The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
According to legend, John Chapman lived in the 1800’s. Though he was born in Massachusetts, he traveled over 100,000 square miles to plant apple trees throughout the countryside so that everyone would have apples to eat. With a cooking pot on his head, as legend has it, and a sack full of seeds, traveled barefoot all over the country to plant apple seeds wherever he went. He traveled alone and unarmed, befriending the local Native American tribes as well as the many animals he encountered on his journeys. Many regarded him as a friend. Soon, the towns looked forward to seeing him when he visited because he brought news from his travels and spent time with the children, telling stories and reading them scripture. Often, he would trade apple trees for used, worn clothing and other wares. This likely added to his raggedy appearance, but it did not take away from his gentle nature. He quickly earned the moniker, Johnny Appleseed.
The Real Johnny Appleseed
John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774. His father, Nathaniel Chapman, served as a minuteman at the Battle of Concord as well as under General George Washington in the Continental Army. His mother, Elizabeth Chapman, died in 1776 while giving birth to his younger brother. His father remarried shortly after. John Chapman’s father was a farmer and nurseryman and he encouraged the love of planting and growing trees in John from a young age. John Chapman was many things. He was a missionary, a business man, a naturalist and an educator. By 1812, John Chapman was also an established orchardist, which, along with his kindness, is what he was best known for.
Apples and Cider
Contrary to legend, the seeds he planted were not for delicious apples for fresh snacking. Instead, these trees produced small, tart, bitter apples that were used for making hard cider or applejack — important drinks during this time in history, especially in places where lack of sanitation made the water unsafe to drink. British settlers were accustomed to drinking hard cider in their native country and simply brought the tradition with them when they moved to their new home.
In fact, it is estimated that by 1767, 35 gallons of hard cider were consumed per person each year. It was readily available and even given to children because it was thought to be healthier than drinking water. Traditionally, hard cider was made by grinding apples into a pomace with pressing stones or a cider mill. This pomace was then pressed into a “cheese,” or block. Blocks were then pressed with increasingly more pressure until all the juice, called must, was released from the pomace. The leftover pulp was often discarded or fed to the animals, and this was where John Chapman collected his seeds. The apple juice was then fermented into hard cider or freeze-distilled to make the stronger applejack. As the juice sat, the natural yeasts present in the apple skins caused the juice to ferment naturally. Since there was no refrigeration at the time, fresh apple juice had to be enjoyed immediately after pressing. Freeze-distillation involved leaving barrels of apple cider outside to freeze. The frozen water was then removed from the barrel, leaving a stronger, more concentrated alcohol than with fermentation alone. While British settlers favored cider, German settlers brought the production of beer. Prohibition changed all of this when alcoholic beverages became illegal, but when prohibition was repealed, beer regained popularity while cider seemingly all but disappeared. Today, we are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of hard cider in the US.
John Chapman’s religious views shaped his life. As a member of the Church of Swedenborg, he remained unmarried and had no children to inherit the land he developed into orchards. As a vegetarian, he maintained firm personal beliefs toward the humane treatment of animals and plants—one of the reasons he opted to plant seeds rather than graft trees. Trees planted from seeds also tended to be hardier than grafted trees, making them more resistant to disease and pests because they adapt to their environment as they grow. For instance, a seed planted in Illinois may produce a very different type of tree than one planted in Pennsylvania due to variations in climate, soil conditions and other factors.Apple seeds rarely maintain the apple’s varietal characteristics such as flavor and appearance, which means that trees planted from seeds produce a very diverse crop of apples. Each tree grown from seed adapted to the area and conditions in which it was grown, resulting in many new varieties of apples.
An American Legend
Though he died many years ago, Johnny Appleseed is far from forgotten. The American folk hero is celebrated every year in festivals held in Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California and many other places throughout the country. Festivals are great fun for adults and children alike, often including crafters, food, demonstrations, re-enactors and other events that show what life was like during pioneer times when John Chapman was alive. Usually, these festivals take place in the Fall around the time of the apple harvest. In some cases, even the food vendors are required to prepare their food offerings in the way it was produced in the 1800’s. You’ll likely find caramel apples, apple dumplings, fried apples and more. Oh, and don’t forget the apple cider!