The business complexion of Sugar House - once a coal and lumber center and the furniture capital of the Intermountain West - has gone through many changes through the years. And one man who has observed much of what has gone on in Sugar House's business district for nearly the past seven decades is Ray D. Free.
Now 79, Free has either lived in Sugar House or has been actively involved in the business community since he was 12 years old. That's when his father, J. Roy, founder of Hygeia Ice Co. in 1912, moved his family to a home at 822 E. 2100 South."It was great growing up in Sugar House," remembered Free, who went on to head up Hygeia Ice and other Sugar House businesses. Five years ago he sold the Hygeia complex, but he still maintains an office at 2188 Highland Drive, where he is a partner in Hygeia Partnership.
One thing that Free, who also is a retired major general in the U.S. Army Reserve, feels has helped to solidify the Sugar House business community - at least for the past 40 years since it began - has been the annual Sugar Days promotion.
Sugar Days was started in 1949.
"Henry Richards of Granite Furniture, who died in February 1988T came up with the idea," said Free, who had served as president of the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce the previous year and again in 1955, the first person to serve twice as president of the Sugar House chamber. "We were meeting in a chamber committee meeting, and Henry suggested as part of a spring sales promotion that we give away sugar. Everybody thought it was a good idea. It is such a natural thing - `Sugar Days in Sugar House.' "
But Sugar Days is more than a sales promotion - it is also held in observance of the founding of the community, which is generally accepted as being on April 23, 1854. On that date Margaret M. Smoot - wife of Abraham O. Smoot, who was to direct the operation of the sugar mill being erected in the center of the community - suggested the name Sugar House in honor of the sugar mill which, unfortunately, never produced any sugar.
"In spite of all the changes in Sugar House through the years, Sugar Days has helped keep the business community together," said Free. "It has been an excellent promotion."
When Free, now still vigorous, speaks of memories of Sugar House, the names of many of the families, who were stalwarts in the business community 40-50 years ago, flow easily and quickly. These families were his friends, his neighbors, his business associates.
"There were a great bunch of people here," he reflected. "We had a great time together."
Many of the kids he associated with as a youth later became businessmen in Sugar House. "Many times," he said, "they were your competitors, but they were always your friends."
Free, himself, said he "grew up at Hygeia." He remembers when he was about 12 and his first job at Hygeia was stacking wood. He had helped tear down a barracks at Ft. Douglas and stack the wood at Hygeia.
When he was in high school, his job was to check in the drivers in the evening. Later he made deliveries of ice with a team of horses. His route was from 21st South to 9th South and from 11th East to 13th East. "It would take me two days to cover the area; we made deliveries to all the houses in that area except four."
After World War II, refrigeration came in. In 1946, the ice business nationally dropped some 30 percent, Free explained. "It hit us in 1948. Our business was hit by about a 30 percent drop also."
But Hygeia changed with the times, and frozen food lockers and an ice skating rink became an integral part of the business.
As he has watched changes in the Sugar House business community, he said his feelings have run the full gamut. "I've experienced joy as new people come in and take positions of leadership in the community. And there is great sadness as I see people go."
He said one of the saddest times was when Southeast Furniture closed its doors a few years ago. "They were leaders in the community," he reflected, "and had a great influence in merchandising."
But, he continued, "life changes. I don't resent changes. They give us opportunities and challenges to grow."
And through all the changes during the past 40 years, Sugar Days in Sugar House has continued to have a solidifying influence in the business community. "Many other communities have tried to emulate what we've done here," said Free. "But we have such a natural thing - Sugar Days in Sugar House. You can't beat it," he declared.