American tourists examine former slave’s handiwork in Winchester

Winchester United Church, where masonry restoration work is currently underway. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

by Bert Hill
Special to Nation Valley News

WINCHESTER — You have to look hard.   The old stone church of Winchester hides its mysteries well.

But the sun, moon and star carved into the south wall of Winchester United Church were finally revealed to a group of American history buffs this week.

“It is beautiful,” exclaimed Mary Racicot, a 78-year-old resident of the Pottsdam area of northern New York state.  “To think this work was carved by hand rather than by machine and the work was led by a poor black man with little education.”

An undated photo of Isaac Johnson.

Isaac Johnson surprised many people against daunting odds.  Born in slavery in 1844, he was abandoned by his white father along with three brothers and their black mother in face of racist pressure in Kentucky.  His father secretly ordered the auction of the family.

Staked to a post in the blazing Kentucky sun “like a dog” in 1851, he watched as his mother was separated from an infant brother to get a better price at auction.  Isaac sold for $700 and the whole family for $3,300. He would never see them again despite years of search. He was just seven years of age.

He finally got free with the outbreak of the US civil war.  He fought and lost a finger and sustained other injuries during the civil war. He finally escaped to Canada, the promised land according to another slave named Bob who he watched being tortured to death for trying to escape.

From his new base in Winchester, he turned his life around. He created a remarkable career building scores of churches, houses, bridges and public buildings across northern New York state and eastern Ontario. He died in 1905 at the age of just 60 at least partly as the result of serious work injuries.

As his business prospered, he had moved back to the states.  A picture from his later days show him the middle of a large work team of white and black construction workers.  There is no question who was the boss.
Johnson eventually gained education and wrote a searing memoir of slavery.  His goal was to destroy romantic Southern myths and show how slavery damaged black and whites alike.

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The sales of the memoir helped put his children through the University of Syracuse

Stephen Englehart, leader of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage group,  led the tour of Winchester United Church by about 30 American history buffs.  He saw another side of Johnson in the special carvings. “He was playful. He  put little mysteries into the stone work and he created powerful elements of life to deliver his message.”

The tour response was positive, extremely positive. Henry Morlock of Plattsburg, N.Y., said Johnson “opened an old world of problems with new achievements.  This has been a remarkable day.”

After the extended church tour, the U.S. group visited another Johnson project — the Baker farm on the south end of Winchester near the Anglican church.

The stone for the farm house, the church and several Winchester area homes came from a quarry, now full of water, on the Baker farm. The farm, now in the fourth Baker generation, today raises lambs for fine Ottawa restaurants.

Keith Baker said family legends says the Bakers  “got one dollar for every corner stone delivered.”

The tour moved on to St. James Anglican in Morrisburg to see another very different church.  While Winchester United is a simple traditional Methodist structure, St. James is gorgeous ornate Gothic building. Johnson was versatile to say the least.

Finally, the tour crossed the border to see the Waddington. N.Y. town hall and other buildings that Johnson crammed into a busy but brief career.  All in all,  a remarkable day of discovery for an almost forgotten man.


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