funeral Chapel, Burnside Garage, Burnside Insurance Agency, Chadwell’s Barber Shop, Denny’s Grocery, Robertson Country Market, Granny’s Corner, Willman Garage and Sharon’s Nu-Image
Attractions: Freetown Park, Freetown Community Center, Freetown and Pershing Township Museum and Freetown July Festival
Organizations: Pershing Township Volunteer Fire Department, Pershing Township Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary, Freetown Senior Citizens Center, Lions Club, Freetown Leprechauns 4-H Club, Freetown July Festival Committee, Freetown Cemetery Board and Freetown Improvement Association
Churches: First Baptist Church, Old Regular Baptist Church, Freetown Church of Christ, Freetown United Methodist Church and Freetown Pentecostal Church