Johnny Appleseed and his contemporary counterpart
Photo by Melody

Johnny Appleseed and his contemporary counterpart

By Larry Rettig (LarryR)October 27, 2008
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With a pot on his head, skipping merrily about the countryside in bare feet while tossing apple seeds with gay abandon is the image of Johnny Appleseed I grew up with. I suspect that my grade school peers in other parts of the country did so as well. But is that image accurate?

Gardening pictureJohnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774, two years before the Colonies declared
 
their independence

Growing
up

from England. His father, Nathaniel, was a Minuteman in the Continental Army. Little is known about Johnny's youth. We know that he had an older sister, Elizabeth, and that his mother (also named Elizabeth) died in childbirth when he was two years old. We also know that his father started him on a career as an orchardist by arranging an apprenticeship with a Mr. Crawford who owned apple orchards in the area. It was there that young Johnny learned to plant, cultivate, and prune apple trees and how to harvest their fruit in the fall. This practical training determined, to a large extent, the direction of Johnny's life as a purveyor of orchard stock to the settlers on the frontier.

From: In Praise of Johnny Appleseed, Vachel Lindsay,1923

...And
A boy
Blew west,
And with prayers and incantations,
And with "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"
Crossed the Appalacians,
And was "young John Chapman,"
Then
"Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,"
Chief of the fastness, dappled and vast,
In a pack on his back,
In a deer-hide sack,
The beautiful orchards of the past,
The ghosts of all the forests and the
groves-
In that pack on his back,
In that talisman sack,
To-morrow's peaches, pears and cheeries,
To-morrow's grapes and red respberries,
Seeds and tree-souls, precious things,
Feathered with microscopic wings,
All the outdoors the child heart knows,
And the apple, green, red, and white,
Sun of his day and his night-
The apple allied to the thorn,
Child of the rose.
Porches untrod of forest houses
All before him, all day long,
"Yankee Doodle" his marching song;
And the evening breeze
Joined his psalms of praise
As he sang the ways
Of the Anchient of Days.
Leaving behind august Virginia,
Proud Massachusetts, and proud Maine.
Planting the trees that would march and
train
On, in his name of the great Pacific,
Like Birnam wood to Dunsinance,
Johnny Appleseed swept on,
Every shackle gone,
Loving every sloshy brake,
Loving every skunk and snake,
Loving every leathery weed,
Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,
Master and ruler of the unicorn-ramping
forest,
The tiger-mewing forest,
The rooster-trumpeting, boar-foaming, wolf-ravening forest,
The spirit-haunted, fairy-enchanted forest,
Stupendous and endless...

Johnny established his first apple tree nursery at Brokenstraw Creek in Warren County, Pennsylvania, most likely in 1796 at the age of 22.

Starting
a business

He collected seeds from nearby cider mills and planted them in his nursery. Once the seedling trees were several feet tall he sold them to residents in the area, reportedly for six cents apiece. In 1801, Johnny left Pennsylvania and traveled westward to the Territory of Ohio. He took along
a pack horse loaded with saddlebags full of apple seeds. Soon after his arrival he planted his first orchard near Licking Creek, which is in the vicinity of present-day Steubenville, Ohio. Johnny always located his plantings near settlements, so that he could easily walk back and forth to maintain them and had a ready market for his apples and trees. Contrary to legend, he was actually a practical business- and nurseryman, not the "scatterer of seeds" so often depicted.

Apples were a vital staple for many settlers moving west. ("West" in those days meant Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois). To

Import-
ance of
apples

understand the brilliance of Johnny Appleseed," says Jeff Meyer, founder and director of the
Historic Tree Nursery, "you must understand the importance of the apple to 19th century settlers. Nowadays we're generally happy with the three or four varieties of apples found in our supermarkets year round. But back then, good apples were as appreciated as good wine grapes. Even an uneducated man fancied himself a connoisseur and would argue the merits of one variety over another, just as vintners today debate the effect one grape has over another on the palate. There were baking apples, drying apples, cider apples, and dessert apples."

What was John Chapman like as a person? Physically, he was described as rather tall and quite slender. He dressed very simply, often with clothing that he had received in trade for apple tree seedlings. He preferred going barefoot (even in winter, according to the legend). And, yes, by most accounts he frequently carried a cooking utensil of some kind on his head, using it to cook meals over an open fire. He was a very kind and generous person, happily dispensing his trees even to customers who promised to pay at a later date. If they didn't pay, he simply ignored the debt. Chapman never married. When asked for the reason, his stock answer was that he would marry two female spirits in the hereafter if he stayed single while on earth. However, when he decided after all to propose to a Miss Nancy Tannehill of Perrysville, Ohio, he discovered to his dismay that he was a day late. She had just accepted a proposal from another suitor.

Later in life, Chapman became a disciple of Emanuel Swedenborg. Like Chapman, Swedenborg had experienced a spiritual awakening in his later years. Driven by visions and dreams, Swedenborg claimed he was appointed by God to reform modern Christianity. He also believed that God had made it possible for him to visit heaven and hell and converse with angels and demons. A Swedenborgian concept that had an especial appeal for Chapman was the belief that the more hardship he endured in his worldly existence, the greater would be his happiness in the hereafter. This belief is most likely the reason for his penchant for living a life of privation with such apparent cheerfulness and contentment. And this despite the fact that he was financially well-to-do. (At his death, he left behind more than 1,200 acres of nurseries.)



 

John Chapman died quite suddenly of "winter plague" (probably pneumonia) on March 18th, 1845, at the age of 70, in Richland County, Ohio, at the home of an old friend, William Worth. He was buried a few miles north of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at a 12-acre park now called The Johnny Appleseed Memorial Park. The inscription on the grave stone, which has eroded considerably, reads, "Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) He lived for others. 1774-1845"

 



Image

 



 
Epilogue 

Amazingly, until 1996 there was still in existence an apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed. It was about 170 years old and was located on the farm of Richard and Phyllis Algeo near Nova, Ohio. The farm dates back to an original Land Grant signed by John Quincy Adams in 1837. The tree was discovered by Jeff Meyer of Jacksonville, Florida, and the variety identified as 'Rambo,' an apple first brought to America in the 1640s by Peter Gunnarsson.

Jeff grew up in Middle Amana, my home village in Iowa's Amana Colonies. His life, in many respects, parallels that of John Chapman's. He, too, developed an interest in trees early in his life. Like Johnny Appleseed, he founded a nursery (Historic Tree Nursery) where he grows trees from seed and travels around the country planting them.

These are not ordinary trees, however. Jeff had a truly inspired idea. He would gather seeds from historic trees, grow them to a transplantable size, plant some himself, and offer the rest to the public for planting in their own yards. Teaming up with America's oldest conservation organization, American Forests, he founded the Famous American Trees Project.

Among the trees available are the Johnny Appleseed tree, George Washington Carver's green ash, Thoreau's Walden Woods red maple, Susan B. Anthony's sycamore, Mount Vernon red maple, and the Stephen Foster live oak. There are 14 different categories under which the nursery trees are classified. They include "American Presidents," "Native Americans," "Famous Women," and "Authors and Artists." In all, there are over 85 different trees to choose from.
Image
Jeff Meyer Nina Scott photo

Watching a tree grow is like watching time pass--barely perceptible, yet happening all the time.

Most trees live longer than people do, and planting one is an act of faith, a gift of hope for the future, a powerful gesture. I look at a tree and see history--my personal history, as well as my connection to all that's gone on before me and what will happen long after I'm gone.

There is a gentle giant of a honey locust that "heard" Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address, a towering tulip poplar that George Washington planted, the last living apple tree planted by John Chapman.... In a poignant way, these trees connect us to those who forged the path that make this country what it is. When you stand in the shadow of one of these silent and knowing trees, our nation's collective history runs right through you.

On behalf of his trees, Jeff has appeared on ABC World News Tonight, Martha Stewart Living, Late Show with David Letterman, PBS Treestories series (as host), and a PBS documentary "Silent Witnesses: Americas Historic Trees."

Credits

Leominster Historical Commission, City Hall, 25 West St, Leominster, MA 01453

Johnny Appleseed Visitor Center, Rt 2, (Between Exits 34 & 35, Lancaster, MA (978.534.2302) johnny@appleseed.org

The Life of Johnny Appleseed, Caldwell School, Rt 58, Northwest PA (between Mercer & Greenville), Bill Wedemeyer,weeds@msc.cornell.edu

"A Hero for the Ages," Jeff Meyer, American Forests, Winter 2003

America's Famous and Historic Trees: From George Washington's Tulip Poplar to Elvis Presley's Pin Oak, Jeffrey G. Meyer and Sharon Linnea, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 2001

Johnny Appleseed, Steven Kellogg, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1988

© Larry Rettig 2008

Image

Last surviving Johnny
Appleseed tree
(photo courtesy of
American Forests'
Historic Tree Program)


 


  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Wonderful article! How did I miss this? Bookerc1 2 4 Jun 7, 2010 1:44 PM
Just lovely, soive2000 6 34 Oct 30, 2008 5:31 AM
I teach this... aliceisoutside 1 13 Oct 29, 2008 5:36 PM
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