The Real Johnny Appleseed

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JUNE MARCH 3, 2011 21, 2013 THURSDAY, 4FRIDAY, 4
THE POST topic
Post Modern
The picture books reveal Johnny Appleseed drifting barefoot through the Midwest with a burlap sack of seeds on his back and a saucepan on his head. But there is so much more to be told about Appleseed.
Ohio natives might find it hard to believe that outsiders are not as familiar with the pioneer harvester — whose surname was actually Chapman — as people in the Buckeye State, but it’s true. Ohio has always been one of the apple man’s biggest fans — hosting the only Johnny Appleseed museum in the country, using his name to inspire schools, Boy Scout troops and, of course, trees. In fact, Athens has its very own Johnny Appleseed Park on West Carpenter Street, where the Athens Garden Club has dedicated a tree to the man who likely traveled through Athens during the early 1800s. Cheryl Ogden, director of the National Johnny Appleseed Museum in Urbana, Ohio, said Chapman spent more time in Ohio than any other state and played a big role in establishing Urbana University, where the museum is located. “It was his dream for a long time to have a university and a museum for his religion,” she said. “He was able to talk our founder into donating money for the university.” Chapman was a Swedenborgian — a Christian denomination. One of the museum’s most prized possessions is Chapman’s Bible, donated in 2011 by his local descendants. Religion was a major factor in the apple man’s mission. “He believed in not waiting to do good deeds for others,” said Hank Fincken, a Johnny Appleseed performer and historian from Indiana. “He had a big faith in nature, and he believed in peace in a violent world. He is a message of peace.” Although wealthy, Chapman roamed barefoot and in tattered clothes. When he was given shoes, Ogden said he would just give them away. With the money he made from selling apple trees, he bought religious texts and read them to the settlers. “Isn’t it lovely that we celebrate somebody for just being a nice guy?” Fincken said. “They laughed at him and with him in equal measure.” the Northwest Territory, according to Robert Price’s book Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth. “He provided the means so when people got here, they had the apple trees to settle their land,” said Jared DeForest, Ohio University professor of plant biology and an Athens City tree commissioner. “He helped facilitate the northwest expansion.” The Chapman family had settled in Marietta by 1806. That year, he planted 16 bushels of apple seeds from western Pennsylvania to eastern Ohio, Price wrote. With about 336,000 seeds per bushel, 16 bushels would have equaled about 5,376,000 seeds. “He would go to the places he thought people would go before and plant apple trees by seed so when the settlers came, they could sell them the plants,” DeForest said. But unlike the familiar fables, he didn’t just drop seeds wherever he went. He built up whole nurseries of apple trees to sell their produce to booze-producers. Alcohol was in high demand, considering it was the closest thing people had to clean water, and Chapman was growing the main ingredient for hard cider, dubbed applejack. Those apples aren’t the kind found on Kroger shelves today. There were hundreds of varieties, DeForest said, but hardly any were edible. The apples he harvested were rather like small, sour crabapples. “It was almost like a gamble,” DeForest said. “You knew that it would produce fruit, and you knew that you could make alcohol, but back in the day, everybody would have their orchard and they’d be looking for that one that you could actually eat, and you could make a million dollars on it.” Chapman would visit cider mills and take out seeds from the pulp, Ogden said. But planting apple trees from seeds was the 19thcentury way. Today, considering the climate of Ohio, all U.S. apple trees are grafted — when the base of one tree and the rest of a separate tree are combined. “If it wasn’t him, and no one else decided to do what he did, we wouldn’t have the diversity we have now,” DeForest said. “Golden Delicious wouldn’t exist. Red Delicious wouldn’t exist without him.” Though the original Johnny Appleseed trees could have lived up to 200 years, most were cut down during Prohibition in the late 19th century. That’s when botanists started grafting for tastier apples.
John Chapman died in 1845. Since then, Disney and children’s books have recreated the story of Johnny Appleseed, enhancing his eccentricity and leaving out the part about the liquor. “John Chapman was the real man,” said Hal Sheaffer, treasurer of the Board of the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center in Loudonville, Ohio. “There’s a difference between the man John Chapman and the folklore character Johnny Appleseed, because everybody has added to that story.” But Ogden said the National Johnny Appleseed Museum embraces the myth. “We love the myth,” she said. “We show the Disney movie to let people see the myth, then we clear it up and show them the reality.” People all over the Midwest have claimed and publicized apple trees allegedly planted by John Chapman. And though DeForest said it’s possible they still exist, it’s unlikely that the tree is authentic beyond its base. Johnny Appleseed’s roots can be traced all throughout Ohio, more than any other state. Given the many festivals, museums and monuments that honor him in the state, Ohio hasn’t forgotten him after hundreds of years. “Here in his own country, as elsewhere across the land, John Chapman has become the patron saint of the earth and the streams and the forest, and lingers near to bless everything good that comes of them,” Price wrote in his book. The museum, about 130 miles from Ohio University, still focuses on the mission Chapman adopted long ago. “He’s a good example of how people should live,” Ogden said. “A little eccentric, but always stuck to his principles.”
Even before Ohio was granted statehood, Chapman had already begun his hike through
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