When each of us was in third grade, we learned the legend of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed. We were taught of his beneficence, and we marveled over the Disney-esque pen and ink drawings of him wandering barefoot through the woods, tin pot on his head, followed by an assortment of happy woodland creatures. He was the pioneer saint, there to spread the healthy goodness of apples across the frontier in advance of the great westward expansion.
What Mrs. Klein, my third grade teacher failed to tell me (likely yours failed to mention this as well), is that Chapman's intentions were not entirely magnanimous, and the fruits of his labors were not meant for children. When he set out from Massachusetts in 1797 towards Pennsylvania, Ohio, and eventually Fort Wayne, Indiana, pioneers could lay claim to land simply by having planted a crop there. His savvy as a land speculator and as a nurseryman selling seedlings to the region's new arrivals made him quite a wealthy man. And those apples were not meant for keeping the doctor away or giving to prairie schoolmarms. Apples grown from seeds (as opposed to grafts) were, as HD Thoreau once wrote "sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream." No, these apples were meant for cider, and not the soft sweet stuff either.
Water was risky at the time, often carrying disease or smelling of iron or sulfur. To quench a thirst, many relied on alcoholic beverages because, as would be discovered decades later, the alcohol in the liquid staved off bacterial contamination. Hard cider was among the most popular of these because of the flavor and relative ease of production.
In the pre-prohibition fervor of the early 1900's, the apple industry need something to help distance them from the "scourge of drink" and soften their image among consumers, thus the character of Johnny Appleseed, as we learned him in elementary school, was born.
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