|From: In Praise of Johnny Appleseed, Vachel Lindsay,1923 |
Apples were a vital staple for many settlers moving west. ("West" in those days meant Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois). To
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"
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.
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.
| 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) [email protected]
The Life of Johnny Appleseed, Caldwell School, Rt 58, Northwest PA (between Mercer & Greenville), Bill Wedemeyer,[email protected]
"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
Last surviving Johnny
(photo courtesy of
Historic Tree Program)