Built by former slave, Winchester United Church wows American architectural visitors; more expected

From left: Bert Hill and Jonas Fossitt of Winchester and Nolan Cool and Corky Reinhart of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage Group, in front of Winchester United Church built by escaped slave and U.S. Civil War veteran Isaac Johnson (right, an image from the Town of Waddington Historian's Collection).

North Dundas resident Isaac Johnson was a veteran of the U.S. Civil War who escaped from southern slavery;

Also believed to have built The Redmond House

by Bert Hill
Special to Nation Valley News

The gracious Limestone Lady of St. Lawrence Street has drawn admiring glances all the  136 years it has sat at the heart of Winchester.

But if Winchester United Church could blush, she would be bright red over the praise that followed a recent visit by American architecture and history experts.

The church likely will be attracting many more U.S. heritage buffs this summer.   A big reason is the fascinating man who directed construction-a formerly enslaved black American who fought and was wounded in the U.S. Civil War.

Steven Engelhart, executive director of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage organization (AARCH), was delighted with a tour of the building.

“It is absolutely first-rate,” he said after studying the handsome exterior stone work, exploring the interior and enjoying the soft spring sun seeping through stained-glass windows.  A show-stopper was the unique circular Sunday School with class-rooms rising in tiers to a lofty ceiling.

The tour of the church tipped the balance in an AARCH  debate on expanding tours into Canada. “We know what people like to see,” Engelhart said, “and I can tell you this is fantastic stuff.”

The Adirondack heritage organization has more than 1,000 members and runs more than 40 tours of choice sites in northern New York state annually as well as international trips to places like Armenia and Slovakia.   It is based in Keeseville, NY about 90 minutes south of Montreal.

Business at the non-profit outfit is so good that it has to use a lottery to manage ticket demand.  It also provides advocacy and preservation services for campaigns to save old buildings from demolition.

The man who built Winchester United is a big part of the story.  Isaac Johnson was born to a free mixed-race family in Kentucky, a slave state, in 1844.

Family life appeared normal in the face of enormous racist pressure.  But his white father ultimately deserted his black mother and had the family including four sons auctioned for $3,300.  The seven-year-old boy never saw his family again despite years of search.

An undated photo of Isaac Johnson.

Isaac was starved and whipped by his new owner.  He watched in horror as another slave was slowly tortured to death.  That man, Bob, had been born in Canada and told Isaac of the freedom north of the border.

Johnson tried repeatedly to run but could not get away until the Civil War broke out.  He was wounded fighting for a black Northern regiment in the war, losing a finger and taking three bullets that were never removed.

After working as a sailor on the Great Lakes, he settled in Winchester and for eight years learned the stone mason trade and construction business at a  quarry in the south end of the village.

When the director of construction at the new Winchester church suddenly died, Johnson stepped into the breach.  He discovered that a church wall, which had reached to the top of windows, was a half-inch out of alignment. He stopped work, had the wall torn down and started over.

Johnson likely worked on other projects like the Redmond House, now the Winchester B&B, just across from the church at 528 St. Lawrence Street.

Engelhart said, “It’s lovely-a fairly high-style example of the Italianate (architecture) style”.  He said the house’s stonework, roof line, windows and distinctive brackets “have stood the test of time remarkably intact.”

Johnson fathered two of his seven children in Winchester in a log house about two kilometres south of the church and near the quarry where the granite was cut.

As his business grew, he moved to a new base in upstate New York at Waddington and later Ogdensburg. He worked on both sides of the St. Lawrence River winning building projects including a stone-arch  bridge. a state psychiatric facility and municipal hospital at Ogdensburg.

He also wrote a searing memoir that revealed the true life of slaves and dispelled romantic notions surrounding the Confederate South.  Sales of the book helped support his family after injuries cut short his working life. He died of a heart attack in 1905 and is buried in a veterans cemetery at Ogdensburg.

On the recent tour, the Adirondack group also explored St. James Anglican church in Morrisburg, a church and town hall  at Waddington, N.Y. And another upstate New York church built by Johnson.

Cornel “Corky” Reinhart, a retired history professor, and Nolan Cool, the Adirondack organization’s director of education programs, were part of the trip.  Englehart said that Reinhart’s research opened the door to fresh discoveries of the broad extent of Johnson projects.

Steven Engelhart of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage Group, outside Winchester United Church recently.

Reinhart first visited Winchester 25 years ago and played a key role in re-publication of the Johnson memoir.  “What a treat to see the old church again and to see all the restorative work,” he said.

Englehart said public interest in heritage is strong,  particularly “how members of under-represented groups like Native Americans, African Americans, disabled or ordinary working people prevailed.”

“The Isaac Johnson story will be a great story for many people.”

He praised the members of Winchester United for hard work preserving the old building, particularly after an earth tremor knocked down a large portion of stone in 2013

Many churches are closing as memberships dwindle but Winchester United raised $320,000 for repairs.  “They had a challenge and they faced it,” said Engelhart.

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