Never mind famous Ohioans like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, literary figures– like my favorite James Thurber–, not to mention the eight Presidents who came from Ohio– I nominate Johnny Appleseed as the Favorite Son of Ohio. After all my ancestors in aprons could not get along without apples!
When it comes to Johnny Appleseed, nee John Chapman, myth mixes with reality. His life was so odd and so many tales grew up around him, that he reached legendary stature. I would like to think that one of my Ohio ancestors might have met up with Johnny Appleseed, who was roaming through Northern Ohio from about 1792 until he died in 1845 (or maybe 1848).
However, only my maternal grandmother’s ancestors–the Bassetts (arrived in Ohio from New Hampshire in 1816), the Stouts (arrived from Pennsylvania in 1824) and particularly the Cochrans ( from Pennsylvania – 1798) were in Ohio early enough. However the Stouts and Cochrans lived in Guernsey County a bit south of Johnny Appleseed’s territory. So we must hope that one of the Bassetts came across the mythical figure.
Family members wanted to believe that the old apple tree in my grandmother’s back yard in Killbuck Ohio was planted by Johnny, but my father said it wasn’t old enough. However, it could have been grown from the seeds or a start from an authentic Johnny Appleseed tree, couldn’t it?
I don’t know if Johnny is still celebrated in schools in Ohio today, but we used to study the deeds (real or imagined) of Johnny Appleseed and put on skits and draw pictures of the man with the saucepan on his head for a hat. I know they hold Johnny Appleseed Days in Apple Creek, not far from where I grew up, and I’ll bet they serve apple dumplings. But for the most part, he seems today to be relegated to children’s books. Dennis Day in the Story of Johnny Appleseed was made in 1964. Garrison Keillor made another Johnny Appleseed movie last year.
Ohio author and early environmentalist Louis Bromfield wrote about Johnny Appleseed in his book Pleasant Valley.
He was most known for distributing apple seeds and shoots of apple trees to pioneers in the Ohio country wilderness. When I was growing up, just about everyone would claim that Johnny Appleseed planted “that old apple tree over yonder” on their property.
The American Indians of Ohio revered Johnny because what the white population saw as “tetched“–his communication with animals and always sleeping in nature–the Indians saw as a sign that he was holy–in touch with nature– and they welcomed him into their camps. Johnny not only was friendly with the animals, but he preached brotherhood and peace everywhere that he went.
Sometimes when he was hanging out around an Indian camp, he overheard Indians planning an attack and he would slip away and warn the settlers, thus saving their lives.
Bromfield also claimed that Johnny scattered fennel seeds because early clearings caused swampy conditions, mosquitoes bred and malaria spread. Writing in the 1945, Bromfiled said:
Whatever the truth of Johnny Appleseed, I know how important apples were to Ohio pioneers and still are to cooks today. After all, I do have ancestors who had apple orchards on their farm.
Do you have any family stories about Johnny Appleseed?
My ancestors cooked endless varieties of apple desserts. My mother (Harriette Anderson Kaser) made the old favorite, apple dumplings, every once in a while as the main course of dinner. We would have it in a bowl with some milk, and perhaps some bologna slices or cheese slice on the side. But apple dumplings were dinner.