I’ve been buried in the books lately. (Yeah, as if I ever step out of the books for long!) The recent large project, which I’ve just put to bed, is my second book for The History Press.

The book, The Witch of Mansfield: The Tetched Life of Phebe Wise will be coming out in September. As I was researching the background of that infamous Mansfield eccentric, I realized that our region has a long and rich history of colorful characters.

Indeed, one of the theses of my book is that Phebe Wise was able to flourish in Mansfield in part because she was by no means the first oddball to plant roots in these parts.

I recap in the book the story of the itinerant fiddler Orrin Pharris, about whom I’ve written here before, an eccentric who preceded Phebe a generation earlier. But even before him, there was a notable character associated with this area about whom I’ve not written much.

John Chapman was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1774. That much we know. Beyond that, we know next to nothing about this man’s early years and what thoughts and events formed him into the very real man who was to become folk legend Johnny Appleseed. Much folklore has grown up around Chapman, but a sifting of the sparse facts tells us a few things.

Number one, John Chapman was a businessman with an ambitious plan, and that, number two, his religious and spiritual interests were important to him as well. His quirky eccentricity follows along in third place, a byproduct of both his unusual working situation and his intense spirituality.

Chapman hatched his business plan in western Pennsylvania, where he traveled when he was 18, accompanied by his 11-year-old brother Nathaniel. How exactly they ended up there is unknown, but on the cusp of the frontier, Chapman examined the settlement process that was emerging as the new Northwest Territory was being settled.

What he found was that land companies were selling large properties in the Ohio country for comparatively cheap prices. There was a hitch though: For settlement to succeed, they needed people to settle and stay.

To make that happen, these land deals came with a condition. The settler was required to plant 50 apple trees and 10 peach trees.

John Chapman had an idea on how to exploit this system: He would head out onto the frontier in advance of settlers, buying properties and planting apple seeds. Then when settlers arrived, they would find parcels of land they could purchase from Chapman which came pre-installed with apple trees, already on their way to producing apples.

This was an important advantage for families relocating to the frontier, because it took time to secure good water, and apples were the number one defense against tainted water.

How? Apple-jack. It’s amusing that in recent decades hard cider has become a popular alcoholic drink, because back in the day it was a cornerstone of frontier life. According to a study of Johnny Appleseed by Howard Means, the typical frontier resident — man, woman, or child — drank 10 ounces of apple-jack every day.

That suggests that much of frontier life was seen through a boozy haze!

But there were other uses. Despite the traditional casting of apple pies as an All-American symbol, pies were a distant second on the list of uses for apples in the early 1800s. The main use for these hardy fruits was making hard cider, known in those days as apple-jack. This strong alcoholic drink was essential, because the alcohol would kill harmful bacteria in water.

Without apple-jack, the Ohio country could not have been settled, and without Johnny Appleseed’s advance apple nurseries, it would have been a much slower and deadly affair.

The seeds Chapman planted were for apples most of us wouldn’t like today. They were small, tart apples. That’s why apple pie recipes called for the use of maple syrup or sugar. If you used an old-fashioned pie recipe with some of today’s super-sweet apples, you’d be in bad shape faster than Wilford Brimley could say “diabeetus.”

Chapman’s apples were tangy and tough. Perfect for hard cider, adequate for pies if you added a sweetener. (As an aside, I can tell you that I once made an apple pie with local Jonathan apples — one of the last tart ones you can still get around here — with maple syrup from Malabar Farm as the sweetener, and it was by far the best pie I’ve ever tasted in my life.)

One of the waterways that Chapman followed northwest was the Walhonding River tributary Owl Creek, which has today reverted to its native name, the Kokosing. True to form, Chapman bought some properties along the way and planted his seeds.

In case you’re wondering, they did indeed know how to graft apple trees long before Chapman went out onto the frontier, but it’s a practice he never pursued, for religious reasons. Chapman was an ardent follower of the Christian teachings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. In the Swedenborgian faith, grafting fruit trees was forbidden, as it was regarded as a theft of the pre-existing tree’s vitality.

Chapman always planted from seed, leading to his nickname, “Johnny Appleseed.”

That faith was no minor element of his life. The secret purpose behind his frontier business was that it gave him a framework to serve as a Swedenborgian missionary while making his living from his dealings. He would arrange to have pamphlets shipped to the frontier, which he would distribute as he traveled from area to area, checking on his trees and making land deals.

That gave him a framework, but it was no easy life. He was traveling in the frontier before many settlers were present, so he had to get used to either sleeping outside or staying with Indians. The natives respected Chapman’s industry and appreciated the “holy fool” aspect of his spirituality.

And he was respectful to the tribes, so they had no problem with Chapman. While he stayed at times with natives, he more often found himself in remote spots with no settlements, and learned to love sleeping under the stars.

After settlers had built farms, they were amused that Chapman would refuse the offer to sleep inside on a bed, because he had grown so accustomed to sleeping outdoors, he couldn’t sleep in houses any more.

Whether or not he truly went around barefoot or wore his cooking pot as a hat has often been questioned, but the source for those stories was Ashland County resident Rosella Rice, who knew him when she was a child. She said the cooking vessel was a tin mush pot.

There are also stories that he would put out his cooking fire as quick as he could and sleep nights without a fire so that it wouldn’t kill moths and mosquitoes attracted to the light. In his later years, he became a vegetarian.

In 1805, the rest of Chapman’s family moved to the Ohio frontier, and his brother Nathaniel, who was by this time in his mid-twenties, decided to stay with them and help them set up a family farm while Johnny kept traveling. Indeed, Johnny kept up his travels for another forty years, before passing away at his sister’s house in Indiana in 1847.

Johnny Appleseed’s trees are mostly gone now. Many died out over the years, and more surviving trees were chopped down by federal revenuers during Prohibition. I know that a piece of wood from one of Appleseed’s trees is preserved in the Mansfield Memorial Museum, and that the nearest still-living tree that the man planted himself is in Nova, Ohio.

To the best of my knowledge, none of his original trees survive in Knox County, though newer trees have been planted in downtown Mount Vernon where Appleseed’s original apple nursery stood.

That nursery was already in place when founding father Benjamin Butler first traveled up Owl Creek in 1801. And that’s where he decided to place his town, because Ben Butler knew the value of those apples.

We can thank Johnny Appleseed for that.

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