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MARTIN
 

 
   
 
Johnny Appleseed
   
 

Texas, you can keep Pecos Bill. Pacific Northwest, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox are all yours. They aren't even real. In Ohio I grew up on Johnny Appleseed.

   
 

Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, was a legend in his own time. And, as is true with many legends, stories spread about the person. Some stories are true and other stories leave you wondering.

In my research I found that Johnny Appleseed was born in Leominster, Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. I also found that he was born in rural Virginia on August 5, 1779. Almost all the research says Massachusetts, but the best story comes from Virginia. I put it in the "legend" category, but I still like the story.

On Johnny's seventh birthday, this son of a peasant farmer was playing in his father's orchard. They grew apples mostly, but also pears, corn, persimmons and strawberries. You always hope your birthday will be special, and it certainly was for Johnny this day.

A small carriage with black and white trim, pulled by a graceful black Arabian steed, passed by the farm. And, as it so happened, the axel broke. Driver, passenger and steed were stuck there for a few hours while the repairs were made.

Imagine how Johnny's eyes must have opened wide when he saw the passenger step out of the carriage. It was John Quincy Adams, the president of the United States! "Wow, sir! I never thought I'd meet you," he exclaimed.

"Hello, son," smiled the president. "Is this your parents' orchard?"

"Yes, sir,"Johnny replied. "We raise other things too, but mostly apples. Would you like one?"

"I believe I would," answered the president.

Naturally Johnny ran to find the ripest and reddest apple in the orchard. When the president took a bite, he said, "Son, this is one fine apple. Yes, it is so fine. I wish that some day there would be apples like this growing across this entire country of ours."

And so, the seed was planted and the legend began.

According to legend, out of the goodness of his heart, Johnny crossed through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois planting trees where ever he went. That's the story I always heard. And, I'm sorry to burst a little bubble here. John Chapman grew trees for profit. He cleverly anticipated where settlers would eventually settle in the western frontier of the expanding United States. In a canoe loaded with apple seeds, he explored along the rivers for land to plant his nurseries. Then, he waited. By the time settlers arrived, he had young trees a couple of years old ready to sell for a whopping five or six cents each.

Western Pennsylvania was Chapman's first base of operations. His first apple nursery was along the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania. He gathered his first load of apple seeds from a cider press in Pennsylvania. Did you catch those two words "cider press"? Back in the 1700's and 1800's, apples were not grown for eating. They were grown for making hard cider. (A little extra proof against the story with John Quincy Adams.) It wasn't until the 1900's that apples became popular for eating instead of drinking. When the Prohibition movement waged war against the evils of drinking, the apple industry had to do something. They may not have invented the slogan, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," but that way of thinking kept sales up.

Chapman set up a routine according to the seasons. In the fall, he returned to his nursery along the Allegheny to gather apple seeds. Then, in the spring, he headed back into the frontier of Ohio and beyond to find new sites, plant new nurseries and build fences around them. During the summer, he repaired any fences in need and located local people to care for the young trees. As fall rolled around, the entire process started over again.

By 1806 Chapman had the nickname Johnny Appleseed and the legends about him spread. Your mother may not welcome a ragged, barefoot stranger dressed in a coffee sack into your home. However, Johnny was a welcome treat to the pioneers. He brought apples, apple trees, stories of his adventures and local news in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep. People loved having a living legend in their homes. But, none of them ever documented whether Johnny really ever wore a cooking pot on his head.

Tin pot hat or not, Johnny Appleseed was a site to behold. He was of medium height, with large bones, and long hair down to his shoulders. It didn't matter what kind of weather, Johnny went barefoot in snow and ice. It is said that he entertained people by pressing hot coals and needles into the soles of his feet. Legend says that one time a rattlesnake tried to bite his feet. The snake was no match for Johnny's leathery feet.

The snake story might not be true, but Johnny thought it was cruel to kill them or any other of God's creatures. He also didn't like to ride a horse or chop down trees. And, he was a vegetarian. No doubt, most of the settlers thought he was a bit crazy. Still, crazy can be very amusing. And, everyone enjoyed a little amusement on the frontier.

Unlike many of the settlers, Johnny Appleseed had a good relationship with the Native Americans. He treated them well and they respected him. But, the Native Americans didn't like all of the pioneers. During the War of 1812, they joined sides with the British because of the things the settlers had done to them.

Once in 1813, when Johnny learned of a possible massacre on the settlers near Mansfield, Ohio, he raced around 30 miles to Mt. Vernon, Ohio, for help. Some accounts say that he rode a horse, but you know how he felt about horses. Other accounts say he ran barefoot the whole way. You can decide which story you believe, but as for me, my hero ran barefoot the whole way.

By the 1830s, Chapman had a series of nurseries expanding across Pennsylvania, Ohio and into Indiana. In 1845, he showed up at the home of one of his friends in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in time for an evening meal. He read from his Bible, stretched out on the floor, and died in his sleep. He was 70 years old. He may have lived a frugal life, but he died a wealthy man. He left his sister 1,200 acres of nurseries with his treasured apples.

Copyright 2011 and 2012 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.