Backstory and Context
Joseph “Gene” Eugene Unger worked at a variety of jobs, such as postman and milkman, before becoming a shoe salesman. His association with shoes seems to have started when he got a job in the Selby Shoe Factory in the 1920s. In 1935, he started fitting shoes at Neekamp’s Shoe Store. Two years later, Unger ran his own shoe department at Gabler’s Department Store, a fact his family would not uncover until years after his death. When the United States joined World War II, Unger did his part for the effort by enlisting in 1942. He was discharged in 1944 after a bout with double pneumonia. When he returned home to Ironton, Unger decided to combine his interest in medicine with his experience selling shoes by opening his own shoe store.
Unger’s Shoes opened February 18, 1946, around the corner from its present location. Two weeks later, Unger moved his shop to where it remains today. (Some sources list the building as being built in the 1930s, while others claim it was the first building constructed in Ironton after WWII.) Unger bought the building in the 1970s and expanded it in 1985. Still, Unger kept some touches of the store’s history intact, such as the original cash register and original logo.
Gene Unger died in 1995, but his children kept the family business alive, remodeling and restoring the shop that same year. In 2009, Unger’s Shoes was added to the National Register of Historic Places (not only is the building home to a successful family business, but it is also one of the few buildings in the Art Moderne architectural style in Appalachia). One year later, Gene’s son Joe, who runs the store, found old documents referencing Gene’s start at Gabler’s Department Store. There were tax forms, business cards, and letters that all affirmed that Unger’s Shoes’ roots went back further than the family thought.
Today, Unger’s Shoes still offers “shoes of distinction individually styled for you” as Gene’s slogan from his Gabler days says.
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