For days now, “The Lord Is Good To Me,” the well-known song sung by tenor Dennis Day in the 1948 animated Walt Disney film, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, has been on an automatic repeat in my head. It might happen to you, too, if you visit the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum on Urbana University’s campus.
I entered the red door to two former classrooms in Barclay & Bailey Halls and was instantly absorbed in the bumper crop of text panels, artifacts and educational materials about John Chapman, the American frontiersman better known as Johnny Appleseed. I left realizing that his achievements were based on much more than “the sun and rain and an apple seed.”
The museum has the largest known collection of memorabilia and printed information about the life of John Chapman, who left his native New England as an 18-year-old in 1792 and traveled west through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and finally Indiana, planting apple trees, stocking up on apple seeds, starting nurseries, and selling seedlings to settlers until his death in 1845.
Chapman arrived in Ohio around 1801, traveling down the Ohio River to Marietta and then up the Muskingum River and its tributaries. He spent about 20 years in north central Ohio, then began moving westward across the state, starting a nursery in Logan County and planting apple trees in Urbana and Champaign County.
Chapman saved the day for Revolutionary War veterans who had been given free land in Ohio, but were only allowed to keep it by planting 50 fruit trees within three years. Apple trees were the best to for settlers to plant because the fruit was important to a healthy diet, stored well through the winter, could be pressed into cider and could be made into vinegar to preserve vegetables. By purchasing and planting Chapman’s seedlings, settlers could harvest crops of apples much sooner than if they had planted seeds.
The itinerant entrepreneur traded the benefits of having a permanent home for sleeping outdoors or in barns, earning his keep by helping frontier families clear land and plant and harvest crops. Chapman’s fairness, generosity, honesty and extraordinary storytelling ability outshone the fact that he wore tattered clothing, went barefoot and occasionally wore his cooking pot as a hat.
Chapman was devoted to his faith. He always carried a Bible, like this one that was in his possession when he died. He also shared the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian who believed that heaven could be experienced on earth through a life of useful service.
Chapman also taught settlers about the healing powers of herbs. He used catnip, dandelion, dog fennel, horehound, mullein, pennyroyal, rattleroot and wintergreen to relieve headaches and bronchitis, help with insomnia and digestion, and treat skin disorders and fever.
The museum displays historical artifacts like wood and bark from original trees that Chapman planted in Ohio and Indiana; an example of his handwriting, seen in a reproduction of an order for trees that he wrote in 1818; and the 1966 Johnny Appleseed commemorative postage stamp. It also illustrates the place Chapman holds in American folklore, with a recording of Bing Crosby singing “An Axe, An Apple and a Buckskin Jacket” and the “Johnny Appleseed” mascot for the Tin Caps, Fort Wayne’s minor league baseball team.
A small gift shop sells a Johnny Appleseed nutcracker; a limited-edition gavel made from the wood of an apple tree that Chapman planted in Apple Creek (Wayne County), Ohio; apple-themed merchandise; and several Johnny Appleseed biographies, such as Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth, by Robert Price, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, The Myth, The American Story, by Howard Means, and Johnny Appleseed, by Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
In 1837, Chapman planted a “Rambo” apple tree on John Harvey’s farm near Savannah, Ohio. Today, it is thought to be the last-known surviving apple tree that Chapman planted. Richard Harvey Algeo, the fifth generation of the Harvey family, is the current owner of the farm. In 1994, American Forests Historic Tree Nursery took softwood cuttings from the tree and propagated thousands of seedlings from it. Seven seedlings from the tree were planted in the courtyard around the museum in 1999.