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Johnny Appleseed's Wanderings Remembered

Charles Hillinger's America

June 11, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

FT. WAYNE, Ind. — This is Johnny Appleseed country.

Yes, there really was a Johnny Appleseed. He planted thousands of apple trees across hundreds of miles of early America. He wasn't a fictional character like Paul Bunyan.

Sower of apple seeds, planter of apple orchards on the American frontier from the late 1790s through 1845, Johnny Appleseed was in and out of Fort Wayne the last 10 years of his life.

He died here at age 70 on March 18, 1845. His grave is in Johnny Appleseed Park. Nearby is the blocklong Johnny Appleseed Memorial Bridge spanning the St. Joseph River.

Each summer, there's a Johnny Appleseed Festival at Johnny Appleseed Park, where huge quantities of elephant ears (a favorite Hoosier pastry) and apple cider are consumed and where people dress in old-fashioned costumes, many wearing mush pot hats.

"John Chapman, better remembered as Appleseed John or Johnny Appleseed, was a fascinating character, a true eccentric, one of the best-known American folk heroes. People are often surprised to learn Johnny Appleseed actually lived. Over the years many myths have emerged about his life. The mush pot hat is one of them," said Steven Fortriede, a Johnny Appleseed authority.

Fortriede, 43, associate director of the Fort Wayne Public Library, is a lifelong resident of this city.

"I grew up on the Johnny Appleseed story, as does everyone else here," he said. "Fact and fiction blend when it comes to the apple man.

Wore Weird Garb

"True, he always wore weird garb, but nowhere in the bits and pieces of information we collected about his life is there any mention of a mush pot hat, contrary to what Walt Disney and others would have us believe.

"He did, however, wear a funny-looking pasteboard hat with a huge brim to keep the sun from his eyes. He wore a coarse coffee sack for a shirt. He went barefoot sometimes and other times wore rags to protect his feet. He didn't wear shoes."

Fortriede wrote a 51-page pamphlet, "Johnny Appleseed: The Man Behind the Myth," published by the Fort Wayne Library, which also published six other pamphlets about the frontier nurseryman.

The library has the best collection of Johnny Appleseed material in existence. The most definitive Chapman biography, Fortriede said, is Robert Price's "Johnny Appleseed--Man and Myth," published in 1954 by Indiana University Press.

"Tales of Johnny Appleseed's extraordinary kindness to insects and animals portrayed in the Disney movie, in children's book, in novels and plays, such as putting out campfires to protect mosquitoes, remorse over killing a rattlesnake that bit him, are hogwash. Johnny was a gentle, forbearing sort, but he was no fool," Fortriede said.

Chapman was born Sept. 26, 1774, at Leominster, Mass. A granite marker at the site of his birthplace reads: "He planted seeds that others might enjoy fruit."

His mother died when he was 2 years old. His father, Nathaniel Chapman, one of the original Minutemen, fought at Bunker Hill. Virtually nothing is known about Johnny until 1797, when he was 23 and showed up in northwestern Pennsylvania sowing apple seeds.

It is not known where he was educated or what motivated him to be an itinerant orchardist. "If I could find school records or other recorded information for that period of his life, I would write another pamphlet, perhaps a book," Fortriede said.

From 1797 to his death, Chapman's name appears on trading-post records, voting registration lists and in county recorders' archives when he homesteaded or purchased land. There is a small amount of correspondence; his original estate papers are part of the Fort Wayne archives.

Seeds From Cider Presses

He traveled by foot, horseback and canoe (hollow logs), always loaded with apple seeds in leather pouches. He gathered his seeds from cider presses. He planted orchards, sold and gave away seeds and seedlings. What money he earned, he plowed back into land and into religious books by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, mystic and spiritual leader. He distributed the religious books he bought.

"The American frontier in his time was western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. He was one jump ahead of the first settlers, clearing land, planting apple trees. He never married. He had an obsession to sow his seeds, plant his trees and to spread Swedenborg's teachings," Fortriede explained.

Chapman probably saw more of America than any other man of his day, traveling hundreds of miles, leaving in his wake acres and acres of apple trees. No one who met him ever forgot him because of his dress, his demeanor. He was a small, wiry man with penetrating eyes, his contemporaries reported.

Johnny Appleseed touched the lives of pioneer families in much of western Pennsylvania, eastern Indiana and across the heart of Ohio. A monument in Ashland, Ohio, recalls that he ran 30 miles in 1812 to tell of an Indian massacre and to warn settlers that the Indians were heading their way.

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