Legacy of an apple seed – includes related articles

Legacy of an apple seed – includes related articles – Johnny Appleseed

Kathleen Pyle

Every kid in America knows the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Now, here’s the whole story.

When the American Midwest was still virgin territory unspoiled by rails or roads, a hero sowed promise in its fertile soil. Described in a magazine article as “a small wiry man, full of restless activity,” he had long dark hair, a board, and “keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” To himself, he was merely a “gatherer and planter of apple seeds.”

Apple trees have come to be synonymous with the moniker of John Chapman, the much-beloved folk hero better known as Johnny Appleseed. But while every kid in America can tell you what Johnny Appleseed did, most probably don’t know why.

Legend status notwithstanding, John Chapman was actually a shrewd businessman who played a pivotal role in the American population’s shift west during the early 19th century. That’s because he provided the means for the first settlers to grow their own apples, and apples meant subsistence and self-reliance.

Fresh apples and apple butter were staples in settlers’ diets; boiled apple cider and vinegar enabled them to preserve foods. Apple cider (what we today call hard cider), a basic drink, could be traded for flour, sugar, livestock, and other staples in cash-poor settlements. Also, the planting of an apple orchard, along with cleared land and the building of a cabin, signified that land was claimed, the equivalent of a “sold” sign on a piece of wilderness.

Historian Robert Price says in his book Johnny Appleseed, Man and Myth, “It is hard to realize that in the pioneer history of most American communities, the first apple crop once marked a first stage of permanency. No other fruit could be started so easily, and none could be put to so many essential uses.”

Although Indians, French settlers, and other pioneer orchardists preceded him, Chapman’s unique importance lay in his own rootlessness. “He was a nurseryman with vision,” says Jeff Meyer, director of AMERICAN FORESTS’ Famous & Historic Trees project, who will retrace Chapman’s path west this spring. “He kept moving with the frontier. Chapman was a progressive thinker; he was futuristic in his planning.”

And in the apple business, being futuristic was everything. Chapman showed an uncanny ability to anticipate new settlements. Toting leather bags of apple seed from the cider mills of western Pennsylvania, he rode into new sites on horseback or transported his mobile “nursery” by canoe. After selecting an open, sunny spot and clearing the ground, he’d sow several bushels of seed (each bushel contained about 336,000 seeds). A crude brush fence protected the seedlings between his visits.

Within a few years, Chapman’s trees would be ready when potential customers arrived to stake land claims. He sold the trees for a fippenny bit – about 6 1/2 cents a tree – but he was known to often extend kindhearted credit to penniless settlers. Once their apple orchard was in place, pioneer families selected trees worthwhile for fruit and grafted them onto the original seedlings. Although Chapman didn’t believe in grafting, it was common practice by the early 19th century.

Why did Johnny Appleseed become a legend instead of just another orchardist? His frequent acts of kindness, feats of strength, and unusual appearance fed the pioneer imagination.

“He was a hero in our own backyards, so to speak,” says Bill Jones, founder of the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Foundation and lifelong Chapman scholar. Numerous were the farm families in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania who told, and still treasure, stories of Johnny’s visits. Tall tales – adding fizz to the cider of his actual life – related how he hid underwater and breathed through a reed to escape hostile Indians and walked barefoot across a frozen lake.

No one knows who planted apple seed ambition in Johnny. Scant details of his birth, family, and route west have been traced from legal documents and family genealogies. Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1774; his mother died when he was a toddler. After returning from the Revolutionary War where he’d worked as a wheelwright, John’s father remarried and started a new family of 10 children.

“Little else is known about John Chapman’s boyhood, although it’s likely part was spent tending fruit trees on neighboring farms, giving him an early skill that was to serve him well in his life adventures,” according to Joe Besecker, codirector of the Johnny Appleseed Society based at Urbana University in Ohio.

Chapman left his father’s, home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, as a teen. From 1797 to 1804 he attempted to claim land for apple plantings on French Creek between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. Motivated by cheaper land and unsettled horizons, the 30-year-old Chapman pushed farther west into northern Ohio in the early 1800s. Land prices in that newly opened territory ranged from 50 cents to $2 an acre.

The wooded ridges and gently rolling landscape of northern Ohio beckoned, and Chapman spent most of his planting years there, purchasing several parcels of land in the Ohio territory.

It isn’t difficult to imagine that Chapman saw the pristine beauty of the wilderness as evidence of heaven on earth. “Staying close to God was part of his philosophy,” explains Besecker. A practical, weathered man accomplished in an adventurer’s survival skills, Chapman also lived by intense religious convictions. In his Ohio days, he began to preach the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenbourg, a Swedish natural scientist and philosopher. As a devout Swedenbourgian, Chapman believed that all things existed simultaneously in the physical and spiritual worlds. Families who offered Chapman shelter were given tracts from Swedenbourg’s writings.

As settlers moved further into Ohio, Chapman expanded west into northern Indiana, where he died in Fort Wayne in March 1845 at the age of 70. A trail of markers and memorial statues stretches from his hometown through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. But the terrain he knew so well has changed immeasurably. Within 40 years after his death, millions of acres of woodland were sacrificed to plow and progress. Much of his most fertile nursery land in northern Ohio can be viewed from Interstate 71.

Progress may have claimed his land but not all his trees – some grew well into the 20th century. In 1994, AMERICAN FORESTS joined the effort to save Chapman’s last living legacy after Meyer was informed that a tree Johnny Appleseed planted still existed on a 140-year-old Ohio farm. The tree’s age and probable connection had been authenticated by a local historical society in the 1950s, said Marilyn Algeo Wilkins, whose family owns the farm.

A venerable Abraham of a tree, it seemed too old to bear fruit. The tree was rotted on the inside, and Wilkins’ father, Richard Algeo, wrapped the 11-foot trunk in chains, holding together a workhorse that had furnished his family with apples for generations.

Without an actual apple to go by, pomologists determined the tree was an Albermarle Pippin, based on its growth habit, foliage, and the variety’s popularity in Chapman’s day. It was later reidentified as a Rambo, Chapman’s favorite variety.

“We believe it was planted in the 1830s when the farm was first established, but we’ll never know exactly how old it is because the interior has decayed,” says Jones, the Chapman scholar who has made frequent visits to the site.

Dave Furee, a pomologist from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, explains the tree’s longevity by pointing to the glacial terrain under the farm. “It’s almost pure gravel, which allows water to percolate through and encourages the tree’s roots downward. Those roots have probably grown halfway to China by now.”

AMERICAN FORESTS’ propagators took both cutting wood and root cuttings from the tree before its last branch broke in a tornado a few years ago. Dale Bryan of Hollydale Nursery in Tennessee was chosen to grow the Famous & Historic Johnny Appleseed tree because of his expertise with T budding, a form of grafting in which cuttings (from the original Ohio tree) are budded into envelopes of bark on common apple tree rootstocks.

“Dale grows a million apple trees each year, but he’d never seen such a vigorous tree as the Algeo’s – despite its advanced age,” Meyer says. As if to prove the point, the ruins of the old tree sprouted shoots, yielding several apples. With fruit in hand, experts reidentified it as a Rambo.

Ten thousand seedling trees have now been grafted and are “finishing in AMERICAN FORESTS’ high-tech greenhouse in Jacksonville, Florida. Their next stop will be home gardens “across the country, where the legacy of Johnny Appleseed will flourish anew.


A High-Tech Way to Grow the Past

The 10,000 Rambo Johnny Appleseed trees – and other historic trees – in AMERICAN FORESTS’ Famous & Historic Trees greenhouse in Jacksonville, Florida, get a boost from the latest growing technology.

Thanks to a grant from the St. John’s Water Management District, project leader Jeff Meyer anti his crew operate in a state-of-the-art 6,000-square-foot greenhouse. A closed system of rigid plastic benches flood-irrigates the seedling trees with recycled water.

“The house is self-ventilated and computers control the automatic shade curtains and temperature. We’ve been able to reduce, our energy consumption by 30 to 35 percent.” says Meyer. It all adds up to an energy-efficient way to grow that’s also safe, for tile environment. Groundwater pollution from fertilizer nitrates poses a very real threat because of Florida’s sandy soils and nearness of the aquifer to the surface.

“But our system uses 80 percent less fertilizer because food is absorbed directly by the plant roots in this ebb and flow system; the remainder of the fertilizer is recycled in the water. It’s healthier for the trees, too. Because their roots absorb a little fertilizer on a daily basis, the trees grow faster and more vigorously,” Meyer explains. “There’s also less chance of leaf diseases such as powdery mildew because the leaves don’t get wet, thus not as great a need for chemicals.”

Plans for an additional 6,000-square-foot house are underway. The new house will utilize water captured in a gutter and cistern storage system, “so we won’t have to bring in any water out of the local aquifer,” says Meyer.

To order your historic “Johnny Appleseedling” apple tree, visit Famous & Historic Trees at www.oldtrees.org or call 800/320-8733. – Kathleen Pyle

Raising Naturally Health Apples

Homeowners wire grow their own are often resigned to seeing spots on their apples, but this needn’t be so. Organic care for apple trees involves a simple series of precautions. It’s a matter of first picking the right site and variety for your area, says Floyd Mitchell, a retired Extension agent and apple-growing specialist front Noble County, Ohio – Johnny Appleseed country.

Your apple crop won’t disappoint if you plant on a high spot rather than in a hollow, says Mitchell. “That way you’ll avoid blossom damage from late spring frosts. Frosts tend to settle in pockets of land. Avoid early blooming varieties if spring arrives late in your zone.”

Good air circulation is essential to preventing apple leaf diseases. “When you plant your apple tree, allow plenty of space around it to sidestep typical apple ‘maladies’ like powdery mildew,” advises Famous & Historic Trees spokeswoman Susan Corbett.

“A preseason spraying of horticultural oil and a sulfur-based fungicide will help fight off diseases early.” adds Mitchell. If mildew has been a problem in the past, give your tree biweekly sulfur treatments from blossom time until the fruit forms, he suggests.

“Pruning will also ensure your tree stays healthy. Don’t be afraid to give your apple trees a heavy priming. Take off any diseased branches, thin out crowded areas, and remove any growth necessary to open up the tree canopy to sunlight and air.”

A through fall cleanup ensures that overwintering pests and fungus spores can’t make a return visit to your apple tree. “remove all debris – leaves, twigs, windfall apples – from around the tree so pests won’t have a winter shelter,” says Corbett.

You can boost fruit yields on your apple tree by planting flowering herbs nearby. The blooms attract the honeybees, which in turn pollinate the apple blossoms. – Kathleen Pyle

The Rambo Heirloom Apple

The Winter Rambo apple, identified as one of Johnny Appleseed’s favorites, traces its roots back to the 1700s. It’s likely that colonists brought seeds for the Rambo and other varieties with them to the New World, and the species is mentioned ill Thomas Jefferson’s writings. A tart-flavored green apple, the Rambo ripens early and can usually be picked from late August to early fall. It develops reddish stripes when almost ready for harvesting. then turns golden in the sun if left on the tree. Squat Rambo apples store well and are an excellent dessert apple useful for eating fresh or cooking. The subacid flavor also lends itself to cider making. Noteworthy for its vigor, the Rambo tree may mature to a stately height of 35 to 40 feet if given plenty of root space. – Kathleen Pyle


When Richard Algeo and Dr. Robert Williams became acquainted in the mid-1990s, they had some old times to recall. Some real old times. For it’s a matter of historical fact that Dr. Williams’ great-great-great uncle, was once the guest of Richard Algeo’s great-great-great grandparents at their Ashland County, Ohio, farm. Dr. Williams’ famous uncle was none other than Johnny Appleseed.

Richard Algeo is the fifth generation of his family to live on the farm overlooking the Vermilion River; his great-granddaughter is the eighth. “The only Johnny Appleseed story I heard as a boy was about how he refused to sleep in the house.” he recalls. In true Johnny Appleseed fashion, he probably spent the night in the barn when he visited in the 1830s.

The gnarled old apple tree, outside the front door was “just an apple tree. The fruit made good pies, but we, just didn’t think about its historical significance,” says Algeo.

Meanwhile Williams, who died in December 1998. went through an ancestral conscious-raising of his own. He traced his relation to John Chapman, who never married, through Chapman’s stepbrother, Davis. “As a boy growing up in Cuyahoga near Akron, I was teased about my famous relative and his tinpot hat,” he reminisced in a November interview.

When Williams moved to Columbus in the 1930s, he met Carlos Burr Dawes, another Chapman relative, and together the two men traced their ancestry to England and Scotland. In the 1980s they incorporated as the Johnny Appleseed Society with a third founder, Myrtle Aich of Dexter City, Ohio. Dawes, who established Dawes Arboretum, died in his 90s. Williams traveled around the world five times as a Rotarian and served as an unofficial envoy for American presidents. He was a lobbyist for the food service industry.

And now, Cherie Williams Lucks, Bob’s daughter, carries on the Chapman horticultural tradition. She’s serving on a tree-planting committee that has the goal of planting 2 million trees, one for every citizen of Ohio, to celebrate the state bicentennial in 2003.

Many aspects of the Chapman family in Ohio came together in the mid-1990s when Hugh Durbin, Urbana University librarian and codirector of the Johnny Appleseed Society, uncovered two boxes of Appleseed trivia and documents. The trail led him and the university’s, Joe Besecker to Williams and Dawes.

Working with genealogical sketches from the two older men and a genealogical software program, Durbin says he is in the process of filling in John Chapman’s family tree. “I have live folders of individuals supposedly related but whom I haven’t been able to connect yet,” he says.

“Many people have just one piece of the family line – it’s a matter of fitting the lines together. Whenever I go to an antique show in search of Appleseed memorabilia, I never knew if I’ll run into someone who says, ‘We’re related to Johnny’ And I always say, ‘Tell me about it!'” – Kathleen Pyle

Great-Great-Great-Grandma Algeo’s Applesauce Cookies

Richard Algeo’s grandmother baked these cookies using applesauce she made from the Johnny Appleseed tree. His great-granddaughter certifies them as delicious!

3/4 cp soft shortening 1 cp brown sugar, packed 1 egg 1/2 cp applesauce + some 2 1/4 cp all-purpose flour, sifted 1/2 t baking soda 1/2 t salt 3/4 t cinnamon 1/4 t ground cloves 1 cp seedless raisins 1/2 cp chopped walnuts

Mix shortening, sugar, and egg thoroughly. Stir in applesauce. Combine dry ingredients and blend into shortening/sugar/egg mixture. Mix in raisins and nuts. Drop spoonfuls onto greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 [degrees] for 1012 minutes. Makes 4 dozen.

Kathleen Pyle, a freelance horticultural writer, is a “garden doctor” for Garden Escape’s web site, garden.com.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group