Ode to the American Ash Tree


ash tree caldwellI recently noticed a tree on my campus which appeared to be near death. At its top bare branches stretched skyward, with just a few putting forth immature and sickly-looking leaves. Around its trunk a thicker cluster of leaves had formed, which I first assumed were from an opportunistic vine, but were in fact new branches coming up at its base. When I asked the director of the University physical plant about the tree, he told me that it was one of ten Ash trees on campus that have fallen victim to the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian beetle which arrived in North America a little more than a decade ago, and has been wreaking havoc on indigenous Ash Trees across the Midwest. The thick knot of foliage around its trunk was this Ash tree’s desperate attempt at survival, pushing out new life from any part of its body not yet fully comprised by the shiny green beetle.

ash tree d hole

This tiny D-shaped hole is made by the Emerald Ash Borer as it enters and leaves the tree.

Upon closer inspection of this tree and two others I found, I could see the signs of the beetle’s presence: tiny D-shaped holes the beetle made as it entered and exited the tree, and in places where the bark had been removed, the squiggly lines left behind as the larvae ate through the tree.

The Emerald Ash Borer arrived in a cargo container from Asia at the port of Detroit in 2002, and has begun rapidly transforming the American canopy, first attacking Red and Green Ash, then, once those are no longer available, moving on to the White Ash. The arrival in North America of this attractively iridescent green beetle is just the latest chapter in the long story of the Columbian Exchange, a term scholars use to describe the consequences of the arrival of animals, plants, and pathogens carried intentionally or accidentally from one place to another as a result of human migration and global capitalism. Columbus gets the credit, or the blame,

The Emerald Ash Borer is a strikingly beautiful murderer.

The Emerald Ash Borer is a strikingly beautiful murderer.

because it was in the wake of his 1492 crossing from Europe to the Americas that human contact between once isolated regions became steady, and the environmental consequences of that reality began to play out in rather dramatic ways. The expansion of global capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st century has only accelerated ecological exchanges which have been going on for over 500 years. Any plant, animal or pathogen which has the potential to thrive in an eco-region different from its native one is already thriving there, or eventually will.  We cannot reverse the consequences of this new ecological reality, only seek to manage them.

The demise of native tree species perhaps receives more notice and provokes more regret and nostalgia than other Columbian-exchange induced extinctions. Just southeast of the village of New Concord is a sharp rise that some of the oldest residents of the village call Chestnut Hill, once a popular romantic and isolated picnic site where students seeking to escape the social strictures of a Presbyterian campus retreated with their dates. Today it contains no majestic Chestnut trees, which all succumbed to an imported fungus in the first half of the twentieth century.  Late nineteenth century photos of the town of New Concord reveal a Main Street cooled by the shade of American Elms arcing gracefully over the road. These, too, have vanished, the victim of another invader: Dutch Elm disease.

White Ash is hard put slightly pliant, and lighter than other Ash woods.

White Ash is hard put slightly pliant, and lighter than other Ash woods.

If indigenous Ash trees disappears from our lawns, our forests, and our landscapes, will their absence be noticed? The Ash tree does not have the majesty of the mighty oak, and I suspect if you were to ask someone to name the types of trees in their local forest, it might get left off their list. For much of the year the Ash goes unnoticed, late to leaf out, and not a prodigious producer of mast. But in the fall the bronze and mauve leaves of the White Ash are among the most striking of the season. Mostly, however, American Ash trees have been simply useful trees.  George Washington called the Black Ash the Hoop Tree, as its strong but pliant wood made very good barrel hoops. Many 18th and 19th century rail fences were made from the Red Ash, and Green Ash was often converted to canoe paddles.  The White Ash remains prized most of all, for a wood that is both strong and relatively light. It continues to play a central role in the American pastime, as the Louisville Slugger and virtually all high quality baseball bats are made from the White Ash tree. All of these trees are now threatened by the invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer.

My go-to book for information about local trees.

My go-to book for information about local trees.

Whenever I want to learn about a local tree, I pull Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America off my shelf first.  First published in 1948, I am sure it has been scientifically superseded by many other volumes. I am nonetheless drawn to its lyrical prose. The author was no mere scientist, but clearly a tree lover. Peattie declared the American White Ash to be “Nature’s last word,” and fittingly placed his description of it at the very end of the volume. Written more than half a century before anyone in North America was thinking about the Emerald Ash Borer, his last words on the tree are a fitting tribute, but hopefully not an epitaph:

How many thousand-thousand of untold Ash trees are the respected companions of our doorways, kindliest trees in the clearing beyond the cabin? No one can say. But this is a tree whose grave and lofty character makes it a lifetime friend. White Ash has no easy, pretty charms like Dogwod and Redbud; it makes no over-dramatic gestures like Weeping Willow and Lombardy Poplar. It has never been seen through sentimental eyes, like the Elm and the White Birch. Strong, tall, cleanly benignant, the Ash tree with self-respecting surety waits, until you have sufficiently admired all the more obvious beauties of the forest, for you to discover at last its unadorned greatness.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Another campus Ash Tree succumbing to the Emerald Ash Borer.

Another campus Ash Tree succumbing to the Emerald Ash Borer.

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Johnny Appleseed and our National Origin Story


Like most Americans of a certain age, I first encountered Johnny “Appleseed”  Chapman in elementary school.  In the story as I remember it, Chapman was a pious Yankee committed to a life of simplicity and benevolence. He determined at an early age to devote his life to one purpose–bringing the blessings of apple trees to the new lands in the developing West. His trees brought sweetness to the hard lives of pioneer families and helped sustain them in their labors. Wandering across the West in bare feet and ragged cast-off clothing, sleeping outdoors, and planting apple seeds wherever he went, Johnny Appleseed took pleasure in denying himself the most basic human comforts in order to carry out his mission. He asked for little in exchange for his trees—some old clothing, a simple meal, or from the truly destitute, nothing at all.  He radiated a spirit of peacefulness and both Indian and white man trusted him completely. He loved all of God’s creatures and was loath to harm any of them. One story recounts that he doused a fire and slept in the cold when he discovered that mosquitoes were flying into the flames to their destruction.  In the elementary school myth, Johnny Appleseed’s energy for planting trees was super-human. Nearly all of the orchards in the new west were the result of his labors.  He was St. Frances of Assisi and Santa Claus wrapped into one bundle.

Mansfield, Ohio boys wear tin pots on their head to honor Johnny Appleseed in 1953.


The myth of Johnny Appleseed is a part of our national origin story, in which the United States expands into the trans-Appalachian West in the years after the American Revolution. Johnny Appleseed isn’t the only hero in this drama, and in fact he is a curious outlier.  Men like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Mike Fink present a jarring contrast to the gentle tree-planter. Violence–directed at Native Americans and nature–lay at the heart of their stories, while Appleseed is remembered for sowing, not destroying. The short explanation for this difference is that the Boone, Crockett and Fink myths first flourished in the age of Andrew Jackson, and reflect that era’s obsessions with masculine aggression. The myth of Johnny Appleseed, in contrast, was a product of the Victorian era, when sentimental feeling and feminine traits were more commonly celebrated.

Mansfield, Ohio boys dressed as Indians in front of the local Johnny Appleseed monument in 1953.

Appleseed, along with Boone, Crockett, and Fink, received updates during the Cold War as each was deployed to serve new concerns. Among the most powerful disseminators of these legends was the Walt Disney Company, which seized on the westward expansion story to target a new audience of baby boomer children. Disney sanitized the most gruesome aspects of the Crockett and Fink traditions, yet even after this cleansing, the contrast with Johnny Appleseed remained startling. Mike Fink, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone were archetypes of American manhood, and even in the Disney versions, violence was nearly always central to their stories. Disney also added the thoroughly mythical Paul Bunyan to this cast, and celebrated him for his prowess felling whole forests of trees. Johnny Appleseed, in sharp contrast, devoted his life to planting them.

Johnny sowing appleseeds in Disney’s 1948 film Melody Time.

Nevertheless, most American children of the Cold War era understood Johnny Appleseed to be a member of the same team of frontier superheroes.  Boone, Crockett, Fink, Bunyan, and Chapman were all actors in a drama about transforming a continent. Crockett and Boone cleared the land of menacing Indians and wildlife; Fink helped make the interior rivers safe for commerce; Bunyan cleared the forest; and Appleseed planted fruit trees to prepare the land for white American farm families. In Cold War versions of these stories, Boone and Crockett reluctantly used violence as a last resort. These heroes protected American families from a red menace on television shows like Walt Disney Presents and Daniel Boone at a time when American soldiers were doing the same in other parts of the world. In that context, Johnny Appleseed symbolized the other American response to the threat, winning hearts and minds with charity and benevolence. If Crockett’s war against the Red Stick Creeks explained American military involvement in Korea, Appleseed’s unbounded benevolence was a metaphor for another approach to the same danger, manifested in American aid programs and organizations like the Peace Corps.

Johnny Appleseed and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on orchards and the Civil War.

stonewall apple 5The first time I encountered the Stonewall Jackson Apple it made sense to me.  It was about six or eight years ago, on the last day of my biennial Civil War study tour, and we had already visited almost every Jackson shrine and monument Virginia had to offer. It was during the tour of Stonewall Jackson’s home in Lexington, Virginia, that a strange thought popped into my head: “This guy is a little bit like Johnny Appleseed.”  The comparison, on the face of it, seems absurd. Stonewall Jackson was a fierce and unrelenting warrior, celebrated for his battlefield victories; Johnny Appleseed was remembered for his gentleness and his pacifism, and a respect for life that ran so deep he was loathe to kill even a mosquito. The two men were not even of the same generation.  John Chapman was fifty years old and planting apple trees on the northern edge of the Ohio Valley when Thomas Jackson was born on its southern boundary in Clarksburg, (now West) Virginia. Both have been elevated to sainthood by people in their respective regions. But the similarity stops there.  Maybe.

This apple barrel stencil at the Belle Grove plantation is evidence of the commercial importance of apple growing on that Shenandoah Valley farm.

This apple barrel stencil at the Belle Grove plantation is evidence of the commercial importance of apple growing on that Shenandoah Valley farm.

The Stonewall Jackson Apple can be found in Winchester, Virginia, at the lower (northern) end of the Shenandoah Valley. And the artist who painted Stonewall Jackson’s visage on a giant apple probably didn’t intend to make a Johnny Appleseed association. He was simply combining two things for which Winchester is known: Stonewall Jackson and apples. Jackson’s time in Winchester was brief, but it was at the height of his fame. He used a home in Winchester as his headquarters in 1862, while he engineered a brilliant military campaign driving Union forces out of the Valley and threatening to bring the war into the North. That headquarters and brief residence is now one of Winchester’s more popular tourist destinations, and has been a regular stop on our Civil War study tour.

Statue in front of the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, New Market, VA.

Statue in front of the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, New Market, VA.

Winchester’s association with the apple predates the Civil War.  The Shenandoah Valley was Virginia’s richest apple-growing region in the mid-19th century, and while the Valley’s fertile fields earned it the nickname “The Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the war, it might have also been called “The Orchard of the Confederacy,” because tree fruit was another very successful crop.  The Belle Grove Plantation, which sat in the middle of the Cedar Creek battlefield in 1864, has re-established a small heritage apple orchard and also has on display the apple barrel stencil used by Bell Grove’s planters in the 19th century. The Valley’s orchards were no doubt plundered by Sheridan’s marauding armies during the Fall of 1864, but they survived the war more or less in tact, and apples continued to be an important valley crop all through the next century. New Market, Virginia, further up the Valley still has a Johnny Appleseed Restaurant, and Winchester has been hosting an annual Apple Blossom Festival for about ninety years. While there is no real evidence that John Chapman ever visited the Valley, like most of the nation’s apple-growing regions it nevertheless still has a few of its own Johnny Appleseed legends.

Inventing Stonewall JacksonThe similarities I found between Stonewall and Appleseed had less to do with the actual men than with their myths.  In my essay, “The Invention of Johnny Appleseed,” and also in my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I argue that the Johnny Appleseed legend largely took form during the Victorian era, and as a result reflects that era’s values and obsessions. So I was pleasantly surprised this year when we stopped at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia and I stumbled across a fascinating and relatively new book by Wallace Hettle titled Inventing Stonewall Jackson. Hettle explores the myth of Stonewall from many angles, and I cannot do justice to his sophisticated and nuanced argument in this blog post. But Inventing Stonewall Jackson affirmed for me that some of the most prominent features of the Stonewall myth emerged in the Victorian era.

Stonewall Jackson foam stress-relieving lemons are available in the gift shop at his Lexington, VA home.

Stonewall Jackson foam stress-relieving lemons are available in the gift shop at his Lexington, VA home.

Despite the profound differences in the way these two men lived, there are at least three prominent elements of their myths–each celebrated by Victorians–that Stonewall and Appleseed share: eccentricity, piety, and domesticity. Jackson’s penchant for sucking on lemons and holding one arm straight up in the air as he rode on his horse are two stories which are still told today, and Appleseed of course is remembered for his peculiar eating habits, dress, and penchant for going barefoot in even the worst weather.

Popular Civil War Artist Mort Kunstler depicts a farewell scene with his beloved wife, in front of the Winchester home that served as his headquarters.

Popular Civil War Artist Mort Kunstler depicts a farewell scene with his beloved wife, in front of the Winchester home that served as his headquarters.

Jackson’s deep and very public faith is a central feature of his legend, and his death in battle has made him a Christian martyr to many. Rosella Rice, one of Appleseed’s most important hagiographers in the late 19th century, also sought to present him as a martyr of sorts, declaring that “His bruised and bleeding feet now walk the gold-paved streets of the New Jerusalem, while we so brokenly and crudely narrate the sketch of his life— a life full of labor and pain and unselfishness; humble unto self-abnegation . . .”

freshnewsFinally, despite the fact that Stonewall left his family to take up the sword, and Chapman was a life-long bachelor, the Victorian hagiographers of each man threaded domestic virtues into each man’s story. Stonewall, we are constantly reminded, was a devoted husband and had special affection for children. Appleseed shared that fondness for children and helped to sustain families by visiting their cabins and reading the Bible to attentive frontier families.

The steroid-infused version of Jackson and his horse "Little Sorrel" on the Manassas Battlefield.

The steroid-infused version of Jackson and his horse “Little Sorrel” on the Manassas Battlefield.

The Sherfy Peach Orchard


Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the first in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy, peach grower and minister in the Marsh Creek Church of the Brethren

Joseph Sherfy purchased land along the Emmitsburg Road, south of the town of Gettysburg, in 1842. Sherfy was a striver, and decades later his obituary declared that “he made out of sterile acres a most productive farm [and] deservedly stood in the front rank of intelligent and successful agriculturists.” Planting much of his land in peach trees, by the eve of the Civil War Joseph Sherfy’s peaches, which he sold fresh, dried, and canned, were locally famous, and his orchard appeared on an 1858 map of Adams county. The business supported Joseph, his wife Mary, and their six children.

When the Union army reached Gettysburg on the first of July 1863, Joseph Sherfy and his family were ready to help, providing water and bread to thirsty and hungry soldiers. The next day they were forced to evacuate their home, and did not return until the battle was over.

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy's Peach Orchard. From Bradly Gotffried's Maps of Gettysburg

The vulnerable Union salient in Jospeh Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. From Bradley Gotffried’s Maps of Gettysburg

On days two and three of the battle, the Sherfy farm was in the midst of the conflict. A decision made by Union General Dan Sickles, against the orders of his commanding officer, ensured that Joseph Sherfy’s Peach Orchard would never be forgotten. Ordered to hold his men in a line that extended south of the town of Gettysburg to a hill called Little Round Top, Sickles’ decided instead to move his men forward to another spot of high ground in the middle of Sherfy’s orchard, a position he believed would be more defensible. By doing so, Sickles created a sharp bend in the line, a vulnerable “salient,” in the language of war, which could be attacked by the Confederate army from two sides. By the time Commanding General Meade realized what Sickles had done, easy retreat was not possible, and the soldiers in Sherfy’s Peach Orchard faced withering fire for several hours before those not killed were able to retreat. The fighting in and around the peach orchard salient is remembered as among the fiercest of the three day battle.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

One of the few surviving images of the original Sherfy orchard, in William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg, Then and Now: Touring the Battlefield with Old Photos, 1865-1889.

What the Sherfy’s found when they returned to their home after the battle surely disheartened them. Their barn had been burnt to the ground, the exterior of their home was riddled with bullets, and the interior had been ransacked by Confederate soldiers. The soils in the orchard and elsewhere on the farm had been hastily dug up, with the corpses of soldiers buried wherever they had fallen, while forty-eight dead horses remained strewn about the orchard, swelling and decomposing in the summer heat. The Sherfy’s estimated their losses as $2500, but like most residents of the village, were awarded little or no compensation from the government.

Yet the peach trees in the orchard where so many men and beasts fell, rattled by canister and rifle fire, mostly survived. In the ensuing years, Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard became a popular stop with returning veterans and curious visitors. Veterans shared their stories with the Sherfy’s and Mary Sherfy collected pictures of these men, displaying them on a wall in her home. Veterans of the battle, as well as tourists, were eager to view and touch a large cherry tree which stood alongside the Sherfy home, which had a 12 pound ball lodged deep within its trunk. “Soldiers and veterans saw trees (and their fragments) . . . as objects that provided access to the past, a vital link to the landscape of war they had created,” Mary Kate Nelson reminds us in Ruin Nation, her fascinating study of the war’s aftermath. Before they departed, both veteran and tourist to the Sherfy farm took away with them a souvenir of another sort–canned or dried peaches from the Sherfy’s surviving orchard.

Joseph Sherfy died in 1881, but his famous peach orchard survived him, and drew more visitors with each passing year. Just when and why the Sherfy orchards was uprooted I do not yet know. But for decades, the land remembered for the bloody fighting at “the peach orchard,” contained no peach trees at all.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The battle of Gettysburg was waged on the many family farms which surrounded the village, and most of these farms had orchards in 1863.  The Sherfy’s peach orchard is the most remembered of these, but all across the battlefield, soldiers sought shelter from unrelenting fire beneath the trunks of fruit trees. In recent years the National Parks Service has begun an effort to restore many of its preserved battlefields to their condition on the eve of the battles fought there. In line with those efforts, the NPS has

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

T-shirts, peach taffy, and aprons, adorned with the Sherfy Peach Orchard logo, are now for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center.

partnered with local volunteer organizations to replant and maintain many of the fruit orchards which dotted the landscape of war.  Gettysburg National Battlefield Park has perhaps done more than any other battlefield, and today dozens of young orchards are rising out of Gettysburg’s soils. New orchards also appear on the Trostle and Rose farms, adjacent to the Sherfy’s Emmitsburg Road farm. Many of the Confederate soldiers who assaulted Sherfy’s Peach Orchard did so from the Rose Farm’s apple orchard, which witnessed destruction as bad or worse than that inflicted upon the Sherfy Orchard. One early postwar visitor to the Rose farm declared that “No one farm on all the widely extended battlefield probably drank as much blood as did the Rose farm.”

William Kerrigan is the Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.  He is currently working on orchards in American History.  Other posts in this series on Civil War Battlefield Orchards include:

The Apples of Antietam

Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock

The Perils and Promise of Restoring Battlefield Orchards

Johnny Appleseed and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley

Sherfy from Air