Long, long after,In my pre-teen and early teen years, I read every book presenting American folktales and legends that was available in our little Air Force base library. Some of my favorites included stories of deforestation (Paul Bunyan), the futile battle against mechanization (John Henry), and the introduction of alien plant species (Johnny Appleseed). The books that pulled me into these stories were fanciful and aimed at young readers. The stories were uprooted from their origins as descriptions of actual lives, exaggerated the known facts, and worked into the realm of myth.
When settlers put up beam and rafter,
They asked of the birds: "Who gave this fruit?
Who watched this fence till the seeds took root?
Who gave these boughs?" They asked the sky,
And there was no reply.
But the robin might have said,
"To the farthest West he has followed the sun,
His life and his empire just begun."
Vachel Lindsey, "In Praise of Johnny Appleseed" (1923)
The real Johnny Appleseed died in Indiana in 1845, according to an obituary printed in the Fort Wayne Sentinel (22 March 1845). He was tall, a preacher taken with Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, and planted nurseries rather than spreading seeds willy-nilly. A recent book delves into the myth and known history, making a strong effort to separate the two. Howard Means, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story (2011) offers a detailed biography of the life, activities, and beliefs of John Chapman, the real Johnny Appleseed.
As I remember the stories, I was free to imagine that his seed sowing enterprise took him further west, and that he might have ended his days near present-day Wenatchee. My memory is almost certainly faulty and found its freedom in confusion between the Northwest of early American history--the Ohio Country--and the far Northwest, or Pacific Northwest--a term created by railroad publicists in the late nineteenth century. Even the Disney short, Johnny Appleseed (1948), which I almost certainly watched sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s, places Johnny Appleseed in the Ohio country.
The heart of the Disney film pits cultivation of orchards and promotion of religion against a vast wilderness of dangerous animals. Indians appear on the margins, part of the crowd singing and dancing during the harvest festival. The wary animals first believed the human who moved into a clearing and began to plant seeds was a curious intruder who needed to leave. But, none could tell him so. Finally a skunk went out to investigate and was on the verge of attacking, when Johnny began to stroke its fur. The hero of the story wins over the animals. The narrator emphasizes that he is the first human they had seen without knife or gun. Johnny Appleseed thus fits into the mythic structure of humanity's shift from hunting to cultivation, a reflection of the Neolithic revolution and the rise of civilization. The human story of the beginnings of civilization as long ago as ten millennia ago gets repeated in the New Eden, the American wilderness. See "Neolithic Revolution and American Indians" for another episode in this mythic story.
Apples and Cherries in the Pacific Northwest
Today, Washington state leads the United States in apple production. New York City might be the "big apple," but the apple is more a symbol of the far Northwest than of anywhere else. The apple has become as much a symbol of Pacific Northwest regional culture as the salmon and the seemingly endless evergreen forests. But, while salmon have all but disappeared from every region outside Alaska (and even there the proposed Pebble Mine threatens the last watersheds in full health), and while timber jobs in Washington have become scarce, the apple thrives.
John Chapman never made it this far west. The origins of apples in the Pacific Northwest begin in the Willamette Valley and just over the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver. In the 1820s, the Hudson's Bay Company cultivated many food growing plants from seeds. From these plants, Joseph Garvais cultivated the first substantial apple orchards. Contemporaneous with John Chapman in the Ohio Country, Garvais and other retired Hudson Bay Company employees developed agriculture in Oregon Country.
But it was the introduction of grafted fruit trees that caused the region's agriculture to blossom. These first arrived via wagon along the Oregon Trail courtesy of an Iowa farmer who headed west. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling crossed the country with his family and three wagons. Two of the wagons transported some seven hundred small trees. Once in Oregon, Lewelling went into the nursery business with William Meek. When the gold rush lured Lewelling and Meek to California, where they saw opportunity for more profits developing agriculture, they sold their nursery in Milwaukie, Oregon to Henderson's younger brother, Seth. According to Ronald Irvine, The Wine Project (1997), Meek won an award for wine at the California State Fair in 1859.
Seth Lewelling thrived in the nursery business. His foreman for the orchards, Ah Bing, has been immortalized in the name of a popular fruit that he helped originate. Today, Washington state not only leads the nation in sweet cherry production, but accounts for more than half of the nation's total production.
In the world of legend and myth, everyone knows of Johnny Appleseed. The story of agriculture in the far Northwest, however, offers many less well-known, but every bit as compelling stories of such men as Joseph Garvais, Henderson Lewelling, and Ah Bing.