Today is the birthday of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. So much lore surrounds his life, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but Chapman was a real man and a folk hero during his own lifetime. According to one story, he got the idea to plant apple trees after a horse kicked him in the head, which gave him a vision of heaven filled with apple orchards in bloom. Be that as it may, by around 1800 he had headed west and was seen drifting down the Ohio River past Steubenville, Ohio, with two canoes lashed together and loaded with apples from cider presses in western Pennsylvania. He used the cargo to plant trees.
Chapman was a wanderer and an eccentric. He reportedly wore a coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. But he was also a smart businessman in his own way. His strategy was to travel the frontier and plant nurseries where he thought pioneers would settle. By the time they showed up, his young trees were ready to be sold or bartered. He walked thousands of miles, always shoeless, planting and tending orchards scattered through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
It didn’t take long for folks to give him the nickname Johnny Appleseed. Stories of his strange kindness are legion. It is said he once put out his campfire because the blaze burned a mosquito. Pioneer families welcomed him on his travels, and he was likely to pull out his Bible and preach news “right fresh from Heaven.”
When Chapman died in 1845, he owned about 1,200 acres of nurseries, much of it prime real estate. Far more valuable are the legends he left behind of humble, barefoot Johnny Appleseed.