In A Nutshell
We all have a very distinct picture of Johnny Appleseed. He’s the barefoot tramp, walking across America, spreading apple seeds wherever he goes. That’s only part of the truth, and the best part usually isn’t mentioned. The trees that Chapman was planting weren’t the ones that would be used to grow apples we eat. Instead, he was planting the sour apples that would be used to make hard cider. Once America’s drink of choice, hard cider fell out of fashion when Prohibition agents took their axes to Chapman’s orchards, and it’s only recently that hard cider is making a comeback in the states.
The Whole Bushel
We’ve all heard the story about lovable old Johnny Appleseed. He walked across the young United States, planting apple trees, sharing the fresh fruit with children and, for some reason, he did it all barefoot and wearing a tin pot on his head. He did it for the love of apples and for the love of his country, a kindhearted soul who hiked thousands of miles and spread apples as he went.
It’s a great story to tell kids, sure, but it’s a story that’s become so entrenched in popular lore that even as adults, we often overlook who the real Johnny Appleseed was.
There’s a bit of truth to the stories. John Chapman really did walk miles and miles across the country at the turn of the 19th century, and he really was responsible for spreading apples and apple trees. They weren’t the sort of apple trees most orchards want today, though, and he wasn’t exactly planting them for the kids. He was planting them for the adults.
A quick botany lesson first. The apples we get in the grocery store come from trees that have been grafted. Grafting different trees together makes the sweet, tasty sorts of apples that are the only kind that you really want to take a bite out of. In his travels, Chapman wasn’t promoting this new method of grafting for the growing of apples to sit in a basket on the kitchen table.
He wanted people to start growing orchards full of sour apples. He was so opposed to the idea of grafting apple trees for sweet, delicious, edible apples that he thought the whole practice was nothing short of evil. It was, in fact, against his religion, since he belonged to the Swedenborgian Church.
And why did he want orchards full of sour apples? For making hard cider.
Hard cider was hugely popular for more than a century, and most of the apples grown in the country were destined for a glass rather than a pie. Chapman, quite contrary to the popular image as the delightful old barefoot tramp, made a fortune planting apple orchards for people who wanted to make their own hard cider. When the government was trying to lure people out to settle the West, it was doing so by awarding land grants to the settlers. In order to keep its grant, a family needed to plant 20 peach trees and 50 apple trees within three years of taking up residence there. (This was to prove you were going to stay.) John Chapman went ahead of the settlers, planting their orchards for them and raking in the cash.
That’s also why Chapman’s real heritage has largely been erased from American culture. Even though people drank almost as much hard cider as they drank water at one time, when Prohibition hit, the trees started to fall. Along with targeting some of the more mainstream areas of alcohol productions, government agents also started chopping down trees. The trees of Chapman’s orchards were good for nothing but making alcohol, and they were largely wiped out in the years around Prohibition.
Apple trees take a long time to grow and a long time to bear fruit, so replanting the trees after the destruction caused by the Prohibition agents was no small task. It meant not only the destruction of the trees, but it also meant erasing the memory of hard cider as one of America’s drinks of choice. It’s only fairly recently that hard cider has been making a comeback, perhaps one day retaking its place as the drink that built America.
Show Me The Proof
Smithsonian: The Real Johnny Appleseed Brought Apples—and Booze—to the American Frontier
NPR: The Strangely True Tale Of Johnny Appleseed
Factually: Johnny Appleseed was real, and he got frontiersmen hammered