NOAH ADAMS, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Back in 1845 on a cold, wet evening in March, an old man knocked at the door of a cabin in the Indiana wilderness. His name was John Chapman.

Barefoot, dressed in coarse pantaloons and a coffee sack with holes cut out for his head and arms, Chapman had walked 15 miles that day through mixed snow and rain to repair a bramble fence that protected one of his orchards. Now, he sought a roof over his head at the home of William Worth and his family, a request readily granted.

Inside, Chapman curled up by the fire with a bowl of bread and milk. Some stories say he recited the Beatitudes to his hosts. Others say he just preached. But all accounts agree: by morning, the old man was burning with fever. Within days, he was dead.

That ragged wanderer is better known today as Johnny Appleseed, the mythic frontiersman who planted orchards all over the Midwest. And yes, he was indeed real.

Historian Howard Means has written a new book that follows the linked stories of the man and his legend. It's called "Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story." And Mr. Means joins us now in the studio.

Welcome, sir.

Mr. HOWARD MEANS (Author, "Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story"): Thank you.

ADAMS: Let's go back to Walt Disney. Many of us saw the Walt Disney version. Describe how John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, looked in the Walt Disney film.

Mr. MEANS: He's sort of sawed-off. He's in fact described as weak of chest, I think, is the phrase used. He's a man without much gumption, much get-up-and-go, and he needs a guardian angel to sort of propel him across the border into Ohio.

ADAMS: Typical Disney trick there, right?

Mr. MEANS: Right. Exactly.

ADAMS: Now, of course, he was taller. He was very physically fit. He lived - he died at 70, right?

Mr. MEANS: Exactly.

ADAMS: Yeah. So he was...

Mr. MEANS: He was 5'9", the average height for his age. But he was a man of enormous stamina. You know, to say he lacked gumption, a man who walked across the Pennsylvania Mountains in winter, who lived outdoors for 50 years, who was always afoot, who lived without any protection against either the elements or his fellow man or Indians or bears or rattlesnakes.

ADAMS: Friend with the bears and the cougars.

Mr. MEANS: Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: Now, did he really wear a cooking pot on his head?

Mr. MEANS: There's some question about that, the famous mush pan on his head. But there is a contemporaneous account that has him dressed, at least at one point, in three hats. One was just the brim of a hat. On top of that was the mush pan, and perhaps under the mush pan were scraps of religious text, not the Bible but Swedenborg's interpretation of the Bible, and over top of that, the crown of a hat.

ADAMS: The influence of Emanuel Swedenborg and what was to become the Church of the New Jerusalem later, how did John Chapman get hooked up with that, and what was it all about?

Mr. MEANS: I think he got hooked up through a judge in Western Pennsylvania named John Young, who had brought the religion, basically the Church of the New Jerusalem, west across the Alleghenies in about 1806, 1807.

It's a very unique take on Christianity. Swedenborg was hugely admired by people like Emerson, Balzac, et cetera. Emerson said he rended the veil between the physical and the spiritual world. He was very much in touch, or at least he thought he was being talked to by God through angels, and through the angels, God was delivering to him the secret truths of the Bible. And for whatever reason, it resonated with that - with Chapman and became the animating force of his life.

ADAMS: And he goes out and proselytizes along the frontier.

Mr. MEANS: He becomes the church's most ardent evangelist.

ADAMS: Near the end of your book, you say kind of a scary thing, that Johnny Appleseed, we could picture it, comes into your campfire there or at your hearth, he may be entertaining, but he's probably not sane.

Mr. MEANS: You know, it's a tough thing to say, but I think if you judge him by 21st century sensibilities, and you imagine yourself walking down a street in Fort Wayne and you have walking toward you a nearly naked man, hair flying out in all directions, eyes burning like embers - they're always described as burning - beard in who knows what shape, and he's talking about the secret truths of the Bible as he walks along, and he's barefoot, you'll find these people not far from where we're sitting right now in parks at night.

ADAMS: Mm-hmm. Right. There's a fascinating fact in your book. You say that John Chapman never sold a single apple. Now, that's kind of hard to know, but it's a nice conjecture about that.

Mr. MEANS: He sold seedlings, not apples. And the seedlings themselves are important. He didn't graft. He wasn't a nursery man in the traditional sense that we think of today. He planted seeds because, by his understanding of Swedenborg's teachings, the limb of a tree feels the grafter's knife as surely as the limb of a person, very much a kind of Hindu ascetic quality to a lot of his peculiarities, of which he had many.

ADAMS: And of course, conveniently, the seedling is invaluable if you're a family going out Pennsylvania, along the rivers there, then into Ohio and eventually to Indiana as the frontier moved west. You really had to have the apples.

Mr. MEANS: You had to have the apples for several reasons. One, there's a certain nutritional factor, but in fact, most apples were made into hard cider, a certain amount into regular cider, which was sort of the essential frontier medicine.

ADAMS: Well, you had to have the hard cider as well.

Mr. MEANS: Yes. Yeah. You absolutely had to have the hard cider. I mean, if you look at the records, I mean, life on the frontier in the early part of the 1800s was lived on an alcoholic fog. There was just enormous consumption of hard cider, of corn whiskey. Corn whiskey was given away as part of every transaction in the stores, the trading posts.

And then there was also legal stipulation. A lot of times, if you purchased, say, a hundred acres, you had two years to put in an orchard because an orchard was proof you weren't a squatter, you weren't going to flip the property.

ADAMS: Mm-hmm. And the apples were great to have. John Chapman would go back east to the cider mills that he knew and he'd search - there's a wonderful word pomace - it's pomace, right, the mush that comes from the apple pressing - and get the seeds and take them on west.

Mr. MEANS: He'd load up every winter with seeds, take them back, follow the same rivers back into Ohio and plant his nurseries with them. And these were often just one acre, maybe even less than one acre.

He'd clear this land. He'd put a bramble enclosure around there. And it must have been a heck of a thick bramble enclosure to keep deer out, and he'd (unintelligible) for a year or two. And a lot of these things were at the very edge of the frontier. They were - he had this uncanny knack for knowing where the frontier would be in three years.

And it took just about three years for the seedlings to become of a useful size, of a transplantable size. But because they were from seed, not by grafting, you had no idea what kind of apple tree you were going to get.

ADAMS: Kind of little - you describe little, mealy apples (unintelligible).

Mr. MEANS: Well, yeah. Apple seeds are fascinating. They're called - I think the word is heterozygous. Every apple seed contains the genetic properties of every apple ever made. And so you have no idea what you're going to get from a seed.

ADAMS: So the new settlers who come along are picking up the seedlings. They pay him. Does he ever get money for this?

Mr. MEANS: He gets money. There's a penny or two per seedling. It was kind of a dollar store, a (unintelligible) watch him fly business.

ADAMS: Now, here's a high concept. This is like Hollywood. It's so hard to believe. John Chapman knew he was Johnny Appleseed. How did he figure that out?

Mr. MEANS: How did he know he was Johnny Appleseed? I think at some point in his life, he set about to become Johnny Appleseed. I think he was his own traveling minstrel, in a way. He told a lot of stories about his adventures. He told a lot of stories about hair-breath's escape from Indians and various other things, you know, astounding feats of stamina and derring-do.

He said almost nothing about his own life, about where he'd come from, about who his family and people were. He was silent as a clam on that. And when he died, and they did a wonderful obituary for him in the Fort Worth Sentinel in March of 1845, virtually, every detail actually about his life was wrong. It's very interesting.

ADAMS: So he was working on his own legend.

Mr. MEANS: I think he was. I really do think he was. And I don't - it's funny, isn't it? You think of Davy Crockett following his legend of riding west. In a sense, Johnny Appleseed was creating his legend walking west.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Howard Means. His new book is "Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story." Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. MEANS: Thank you very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) To Johnny an apple meant more than gold down in the meadow by the Ohio, down in the meadow by the Ohio.

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