Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Johnny Appleseed - The Man, the Myth, and the American Story - Howard Means

First, let me say that I have grown up with the family story that John Chapman was somehow tied to my family tree. Now, that being said, I have known that he never married, was somewhat of an eccentric, was definitely a spiritual man, had few roots (pardon the pun), and definitely had a part in planting loads of apple seeds.

Fast forward to a couple months ago ... my son came to dinner one Sunday and, in dinner conversation, mentioned a new book that he was reading about John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed and how it was a study in separating the historic man from the great American folk hero. He said it was a good read in that it had discussion on the history of the era in which John was active within the NewYork/Pennsylvania/Ohio frontier, the spiritual awakening of the era, and the economics of expansion westward. Being a history geek, I asked him to share the book when he finished reading it.

Eric brought it over last week and I have been reading a bit of it every day since ... I am not disappointed. It's exciting to read the historical information about Chapman's time in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and his connection to the Cooley family (my ancestors). No huge genealogical revelations have come from the book, but the connection is validated by someone else (Howard Means), at least.

The biggest thing I take from the book is a new awareness of the wide open spaces of that post-Revolutionary War frontier in the immediate region just west of the Eastern seaboard. I grew up in New York state, so the idea of wilderness on the Allegheny plateau and the idea of people walking westward by following creek beds and river valleys is just so intriguing. For me, the region is criss-crossed by back roads, small farms and small industrial towns, cut through by the swath of the New York Thruway and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and scarred by coal mines slag heaps, quarries and gravel pits, defunct mills and factory towns. It all seems kind of sad when I drive through these days.

To think that places along those rivers provided rich loamy bottom land for Chapman to start apple tree seedlings is just so cool. His business model for surviving seemed to get free seeds from cider mill presses, seed them in on unclaimed land, return to tend them as they grew, harvest them as seedlings and sell or give them to homesteaders who were moving into the region. What a guy! Talk about living a green life and practicing a simple lifestyle ... it gives the reader a look at that era immediately after the new nation formed, when people were moving out away from the thirteen colonies coasts and in toward the frontier.  That's a window of time that we don't often peer through. The great events of the Louisiana purchase were several years off, the Eric Canal was just a dream in some man's mind, there were grand ideas being written about and grand events incubating in New York and Philadelphia, but on the frontier, people were chopping down trees, trading pelts, walking the old Indian trails, and carving out a place in this new country called the United States by claiming the land.

It's a good book, folks. Worthy of a read ... and I'm not saying that just because I have a long ago connection.

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