Built by a storied former slave, Winchester United Church is now a destination for American tourists keen to see the work of Isaac Johnson — a man who escaped the South, fought in the Civil War and found success as a stone mason and writer.
A 30-member tour group organized by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage group, of Keeseville, N.Y., visited Winchester on Monday to marvel at its stately limestone church.
The man who built the church is responsible for much of the interest in the Winchester landmark.
“We realized there was not only this great story, which is very contemporary in a lot of ways, but there was this wonderful architecture that could help tell that story,” said Steven Engelhart, executive director of the heritage group, which holds about 45 day tours every year. “The Johnson story is a fascinating one.”
Born in Nelson County, Kentucky in 1844 to a white father and black mother, Isaac Johnson lived a traumatic, eventful and remarkable life.
His mother had been forcibly taken by slave traders from Madagascar, off the coast of East Africa. Brought to the U.S., Jane Johnson served as a slave trader’s servant, and when that man died, she was willed to his eldest son, a tobacco farmer named Richard Yeager.
Johnson and Yeager lived together as man and wife on the banks of Kentucky's Green River, prospered as farmers, and had four children together, including Isaac.
At the age of seven, Isaac Johnson’s life changed forever. His father, shunned by his white neighbours, left the farm, abandoned his family and sold them all into slavery for $3,300.
In his 1901 memoir, Slavery Days in Old Kentucky, Johnson describes the bewildering pain of watching his mother and siblings auctioned off. He was bought by a Kentucky farmer, William Madinglay, for $700 and chained to a post “as though I had been a horse.”
“Thus,” he writes, “in a very short time, our happy family was scattered, without even the privilege of saying goodbye to each other, and never again to be seen, at least so far as I was concerned.”
Johnson was enslaved on Madinglay’s farm for 12 years — until the U.S. Civil War swept into Kentucky. He escaped to the Union Army lines and made his way to Detroit, where he enlisted in the 102nd U.S. Colored Regiment on Feb. 3, 1864.
Fighting in South Carolina during the final year of the war, he suffered three gunshot wounds and lost a finger.
When he was demobilized, Johnson searched Kentucky for his lost family members without success then again made his way north, working on ships in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. In 1867, he reached Morrisburg, in the newly-minted country of Canada. Johnson had heard about free life north of the border from a fellow slave.
“I never set my feet upon Canadian soil, even to this day, without a feeling of love and respect for its people of Canada,” Johnson writes in his memoirs.
He worked as a stonecutter in quarries near Winchester and learned the art of masonry. By the 1880s, he was skilled and trusted enough to take over construction of Winchester Methodist Church, now Winchester United, after the original builder died. The gothic-style stone church was completed in 1883.
Johnson’s reputation as a mason and builder flourished. He moved to Waddington, N.Y., across the river from Morrisburg, and completed a series of major projects, including St. James’ Anglican Church in Morrisburg, Waddington Town Hall and Waddington Presbyterian Church.
In 1897, when Johnson was forced to give up his construction career because of a serious fall, he took up his pen and wrote the story of his early life. The book begins, “So many people have inquired as to the particulars of my slave life and seemingly listened to the same with interest, that I have concluded to give the story in this form.”
Johnson used proceeds from the book to finance the college education of some of his seven children, one of whom became a chemistry professor at Syracuse University. He also hoped that his long lost siblings might see the book and find him. They never did.
Johnson died from a heart attack in Ogdensburg, N.Y. on Dec. 4, 1905 at the age of 61.
His story was rediscovered in 1994 when his memoir was republished. Cornel Reinhart, a history professor at St. Lawrence University, spent two years researching Johnson’s life and legacy in Ontario and New York State.
“There’s such power and determination to his life story,” Reinhart said Monday during a morning lecture to the tour group. “Just think of the church he built here: It’s still standing and it’s extraordinary.”
Winchester United Church is now in the third phase of a multi-year, $600,000 restoration project. Church members narrowly voted against knocking down the structure after it was damaged by an earthquake in 2013.
Rich Frost, 72, a tourist from Plattsburgh, said he decided to join Monday’s trip to learn more about Johnson: “When you read his book, it’s just an extraordinarily descriptive and searing document of what it was like to be a slave. It’s really very moving, and the fact that someone was able to make it through that and rise to this level of accomplishment is pretty remarkable.”
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