Johnny Appleseed: American Mystic and Godfather of Hard Cider

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Johnny Appleseed: American Mystic and Godfather of Hard Cider

This piece is part of a series of essays on alcohol history. You can see more here.

As an American people, we like to think of ourselves as a mixed race of hardy adventurers, pioneers and eccentrics. Rebellion is in our blood even now, generations removed from the revolutionaries who tore their independence from British clutches, but of all the British traditions those early Americans kept, surely it was an affinity for booze that remains our most beloved institution. And in those colonial days, when you thought of alcohol, you were probably thinking of hard cider—or just “cider,” the idea of non-alcoholic cider not yet existing at all.

Cider, as so many other pop histories have observed before, truly was the most important and universal of all early American alcoholic potables. Apples made the journey to the U.S. with the earliest of English settlers, not in the form of seeds (we’ll explain that later) but as graftings of preferred European apple varietals, all of which proceeded to immediately flounder in the harsher New England soil. The American apple would be not the product of European cultivation but our own wild terroir, aided along by some of those American eccentrics I spoke of above. And none were so intimately associated with the apple as one John Chapman, the American folk hero better known as Johnny Appleseed. As the dedicated missionary of an eccentric offshoot of Christianity that is largely forgotten today, Chapman made monumental contributions to the history of the American apple, although not in the way (or for the reasons) that many schoolchildren have been taught to believe. Chapman’s life, in fact, ultimately impacted everything from the availability of hard cider to the voting base that helped deliver the prohibition of alcohol in America.

So then, let’s unravel some of the true history of Johnny Appleseed and American hard cider.

Johnny Appleseed: Separating Fact from Legend

John Campbell was born in Massachusetts in 1774, on the eve of American independence, and from birth seemed possessed by the country’s pioneer (and entrepreneurial) spirit. He was, as depicted in pop culture, seemingly fond of all growing things in the American wilderness, and was by all accounts a genial and outgoing guy, albeit one who preferred to live a life of solitude. He never married, and indeed poured much of his passion into both his self-appointed work and his religious faith—all things that have been used in the centuries after to turn him into an American tall tale, as in the Disney cartoon below.

It was that aforementioned faith, though, that was a prime influence on why he would eventually travel through the country planting apple seeds. Campbell was a follower of an organization known as The New Church, a somewhat eccentric Christian denomination that saw its heyday in America (although it still exists in limited numbers today) during Campbell’s lifetime. Also known as the Swedenborgians, The New Church was the name given to followers of Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, a scientist-turned-prophet who passed away in 1772, but was a prominent, contentious figure in European theology during his life. Although Swedenborg never founded a church himself, he believed he was a conduit for God’s word, and that he had personally witnessed the Last Judgment on Earth—invisible to everyone else but him—in 1757. Suffice to say: He was a bit out there. But after his death, an offshoot of Christian faith formed out of his theology and philosophy, which counted among its admirers many prominent 19th century figures, from W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johnny Appleseed himself.

Why does this matter? Well, the tenets of the Swedenborgian faith explicitly forbade the grafting of trees as a sort of moral stand, believing that the process of grafting was literally causing the plants to suffer or be stripped of their God-given right to grow. This meant, therefore, that Chapman was unable to plant existing, popular styles of apples in his travels—he had to plant from seeds.

swedenborgian-church-logo.jpg The logo of the Swedenborgian church, as it exists today.

And here’s the weird thing about apple seeds: If you plant the seed of a certain apple variety, the apple tree that grows from that seed will produce fruit that is unrecognizably different from the one that spawned it. Because apples are what is referred to as extreme heterozygotes, their genetics vary wildly from generation to generation. The only way to keep growing the same varieties, therefore, is via grafting. The apples grown via seeds, on the other hand, were invariably too sour, too mealy and too mushy to simply eat—they’re what the apple world refers to as “spitters.” But the one thing these sour apples were good for? Making hard cider.

As for why Chapman was out there in the Western frontier (of the time), planting trees in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, the reason wasn’t Christian charity or some mystical love of the apple—it was a business proposition. As Chapman entered his 20s, the Ohio Company of Associates made a fortuitous deal to draw potential settlers—according to Smithsonian Magazine, “Anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years.” And the reason that requirement existed was largely for the sake of cider, to make that land truly livable (and hospitable).

If you were a settler venturing into Ohio, therefore, you faced a choice: Either work your ass off planting fruit trees or hauling grafts from the East, using time you’d really want to be devoting toward your homestead or farm crops, or simply buy your trees locally as saplings from an enterprising young John Chapman. Johnny Appleseed, then, was really a consummate American businessman as well as something of a traveling evangelist—he wasn’t just sprinkling apple seeds at random, he was planting nurseries in areas that he knew would eventually be colonized by settlers, and then contracting locals to sell those trees to homesteaders in his name. It was a plan that worked for everyone—Chapman made a living and spent most of his time visiting tree nurseries and apparently preaching Swedenborgian teachings to whoever would listen, and the settlers got a head start on a fully functioning, cider-producing homestead. And considering the often questionable quality of local water, you would have wanted that cider, and wanted it badly.

The unintended consequence of planting so many seeds, however, was the genesis of thousands and thousands of distinct, heirloom apple species, the vast majority of which no longer exist today. According to author Steven Grasse’s Colonial Spirits, there were in fact more than 14,000 known varieties of apple in the U.S. in 1905, bearing colorful names like the “Sheep’s Snout,” “Hornet Sweeting” or “Green Everlasting,” and Johnny Appleseed played a major part in that biodiversity. Today, on the other hand, there are only around 100 varieties grown in the U.S., with the vast majority being the handful of familiar styles you can find at your local supermarket. Artisanal cideries like Vermont’s Shacksbury are working to revive those lost heirloom apple varieties, but it’s a long road back.

shacksbury-lost-apples.png Most of the heirloom apple varieties that once existed in the U.S. are lost to history.

Of course, Chapman was by no means infallible, either—less heralded than his apple planting was the fact that he also reportedly planted swaths of Eupatorium capillifolium, otherwise known as Dogfennel, in the course of his travels. At the time, Chapman believed it was an herb with medicinal properties. Today, dogfennel is considered an invasive weed with particularly noxious and borderline toxic interactions. It just goes to show that the unintended consequences of Johnny Appleseed’s travels have been felt in ways both positive and negative.

Johnny Appleseed: Bringer of Booze … and Prohibition?

The role of John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed as “bringer of booze” to the frontier/homesteaders has been well documented, and it’s easy to see why homesteaders would have felt gregarious toward the guy. Michael Pollan, author of the nonfiction plant book The Botany of Desire, describes Chapman as “the American Dionysus,” saying the following:

Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That’s why he was so popular. That’s why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus. He was the guy bringing the booze.

And indeed, there was no time in American history when that alcohol was more appreciated and widely consumed than at the height of Chapman’s wandering, in the early 1800s. American alcoholic consumption, in fact, reached its truly grotesque peak in 1830, at a time when the average American was consuming roughly 7 gallons of pure ethanol a year, according to author Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. As he writes:

“Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms, those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.

Much of that boom in drinking was driven by the dirt-cheap prices of a newly ascendant American liquor of choice, whiskey, which began to be produced in bulk thanks to the surplus in available grain grown by western homesteaders—farmers whose settlements and farms the work of Johnny Appleseed directly supported. It’s no wonder that Howard Means, the author of Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story describes his era as being lived “through an alcoholic haze.”

whiskey barrels inset (Custom).JPG Cheap corn made for cheap whiskey, and drinking rates in the early 1800s soared.

As the 20th century dawned and the Temperance movement began making real social headway toward Prohibition with an extremely unlikely coalition of interest groups all supporting the idea for vastly different reasons, hard cider would once again play an unexpected role—this time in delivering more voting support for national Prohibition, rather than less. The reason is simple: Contrary to the pop culture image of Prohibition, there were certain forms of alcohol that were largely exempted from the scrutiny of the law in this era, and home cider-making was among them. As we wrote ourselves in this piece on the bizarre conjunction of support that led to the Prohibition experiment, the exemption of cider was essentially a gift to rural America in order to buy their support as a voting bloc:

Take cider, for instance—because Section 29 of the Volstead Act (the national Prohibition enforcement law) exempted fermented “fruit juices,” the home manufacture of cider (and wine, for that matter) was never actually made illegal. If you lived on a farm and grew your own apples, you could essentially make all the booze you wanted, while simultaneously clamoring for alcohol to be stripped from the urban masses. And considering those urban masses were disproportionately dark-skinned or foreign, that’s exactly what rural members of the KKK did in the build-up to Prohibition. The exemption of cider was no coincidence: It was a calculated gift to Prohibition’s rural supporters, straight from (Anti-Saloon League leader) Wayne Wheeler, who said the following according to Okrent: The exception was meant to “enable farmers and housewives of the country to conserve their fruits.”

johnny-appleseed-abinbev.jpg AB InBev, unsurprisingly, saw the obvious marketing potential in naming their hard cider after Chapman.

The work of Johnny Appleseed, then, in providing so many of the farmstead orchards for hard cider production, ultimately played a role in contributing to the voter base for Prohibition in its own roundabout way. Ironically, however, despite that exemption for cider grown on the homestead, national Prohibition also played a role in killing off the commercial cider industry. Although most of those farmstead orchards were safe, the larger commercial orchards of cider apples suffered during the Prohibition years, given that they produced fruit that was essentially unfit for any other use. In this time period, those larger orchards were increasingly turned over to the production of sweeter, more palatable dessert apples meant for eating, baking, or sweet cider rather than hard cider production—and with the loss of those trees, national hard cider consumption began a steep plunge that wouldn’t reverse until the modern hard cider revival of the 2000s.

You could reasonably say, then, that the effects of Johnny Appleseed’s travels and seed-planting contributed to all of the following: The proliferation of hard cider on the Western frontier in the 1800s; the ratification of Prohibition; and the eventual decline of the hard cider segment. For one reason or another, the Swedenborgian missionary and wilderness zealot played a role in all of it.

And wouldn’t you agree that the true history is infinitely more interesting than whether John Chapman actually walked around with a metal pot on his head?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.