Did You Know?
Johnny Appleseed was a living person.
His real name was John Chapman, and he travelled extensively throughout Ohio including Crawford County and Bucyrus. Planting and tending to his apple trees, he also dispensed medicinal plants to settlers and Native Americans and preached the tenets of his Swedenborgian Christian faith.
John Chapman, affectionately known in American folklore as “Johnny Appleseed” was born on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. When he was 18, he left home to venture into the American wilderness—areas now known as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the northern counties of West Virginia. Johnny slowly made his way southwest from Massachusetts and then on to Pennsylvania. At that time, much of western Pennsylvania was undeveloped, but government records show Johnny lived in the Allegheny Mountains in 1797.
As Johnny continued to blaze a trail west, he gathered apple seeds from various cider presses along the way. Johnny then pressed further onward to the area known today as Ohio.
Traveling primarily alongside the banks of streams and rivers throughout Ohio (including the Sandusky River in Crawford County), Johnny sought out loamy land. Open space, fertile soil, and water access provided ideal conditions for the apple trees’ prolific growth.
Johnny’s itinerant seedling tree business moved west with the frontier, and his pathways and pursuits were exceedingly humane, but deliberate. The first apple crop in a new area signified the first stage of permanency, helping settlers establish land rights.
The Congressional Northwest Ordinance provided a method for admitting new states to the Union. Those willing to create a homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s permanent settlements were granted 100 acres of land. To prove their intentions of permanency, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees on their homestead. So in addition to being a fervent Swedenborgian missionary, Johnny’s other lifelong mission was to supply apple tree saplings to pioneers in search of a new life in the midwestern United States.
Learning the trade today referred to as horticulture, Johnny spent much of his adult life traveling, planting, and tending to his apple orchards and nurseries located in Ashland, Richland, Holmes, Crawford, Wyandot, Wayne, Knox, Licking, Jefferson, Washington, and Champaign counties of Ohio.
Crawford County was just one of many “frontier areas” where Johnny helped settlers establish new roots.
In addition to the Norton family, other Ohio pioneers and public figures verified Johnny’s presence in Crawford County during the general timeframe of 1819-1832.
It’s speculated Johnny was sighted in Bucyrus during these later years because it was the location of a Federal Land Office from 1832-1842.
Johnny cleared small plots of land in villages of both Native Americans and settlers. In modern terms, Johnny would be considered a “pacifist,” encouraging and fostering goodwill between the new homesteaders and Native Americans.
Little is known of Johnny’s early life except that he loved nature, was kind to all creatures, and was known for being remarkably unselfish. His half-sister, who survived him, related many fond memories of their childhood days. Johnny’s half-sister later lived in Mansfield (Richland County), Ohio.
Judging by his tattered appearance, many people thought Johnny was ignorant and poor, neither of which were true. In actuality, he was a complex character–a peculiar combination of spiritualist, environmentalist, and shrewd businessman.
He made money by first planting apple seeds which grew into saplings. Johnny then bartered or sold them to those wanting to lay claim to or improve their land. Sometimes, Johnny would sell his own established land to incoming frontiersmen. Over the course of his lifetime, Johnny owned 1,200 acres (verifiable in numerous Ohio County Recorder’s Offices), to not only establish but also to tend his apple orchards.
He was literate, taught to read and write as a child when still living in his native Massachusetts. During his adulthood wanderings, he would often teach illiterate settlers how to read, distributing reading material about Swedenborgian and pages from his Bible.
Johnny’s plantings helped ease the lives of the pioneers, as apples were a dietary staple for many. More than a social drink, apple cider was a safer alternative to drinking water– especially on the open frontier. Apple cider vinegar was also regularly used as a preservative and a flavoring.
By 1840, the Ohio frontier became increasingly settled, bringing with it increased wealth and population. A restless and reclusive Johnny decided to move further west. He lived the remaining years of his life in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he died on March 18, 1845.
In November 1871 (26 years after Johnny’s death), Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an extensive account of his life. In this magazine article, Johnny’s historical and cultural impact was well documented, with his famous moniker, “Johnny Appleseed,” now firmly planted in America’s collective memory. It was after the publication of this particular Harper’s Magazine article that “Johnny Appleseed” grew into a household name.
Throughout the fall of 1921, Bucyrus celebrated its 100th birthday with great fanfare. One of the keynote guest speakers was Maud Alfred, great-granddaughter of Samuel and Mary Norton (the founding family of Bucyrus).
In her centennial speech, Mrs. Alfred described her great-grandparents’ arrival in and eventual settling of Bucyrus. Mrs. Alfred also spoke of the Native American inhabitants who were already living there, the adventures and routines of other pioneer families, and notable visitors just passing through the area.
Mrs. Alfred even referenced a particularly memorable and eccentric character, Johnny Appleseed. Prior to the Nortons’ arrival and their official founding of the city of Bucyrus, Johnny had already established some of his signature “roots” in the area.
The October 4, 1921, edition of the News-Forum, celebrating the Bucyrus Centennial. Click on these newspaper images to see close-up references to Johnny Appleseed and his historical connection to Bucyrus.
Finley Hill orchard
In Mrs. Maud Alfred’s Bucyrus Centennial Speech, she described how Johnny Appleseed planted an apple orchard near the Sandusky River in the town known today as Bucyrus.
Several decades later in 1873, General Ebenezer and Mrs. Charlotte Finley bought an extensive hillside property in Bucyrus thereafter referred to as Finley Hill.
The Finley Hill location is where Johnny Appleseed planted an apple orchard prior to the arrival of the Norton party in 1819 in the area known today as Bucyrus.
The Finleys were a prominent Bucyrus couple. Ebenezer Finley began studying law in Bucyrus in 1860 and continued until October 1861. He then raised a military company and served in the Civil War for just one year. He returned to Bucyrus, and was eventually admitted to the bar, holding the appointed position of prosecuting attorney of Crawford County for an unexpired term. Later in his career, he was elected as a Democrat to the 45th and 46th U.S. Congresses (March 4, 1877 – March 3, 1881). Finley also served as Adjutant General of Ohio in 1884 and also as a Circuit Judge of the Third Circuit of Ohio. After his political career, General Finley resumed his Bucyrus law practice.
In his free time, General Finley was an amateur historian and archeologist. He was credited with finding evidence for and locating the exact site of the ancient Native American village, Seccaium, located just outside Bucyrus.
In 1906, the Bucyrus Forum reported on a single apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed that was still alive on the Finley’s property. Around 100 years old at the time, the tree was still prolifically producing apples.
General Ebenezer Finley died on August 22, 1916.
Mrs. Charlotte Finley was a beloved teacher with the Bucyrus City Schools System. She was also recognized as the mother of some of Bucyrus’s leading clubs, including the New Era Club, the North Side Reading Circle, and other small organizations. With the help of Susan Kearsley, Charlotte Finley also organized the Crocus Club.
Mrs. Charlotte Finley died in 1929.
Both Finleys are buried in Bucyrus Oakwood Cemetery.
In 1932, Dr. Daniel and Mrs. Mildred Arnold purchased the former Finley Hill property. A single, remaining apple tree planted on the Finley Hill site by Johnny Appleseed survived until 1939. The Arnolds lived in the house until the 1970s.
Finley Hill Today
Finley Hill is the current site of Arby’s restaurant and is located across the street from the Bucyrus Community Hospital.
In 2017, Bucyrus’s first official Arbor Day tree (a maple tree) was planted on the east side of Finley Hill as a dual tribute to the city’s new “Tree City USA” designation and Johnny Appleseed’s special connection with Finley Hill.
During the upcoming Bucyrus Bicentennial (late Spring 2021), two certified Johnny Appleseed clone apple saplings, along with some related landscaping features, will also be planted on Finley Hill to commemorate Johnny’s legacy.
These two apple saplings were purchased from Silvercreek Nursery, the official supplier of genuine Johnny Appleseed apple tree clones. Silvercreek Nursery grows these clone saplings by grafting semi-dwarf rootstock with the buds from one of the few last known surviving apple trees planted by Johnny Appleseed in Novo (just outside Savannah), Ohio.
Old McMichael farm
Johnny never took up a permanent residence, preferring to sleep outdoors or in the barns of friendly farmers. Due to his particular personality and vocation, he travelled extensively all over Ohio to plant and tend to his orchards and nurseries.
In 1821, in exchange for a night’s stay, Johnny planted a tree on Daniel McMichael’s farm located off Beechgrove Road in Bucyrus. Daniel McMichael’s daughter witnessed and later recounted the apple tree planting by Johnny Appleseed.
In 1937, when the farm was owned by great-grandson B.O. McMichael, the esteemed Davey Tree Expert Company of Kent, Ohio, conducted extensive rehabilitation to prolong the life of this particular Johnny Appleseed tree.
The “Before” picture below reveals the large guy-wires supporting the famous tree. In addition, small twigs circled it, which were actually 25 small apple trees. These small trees were planted around the old tree to induce strengthening and infuse it with sap.
After significant rehabilitation work, the McMichael Farm tree produced fruit for another 19 years. Despite extensive efforts to protect and preserve it, the tree died in 1958.
There are only a few known, original Johnny Appleseed trees still in existence today.
However, the legacy of this intrepid American icon who established countless apple tree nurseries and orchards across the midwestern frontier lives on in America’s collective memory.