Understanding the Past: Reading, Re-enacting, Performing


hank and i

William Kerrigan, author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, and Hank Fincken, living history performer. cambridge, Ohio, April 2013.

Last year I had a unique opportunity as a scholar to share a double-bill with a professional actor. With the generous support of the Ohio Humanities Council, the public library in Cambridge, Ohio invited me to deliver a lecture on John “Appleseed” Chapman and to sign and sell copies of my recent book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard. After a brief intermission Hank Fincken took the stage in the character of Johnny Appleseed. For act three, Hank and I jointly answered questions from the audience. When the library first broached the idea of a Johnny Appleseed double-bill, I was both enchanted with the idea and a little bit intimidated. How would a lecture by an academic historian stand up when placed in conjunction with a compelling, dramatic, comic and lively first person performance delivered by an experienced actor who has mastered the skill of engaging diverse audiences across decades of experience? But I was also excited about the possibility of opening up a conversation about the ways we understand the past.

french and indian war reenact

French and Indian War Re-enactor. Photo by Eric Gaston.

A lifetime ago in grad school, I spent warm summer days in a windowless, climate controlled concrete bunker called the library annex, poring over 19th century periodicals, researching my dissertation. About mid-July I needed to escape, and hopped in my car and drove north to Fort Michilimackinac in northern Michigan. There I stumbled across an encampment of French and Indian War re-enactors, and found myself in conversation with one. When I asked him how he came to be involved in re-enacting, he told me that he used to participate in history roundtables, where people got together to discuss books. But he finally concluded that “you don’t learn history in books, you learn it in your bones,” dropped out of the roundtable and took up re-enacting. When I asked him to explain this heresy he replied, “Well, when you sleep on the ground, you learn the ground is hard.”

Re-enactors and spectators at the Battle of New Market re-enactment.

The Battle of New Market re-enactment.

In subsequent years I began taking undergraduate students on biennial Civil War study tours, and we always tried to include a Civil War encampment and battle re-enactment in those trips. The Civil War re-enactor subculture is quite distinctive, and compellingly examined in Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic. In my many interactions with re-enactors I have learned to appreciate that through these rituals they learn something meaningful about the sensory experience of the Civil War soldier, but I have encountered many whose understandings of the bigger picture—like the causes of the war—were highly dubious. Bones alone will not impart wisdom.

While re-enactors seek a connection with the past for their own use, living history performers like Hank Fincken and academic historians like myself interpret the past, seeking to convey knowledge to an audience. In conveying the story of John Chapman, Hank and I are each engaged in an act of interpretation, struggling to find the truth. Our interpretations of the man and the meaning of his life are not perfectly aligned, but I have found Hank’s Johnny Appleseed compelling and persuasive. Over the many years I spent researching the life of John Chapman, I saw many amateur actors, and a few professional ones, perform in the role of Johnny Appleseed. Most were pretty forgettable. The problem, it seemed to me, was the desire to portray John Chapman as a saint—a physical representation of pure goodness and a role model for children—one so perfect that they could not hope to emulate him. Not only did these Johnny Appleseeds not resemble any real person I had ever met, their performances put me to sleep. Hank’s Johnny Appleseed was quite different from the saintly ones. His Johnny was irascible, rascally, comic, mostly endearing but a bit off-putting—in other words thoroughly human.

The difference in our approaches is never more stark in the way we each answer this commonly asked question:

Did Johnny Appleseed really wear a tin pot on his head?

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

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

As an academic, my answer begins with written sources, and tends toward the verbose. I explain that while there are some accounts that mention a tin pot hat, others describe a vast array of interesting head-gear; that he may have worn a pot on his head once, or even occasionally, but it wasn’t his everyday head gear. For Hank (whose Johnny Appleseed does not don a pot), the answer is more direct, and something like this:

“if you believe Chapman wore a pot on his head, I encourage you to go home today and put a pot on your own. Wear it for a few days, and let me know if you still believe a pot can perform as practical headwear.”

Despite our different ways of answering that question, our approaches are not completely different. What makes Hank Fincken a credible living history performer is that he understands that essential knowledge comes not just from your bones, but also from texts. He has read all of the biographies of John Chapman, as well as the most important primary sources on his life. He has spent endless hours mulling over these materials and crafting them into scripts. Likewise, I also occasionally took a “bones” approach to the

John Daniels Dry Good Store Ledger, Warren County Historical Society

John Daniels Dry Good Store Ledger, Warren County Historical Society

life of John Chapman. On Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Plateau, I stood barefoot on the smooth gray stones in the Brokenstraw Creek, knee-deep in its chilly spring waters, near the location of Chapman’s first creekside apple-tree nursery. I cannot articulate in any scholarly way how doing this helped me understand John Chapman, but I certainly felt as if it did. Hours later, in the reading room of the Warren County Historical Society, holding in cotton-gloved hands a crumbling dry goods store ledger where John Chapman bought an assortment of items, I felt that once again. Even an archive can yield some “bone-knowledge,” and scholars would be wise to consider its value.

William Kerrigan is Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, and author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins, 2012).

The Brokenstraw Creek, near the location of John Chapman's first apple tree nursery.

The Brokenstraw Creek, near the location of John Chapman’s first apple tree nursery.

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Disney’s Johnny Appleseed


Johnny Appleseed's Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

Johnny Appleseed’s Bible features prominently in the Disney version of the story, from the 1948 animated feature Melody Time.

John Chapman earned the nickname “Johnny Appleseed” during his lifetime, and people started sharing stories about the eccentric apple tree planter in the Ohio and Indiana communities where he spent much of his life long before he died in 1845.  But Johnny Appleseed did not emerge as a figure in the American national origin story until the 1870s.  In the late 19th century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, most of the promoters of the Johnny Appleseed legend were social reformers, some of a socialist bent, who celebrated Johnny Appleseed’s efforts to promote a common social good by providing apple trees available to all.   After World War II, the range of acceptable national myth narratives narrowed considerably. As the United States increasingly defined itself against Soviet communism, interpretations of Johnny Appleseed

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

Disney made Appleseed part of its team of early American superheroes, alongside Paul Bunyan, John Henry and others.

reflected this change. When Disney released an animated version of the Johnny Appleseed story in 1948, John’s faith in God was front and center. The narrator stated that three other great nation builders had their distinctive tools in their mission— Paul Bunyan had his axe, John Henry his hammer, and Davy Crockett his rifle— but Johnny Appleseed’s tools were his bag of apple seeds and his Holy Bible. The cartoon opens with a young Johnny singing a Disney-created song that has come to be known as “The Johnny Appleseed Grace,” and many believe it was actually written by Chapman.

disneyjohnnypotbibleThe Lord’s been good to me

And so I thank the Lord

For giving me the things I need

The sun and rain and the apple seed

Yes He’s been good to me

disneyjohnnyguardianThe Johnny Appleseed story told by Disney is a near perfect sermon on postwar American values. Faith in God and the ability of the individual to make a difference in history are the central themes. Johnny celebrates American freedom, singing, “Here I am ’neath the blue blue sky, doing as I please,” thanking God for that freedom. Soon his attention is drawn to a long train of Conestoga wagons pushing west, each containing a pioneer family. The wagon train has its own song celebrating American individualism:

disneyjohnnyconestogaGet on a wagon, rolling west

Out to the great unknown

Get on a wagon rolling west

Where you’ll be left alone.

The rivers may be wide

The mountains may be tall

But nothing stops the pioneer

we’re trailblazers all.

While John longs to join them, he believes he cannot— that he is too weak and too small,

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

The diminutive Johnny goes west without a gun, but in the Disney version, this is a result of his poverty and small size. No pacifist, he dreams of emulated the gun-toting frontiersman.

and does not own the gear he needs. Johnny’s “private guardian angel,” sent down from heaven, convinces him that all he needs is his faith, his Bible, and his apple seeds. Johnny sets out through a rugged wilderness, “a little man all alone, without no knife, without no gun,” but to avoid the impression that Johnny is a pacifist, Disney included a scene where he imagines he is shouldering a rifle like the ones he saw the men on the Conestoga wagons hold, and another where he picks up a stick from the woods, and pretends to aim and shoot with it.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

The creatures of the wild forest Johnny Appleseed will transform into an ordered orchard embrace him as a friend.

Notably, the Indian makes only a minor appearance in Disney’s Johnny Appleseed. Instead, Johnny Appleseed works to win over the trust of the forests animals, convincing them, by his kindness, of the benign nature of his mission to transform the wilderness. The Disney story ends with an image of an aged Johnny Appleseed atop a ridge, his shadow stretching across a transformed landscape of fields and orchards:

disneyjohnnyoldhilltopnurseryThis little man, he throwed his shadow clear across the land, across a hundred thousand miles square and in that shadow everywhere you’ll find he left his blessings three love and faith and the apple tree.

Despite the story’s celebration of individualism, Disney’s Johnny Appleseed stopped short of praising difference in favor of conformity. Johnny Appleseed was a generic Christian in the story, not an apostle of unconventional Swedenborgianism. Johnny Appleseed could be an eccentric in postwar America, but the boundaries of that difference were increasingly constrained in a culture that valued conformity even as it professed to celebrate the power of the free individual.

You can view the entire Johnny Appleseed animated short here:

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 best, or worst, Johnny Appleseed analogies.


jaofpigsdesotoWhat is required to earn the title, “The Johnny Appleseed of” something?  Well, there appears to be more than one way to earn the honorific.  You could be the first person to introduce an object or idea, but if you are not the first, you still might earn the title by becoming the most important or most evangelical promoter of that object or  idea.  A recent article in the New York Times  declared Conquistador Hernando de Soto to be “the Johnny Appleseed of pigs” because during his reign of terror through the American southeast he released Old World swine into the region, which proliferated rapidly, wreaked much environmental destruction, but ultimately helped to cement pork as “the other white meat.”  He clearly earned the title, but I would prefer to put a more positive spin on it by calling him “The Johnny Appleseed of Bacon.”

jaofkid-bacon

Many other notable figures of recent history had “the Johnny Appleseed of” honorific bestowed upon them.  Here are a few of my favorites:

“Freeway” Ricky Ross, “the Johnny Appleseed of Crack Cocaine.”

jaofcrackfreewayrickyross In the early 1980s, Ross oversaw a crack cocaine empire from a few properties along Los Angeles’ Harbor freeway. the empire was so vast that he claimed to have sold $3 million worth of the drug in a single day.  Ross seems worthy of the Johnny Appleseed title because at its height, his empire appeared to be responsible not just for most of the crack in southern California, but most of it distributed in the Midwest, Texas, Louisiana, and the Carolinas.  Perhaps fittingly, Ross once claimed that the original Johnny Appleseed’s old haunt of Ohio was his most lucrative market.  Convicted in 1996 after trying to purchase 100 kilos of crack from a Federal agent, Ross eventually had his sentenced reduced to twenty years, and was released after fifteen for being a model prisoner.

Alfred Matthew Hubbard, “The Johnny Appleseed of LSD.”

Ross was not the first evangelizer of drug use to earn the Johnny Appleseed moniker.  jaoflsdhubbard
Alfred Matthew Hubbard, once a “barefoot boy from Kentucky,” moved west, became a small time inventor with an entrepreneurial spirit, and found his calling distributing hallucinogenic drugs.  He was said to have turned more than six thousand people on to the acid trip.  He also distributed magic mushrooms and mescaline, all of which he carried around with him Johnny Appleseed style–in  a leather satchel strung over his shoulder.  One Beverly Hills psychiatrist recalled that “we waited for him like a little old lady waits for the Sears-Roebuck catalog.”  Also known as Captain Trips, in his appearance the crewcut-wearing Hubbard didn’t quite fit the stereotype of the beatnik or hippy. Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary were two of his customers and champions, though the latter once commented that he had the appearance of a “carpetbagger con man.”

Thomas Bendelow, “The Johnny Appleseed of Golf”

jaofgolfbendelowIt isn’t just drug dealers who develop an evangelical zeal for their favored mode of recreation.  Scottish-American Thomas Bendelow’s passion for golf certainly matched that of Ross’s and Hubbard’s for illicit substances.  Bendelow was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, to a family of pie makers. Which was an appropriate occupation for the Bendelow family, because they were also well known for their religious pie-ty. Thomas migrated to America, where he first taught golf, and eventually began to design golf courses. Soon Bendelow was designing golf courses across the nation, and his courses became known for both their “naturalistic” and “sporty” designs.  By the time he died in 1936, Bendelow had designed over 600 golf courses.

Michael Roizen, the Johnny Appleseed of the Male Orgasm

Ohio might be called “the Johnny Appleseed of Johnny Appleseeds,” as it has jaofmaleorgasmmichael_roizenplayed a central role in the careers of so many Johnny Appleseeds. It might also be called “the Johnny Appleseed of Presidential birthplaces” because it appears that all of the nation’s most obscure Presidents were born there.  But I digress.  Michael Roizen, the chief  wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic has accomplished many things in his life, so perhaps it isn’t really fair to saddle him with the title “the Johnny Appleseed of the Male Orgasm.”  But that is what Men’s Health Magazine has called him, because of his efforts to promote the idea that men should have more of them–at least three a week–if they want to live long, happy, healthy lives.

The United States of America, The Johnny Appleseed of Nuclear Weapons

jaofnuclearweaponsamerican-flag-libertycsmonitorThis last one is so important, it could not belong to a single person, but only to a whole nation.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, the title belongs not to one President, but to every one from Harry S Truman to Barack Obama, and to all the people who voted for them. I chose to illustrate this last one with an image of the Statue of Liberty, because, frankly, there is clear gender bias going on in the bestowal of Johnny Appleseed honorifics.

So, what are you the Johnny Appleseed of?