Johnny Appleseed

On a family farm in Nova, Ohio, grows a very special apple tree; by some claims, the 175 year old tree is the last physical evidence of John Chapman, a prolific nurseryman who, throughout the early 1800s, planted acres upon acres of apple orchards along America’s western frontier, which at the time was anything on the other side of Pennsylvania. Today, Chapman is known by another name—Johnny Appleseed—and his story has been imbued with the saccharine tint of a fairytale. 

If we think of Johnny Appleseed as a barefoot wanderer whose apples were uniform, crimson orbs, it’s thanks in large part to the popularity a segment of the 1948 Disney feature, Melody Time, which depicts Johnny Appleseed in Cinderella fashion, surrounded by blue songbirds and a jolly guardian angel. But this contemporary notion is flawed, tainted by our modern perception of the apple as a sweet, edible fruit. The apples that Chapman brought to the frontier were completely distinct from the apples available at any modern grocery store or farmers’ market, and they weren’t primarily used for eating—they were used to make America’s beverage-of-choice at the time, hard apple cider.

“Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider,” writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire. “In rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water.”

It was into this apple-laden world that John Chapman was born, on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. Much of his early years have been lost to history, but in the early 1800s, Chapman reappears, this time on the western edge of Pennsylvania, near the country’s rapidly expanding Western frontier. At the turn of the 19th century, speculators and private companies were buying up huge swathes of land in the Northwest Territory, waiting for settlers to arrive. Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made a deal with potential settlers: anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years, since an average apple tree took roughly ten years to bear fruit. 

Ever the savvy businessman, Chapman realized that if he could do the difficult work of planting these orchards, he could turn them around for profit to incoming frontiersmen. Wandering from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Chapman would advance just ahead of settlers, cultivating orchards that he would sell them when they arrived, and then head to more undeveloped land.  Like the caricature that has survived to modern day, Chapman really did tote a bag full of apple seeds. As a member of the Swedenborgian Church, whose belief system explicitly forbade grafting (which they believed caused plants to suffer), Chapman planted all of his orchards from seed, meaning his apples were, for the most part, unfit for eating.

It wasn’t that Chapman—or the frontier settlers—didn’t have the knowledge necessary for grafting, but like New Englanders, they found that their effort was better spent planting apples for drinking, not for eating. Apple cider provided those on the frontier with a safe, stable source of drink, and in a time and place where water could be full of dangerous bacteria, cider could be imbibed without worry. Cider was a huge part of frontier life, which Howard Means, author of Johnny Appleseed: The Man, The Myth, the American Story, describes as being lived “through an alcoholic haze.”.

Transplanted New Englanders on the frontier drank a reported 10.52 ounces of hard cider per day (for comparison, the average American today drinks 20 ounces of water a day). “Hard cider”, Means writes, “was as much a part of the dining table as meat or bread.”

John Chapman died in 1845, and many of his orchards and apple varieties didn’t survive much longer. During Prohibition, apple trees that produced sour, bitter apples used for cider were often chopped down by FBI agents, effectively erasing cider, along with Chapman’s true history, from American life. “Apple growers were forced to celebrate the fruit not for its intoxicating values, but for its nutritional benefits”, Means writes, “its ability, taken once a day, to keep the doctor away…”.

In a way, this aphorism—so benign by modern standards—was nothing less than an attack on a typically American libation.  Today, America’s cider market is seeing a modest—but marked—resurgence as the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in America.  Chapman, however, remains frozen in the realm of Disney, destined to wander in America’s collective memory with a sack full of perfectly edible, gleaming apples.

And there we have it! Who knew?

Have a great week! Eat lots of apples!

Jackie and Robin

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