Tony Vagneur: Man of the seeds
If he’d been around Aspen in the 1970s, he’d no doubt have been accused of being eccentric, maybe insane, even in the midst of those striving to make such a reputation for themselves. Not much for outwardly appearing to make a living, he might be seen wearing castoff odds and ends from this or that person’s closet. His proclivity for wandering off into the woods for long periods of time might have branded him as “one of them hippies, growing illegal weed.”
Mostly, he traveled barefoot (sometimes he was witnessed crossing frozen rivers in his bare feet), and when he had shoes, they might be of two different styles. The shoes never seemed to last long, for he’d soon give them to someone who appeared to need them more. He cut his pants off at the knee so they were less likely to snag on underbrush as he traveled through the forest. Much has been made about him wearing a metal pot on his head, likely a fabrication, but he was probably the first person to wear a hat of his own invention with a long cardboard bill, fashioned much like an aviator or fisherman’s cap of today.
John Chapman was from early 1800s Ohio (1774 to 1845). His odd dress and behavior made him appear to the natives still living there to be “a great medicine man,” or maybe a shaman. But, according to Robert Morgan in “Lions of the West,” many Natives probably considered him a holy fool, telling strange stories and carrying a large bag of seeds upon his back as he traveled along.
Like many folks, then and today, Chapman had a vision that almost transcended common thoughts of the day. Reared in a family of farmers and nurserymen, he had an affinity for plants, produce and trees along with a tremendous knowledge of herbs. There was in that time, during the great westward expansion, a firm belief that apple trees were a requirement for proving the land to be productive. Each small, successful farm could boast of plentiful water, a cow, an ox, fertile land and an orchard.
His vision was to plant apple trees well ahead of settlers moving west; when they did arrive, he would sell them the young apple trees that he had planted earlier. More importantly, a rule instituted by the Ohio Company in 1792 stated that to prove up ownership on a land claim, not only must a settler build a dwelling, which often consisted of nothing more than a brush hut, he must also plant at least 50 apple trees per 100-acre parcel. In the end this rule, inadvertently or perhaps by design, made John Chapman a land-wealthy visionary by the time of his death.
This plan was quite ingenious for the time as was its implementation. He would clear an acre or two of land deep in the woods, along what would likely be the future path of land-settling farmers. For protection, from livestock and trespass, he surrounded these nurseries with barriers made of brush, quite effective for the time and which might still be attractive and effective in today’s world.
Being out there, ahead of civilization, required him to be of tough mettle, living off the land. He slept outside, found his own food along the way, and all the while was carrying a large sack on his back filled with a bushel or more of apple seeds. A bushel of such is made up of over 300,000 tiny beginnings. These seeds he found at periodic visits to cider mills, gathering a bushel or two at each visit.
Apples were not looked to be the crisp, sweetly juice-laden additions to our diet that we think of today. In the 19th century, apples were of course baked into pies, but the distillation of apple cider into hard cider was considered to be the highest and best use of the usually tart apple (“spittles” they were often called, as people sometimes spit them out after the first bite).
Hard cider was the alcoholic drink of choice for settlers heading west, far more popular and easier to make than wine or moonshine. As a matter of fact, during Prohibition starting in 1920, federal revenue agents literally axed an uncountable number of apple orchards throughout the Midwest in an attempt to curb the making of hard cider.
Today, if you’ve ever had an apple pie made by Jill Steindler, you are tempted to get on your knees and thank John Chapman for his dedication to spreading apple trees throughout the Midwest and on into the West.
Predictably, John Chapman had another, more recognizable name, that of Johnny Appleseed.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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