President carved in Owsley County sandstone
Mystery and discrepancy swirls around a sandstone sculpture hidden halfway up a hillside in southern Owsley County. What’s not in dispute is the significance and splendor of the historic sandstone bas-relief sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s a magnificent image,” says Cale Turner, county judge-executive of Owsley County, which owns the land where the statue sits and is served by Jackson Energy Cooperative. “You know you’re looking at Abraham Lincoln.”
Carved into a boulder, the statue stands a stately 6 feet, 4 inches tall—just like the 16th president, who was the tallest of all United States presidents by a half-inch. (The next closest in height was Lyndon Johnson.)
According to various accounts, a peddler named Granville Johnson—presumably, no relation to Lyndon—chiseled the figure into the sandstone boulder about 90 years ago, in 1932. As the story goes, Johnson had wandered into the area, possibly from Perry County, became sick and was taken in by the John Williams Sr. family. The statue, carved in secret, was presented to the family as a thank you gift.
“He would go up in the woods and spend most of the day there, working on the statue, while he was recuperating,” says Turner.
A 2015 article by Kentucky Living columnist Byron Crawford notes that the sculpture is included on a Smithsonian Art Museum list of Kentucky outdoor sculptures. Specifically, it is listed in the Art Inventories Catalog. According to public affairs specialist Katie Hondorf, this is maintained by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Research and Scholars Center.
In the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, an online database for the Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, the year of the carving is listed as “circa 1935” and the height given as “approximately six feet tall.” The database documents more than 400,000 artworks in public and private collections worldwide.
The listing describes Johnson’s work as follows: “A relief figure of Abraham Lincoln carved into a large boulder. Abraham Lincoln stands in an archway holding a Bible.”
The summary references a 1977 book, This Was Yesterday: A Romantic History of Owsley County, written by the late Joyce Wilson and sponsored by the Owsley County Saddle Club, which includes information about the sculpture. Wilson was a reporter who authored several historical books about Owsley County.
Lost to time are many details: where Johnson learned his sculpting skills, what inspired him to choose Abraham Lincoln as his subject matter as well as the sandstone site, and how he kept his work a secret for the duration of his recuperation—which Turner surmises as being close to two years. What is timeless is the appreciation visitors to this Owsley County landmark feel for a man who gifted Kentucky with such a priceless piece of art.
September is an ideal month to take a hike to see the Abraham Lincoln Statue. The weather can be cooler and, though other dates more readily spring to mind when talking Lincoln—such as February when he was born, April when he died and November when he gave his most famous speech (the Gettysburg Address)—September marked several milestones for him as well.
It was on the ninth of that month in 1836, when Lincoln was licensed to practice law. Twelve years later, in 1848, Lincoln traveled through New England on a speaking tour. A year later, he declined an appointment to be governor of the Oregon Territory. And on Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
To find the Abraham Lincoln Statue—also known as the Abraham Lincoln Relief Sculpture – take State Route 11 to State Route 846 in Owsley County and then turn left on Abraham Lincoln Trail (there is a sign). Drive past the house on the right of the road, park and walk about 300 to 500 feet up the hill.
For more information, contact the Owsley County Judge-Executive’s Office at (606) 593-6202. Watch a video of the late Joyce Wilson, speaking at the 160th anniversary of the founding of Owsley County in 2004. Read the full listing about the Abraham Lincoln Statue in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System here.