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Johnny Appleseed

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On September 26, 1774, John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts. At age 18, he and his 11-year-old half brother headed out to the frontier, moving around quite a bit.  At the time, the “frontier” included the western half of Pennsylvania, where the two of them wandered from job to job, doing quite a bit of work in apple orchards.  Their father moved to Ohio in 1805, and the brothers joined him there, and that’s where John got really serious about orchards.  He apprenticed with an orchard owner and soon started off down his life’s path.  Chapman would become known for his mastery of apple cultivation, and soon after earned the nickname Johnny Appleseed.

If you attended elementary school in America, you’ve probably heard of Johnny Appleseed.  The popular image is of a rugged, gentle frontiersman walking around the Northwest Territory barefoot and wearing a tin pot on his head, every so often reaching into a bag of apple seeds and planting apple trees, covering the region with fruit for the coming settlers to eat when they got there.  It’s a nice image, but it’s not accurate.  He didn’t sow seeds as randomly as the legend claims; he had an organized idea of what he was doing out there.  As to the part about him being gentle, barefoot and wearing a tin pot for a hat: that much was true.  He would even take off that tin pot to cook with over a campfire.

After establishing himself near Mansfield, Ohio, he set about planting trees.  For his first job he headed east, to the town of Warren, in northwestern Pennsylvania.  It was there that he set up an orchard, planting trees in evenly-spaced rows, and building fences around them to protect them from livestock and wild animals.  Johnny Appleseed had a business model in mind right from the start.  What he would do is he’d find someone in the area to take care of the orchard and nurse the trees into maturity.  This employee would sell shares of the orchard to local residents.  A “share” usually meant they would own one tree.  Johnny Appleseed would come back periodically to check on his trees, to make sure everything was coming along.

This might not sound like much of a business plan.  After all, how did he manage to make money?  The fact is, Johnny Appleseed wasn’t really interested in making money.  He would sell his orchards cheap, and was even known to barter them away for goods if the buyer didn’t have money.  He was a devout Christian, and believed in living without luxuries or comforts.  On the frontier, he was known to have converted a number of natives.  Native tribes considered Johnny Appleseed to have been “touched by the Great Spirit”, and would not bother him.  Not even the tribes hostile to American settlers would give him any trouble.

Johnny Appleseed did well enough, though.  He was able to keep buying seeds and traveling around, setting up orchards.  Most of his work was done in Ohio, but he also set up orchards in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Ontario, and what is today West Virginia.  He made enough money to set himself up with several orchards when he finally stopped wandering around and retired to Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Much of his estate was wiped out in the Panic of 1837, but at the time of his death in 1845, while not rich, he didn’t die in poverty.

A curious thing about Johnny Appleseed, and something that’s not usually repeated in the Johnny Appleseed story told to elementary school children: he didn’t plant his apples for eating.  Apples are heterozygous, which means they reproduce sexually.  Bees or other insects will fly into the blossoms on apple trees and pick up pollen, which they spread to other blossoms.  The apples that grow contain seeds that include genetic material from different trees.  That’s why if you pick a honeycrisp or a Granny Smith apple from a tree (or buy it at the supermarket) and plant the seeds, you’ll get an apple tree, but you won’t get a honeycrisp or a Granny Smith.  You’ll get something different.  It’s an edible apple, and it might even taste good—but it probably won’t.  Chances are these apples would be extremely tart, and not good to eat at all.  The varieties you can buy in stores or from commercial orchards are good, but to develop a good-tasting variety, you need to work at cross-breeding different kinds of apples, and it would take a while before you came up with something good.  This was well known in Johnny Appleseed’s time; everyone would know his apple trees wouldn’t produce anything that tasted good.  So why would so many people be interested in what Johnny Appleseed had to offer?

There was one thing these apples were good for: cider.  Cider has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days, but in the early 19th century, it was a much more common drink.  The reason was that on the frontier, there wasn’t much infrastructure.  This meant that the water the settlers would get might have harmful bacteria in it.  Cider, on the other hand, did not.  The fermentation process took care of that.  Hard cider was essential to the health of the settlers, and since it didn’t matter what kind of apples you used to make it, the tart, unpleasant apples that Johnny Appleseed planted did just fine.  He paved the way for the settlers’ civilization not by providing food, but by providing alcohol.

Johnny Appleseed probably knew enough about botany to plant edible apples, as well, but that’s not something he was inclined to do.  He was a follower of The New Church, or Swedenborgianism, which, among other things, didn’t believe in messing around with nature.  If you want to create an apple tree that produces the same kind of apples as another, you would graft a branch or a bud from the tree that produces the apples you like onto another apple tree.  This is an ancient method that dates back thousands of years that’s still used today, but Johnny Appleseed viewed this as messing with nature, and thus offensive to God.  He was nothing, if not consistent: he didn’t believe in tampering with nature any more than was necessary.  He was a gentle man, through and through, and wouldn’t hurt a fly—literally.  According to legend, he said he once observed mosquitos flying into a campfire he made, so he put the campfire out so that it wouldn’t hurt more of God’s creatures.  Whether or not this is an exaggeration, he really didn’t believe in hurting creatures at all, and eventually embraced vegetarianism on this principle, figuring it was in line with what the Lord wants.  He also never married, calculating that celibacy would increase his chances of getting into heaven.

His legacy is numerous larger, healthy orchards spanning the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.  One of the trees he planted is still alive, still standing in Nova, Ohio, for more than 170 years and counting.  If Johnny Appleseed were alive today, he might not be too happy about it, though: the current owner of the tree is grafting other kinds of apples onto it.  These days, there’s a much greater demand for good-tasting apples than there is for hard cider.  Would God prefer tart apples for cider to edible ones?  At this writing, the Lord was not available for comment.

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