Enoch: Who Was George Gardner?

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

By Harry Enoch

Guest Columnist

George R. Gardner (1832-1921) was a Union Civil War veteran, successful Winchester businessman as proprietor of a coal yard, and faithful member of the Methodist church. At his death, he left a sizeable estate and was buried in Winchester Cemetery, where his handsome red granite monument stands beside those of his wife and mother-in-law. George Gardner, the author of this noteworthy career, was born into slavery in Clark County. During J. D. Simpson’s term as mayor (1882-1886), Gardner became the first black elected to the Winchester City Council. However, he didn’t serve because he could not meet the $2,000 property qualification designed to keep blacks and poor whites from elected office.

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Gardner tells a little of his life story is in his will. He left part of his estate to James S. Winn and Mrs. Mollie Winn Dandridge, stating as follows:

“I do this for the love I bear them as the children of my old friend, R. N. Winn. These are the two youngest children of said R. N. Winn, and my wife and I took a great part in caring for them after the death of their mother and thus became devotedly attached to them. I was born in the family of his grandfather, Joshua Nicholas, and belonged to his father, Phillip B. Winn. After my return from the Union Army, my wife and I lived with R. N. Winn for four years and until we made a home of our own.”

George joined the army under the name George Winn. He enlisted at Lexington in 1864 and was appointed a corporal in Company A of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry. The regiment fought in the Petersburg campaign in 1865. George mustered out in 1866 after serving two years and seven months. He stood 5 foot 4 inches tall at enlistment and had a brown complexion, black hair, and black eyes. He subsequently received a small pension for his service.

After returning to Clark County, he and Bettie Gardner signed a marriage declaration stating that “they have lived together as man and wife for the past twelve years.” The declaration was necessary because slave marriages were not legally recognized until after the ratification of the 14th Amendment.

In 1867 George purchased a lot on the north side of West Washington Street for $550 in cash, where he opened his coal yard. The couple continued to live with Robert Nicholas Winn, whose home was around the corner on North Main until they built their own house on part of the coal yard lot. The coal yard stood on part of what is now the post office lot. Gardner’s coal yard was still in business in 1914 and survived many competitors over the years. City directories identify 15 other local coal yards during this period.

George had a long involvement with the Methodist church, beginning before the Civil War when enslaved persons were permitted to worship in the basement of the First Methodist Church at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Wall Alley. George was one of the founders of Allen Chapel C.M.E. Church, organized soon after the war. In his will, George left the church $2,000 and a house and lot on Highland Street. This small endowment served the church until the congregation became inactive in the 21st century.

George’s wife, Bettie, died in 1914. After a long exemplary life, George died at his home in 1921 at 89. The Winchester Sun noted, “An Old Faithful Citizen Passes Away.” George and Bettie Gardner did not leave any descendants. His will appears in the Clark County Colored Will Book 1.