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Johnny Appleseed lives on due to history

Sometimes Don Criss dresses up like he’s George Washington. This does not necessarily mean Don is nuts, although that could amount to a matter of opinion. As Polonius would say, there is a method to his madness.

Criss portrays people from American history for children. What better way to bring history to life for these young minds. Not only is Criss dedicated to doing good things like this (and many others), he happens to be a gifted teacher, actor and mimic. He is also a fine historian with an impressive memory.

The reason I bring this up is one of those historical figures he portrays for the kids, one that he and I were discussing the other day during our regular morning coffee get-together.

When I mentioned on one of these occasions how slowly those trees my wife Saundra and I put in our front yard grow, Criss mentioned the 12-foot tree he planted as a 26-inch sapling only three years ago. He claims it is an apple tree that was a cutting from one of Johnny Appleseed’s original trees.

Of course my friend wouldn’t say anything that isn’t true, but I always thought of Johnny Appleseed as a character from legend like Paul Bunyan or Pee Wee Herman.

Not so, says Don, this was a real man — a missionary named John Chapman. I had to check this one out, just to see if I could catch my friend in a very rare mistake.

Well, this iconic figure of frontier America did exist. Johnny Appleseed was the name of the legendary character, sometimes called the Apple Tree Man. The actual man was John Chapman.

He was born in Massachusetts in 1774, near the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He died in Indiana in 1845. He spent more than four decades wandering Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and western Pennsylvania taking care of his forest plant nurseries and planting apple trees.

A practical businessman, he also sold seeds and saplings to settlers in the northwest territories and to Westward-bound pioneers. Legend says he gave away apple seeds and saplings to any who wanted them. Historical fact says Chapman eventually owned about 1,200 acres of orchards.

Known as an eccentric, wild stories sprouted on his giving apple seeds to everyone he met while traveling between orchards wearing a tin pot hat, coffee sack shirt, and no shoes.

Like his contemporary Davy Crockett, yarns spread afar about the fantastic deeds and odd manner of “Johnny Appleseed,” such as W.D. Haley’s 1871 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Johnny Appleseed, A Pioneer Hero.”

What was legend and what wasn’t is difficult to decide — and it probably doesn’t really matter. He never carried a weapon during his wilderness travels. Settlers and pioneers saw him as a missionary, and Native Americans befriended him as a medicine man.

He would read the Bible aloud and preach the Swedenborg religion wherever he went. This version of Christianity was founded by Swedish religious philosopher and psychic Emanuel Swedenborg (1668-1772) who rejected atonement and original sin and wrote the spiritualist work Arcana Celestia.

Yes, “Johnny Appleseed” did indeed exist. The real person whose life inspired the legend is buried at Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, Ind. By the way, this is his birthday.

John Chapman would have been 230 years old today. Johnny Appleseed is timeless.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:

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