(Raintree now offers trees made from the scionwood of this historic tree)
The dying roots of a gnarled old apple tree in Ashland county feed on the rich stuff of early Ohio legends.
Johnny Appleseed passed this way, the story goes, maybe 140 years ago. He took 9 seeds from his buckskin pouch and planted them so his friend, Conrad Fridline, some day could have an apple orchard.
Conrad’s grandson, Alonzo Fridline, who still lives on the farm, where he was born 81 years ago, can remember 7 trees in the Johnny Appleseed orchard.
Today one still struggles to live, half of it dead, its trunk rotting, but the living half a blossom in a flame of pink and white as if the world still were young and this May were the first instead of perhaps the last.
PLANTED MILLIONS OF THEM
Carl W. Ellenwood, retired pomologist at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station believes the tree to be not only a Johnny Appleseed planting, but the last of the literally millions that the eccentric wanderer planted along the streams and Indian trails when Ohio was young.
Ellenwood, steeped in 50 years of apple lore, long has made a hobby of running down stories of Johnny Chapman, alias Appleseed. He is convinced enough about the origin of the old tree that he visits it from time to time in a spirit of veneration.
“It is a feeling akin to that when you visit a national shrine: he said “its not important commercially, but somehow I am always glad to know it has come through another year.”
Apple quality and culture, to which Ellenwood has devoted a lifetime, were the least of Johhny Appleseeds worries. He would clear a spot in the forest or on a grassy bank, drop some non descript seeds and perhaps stop by the next year to see what had sprouted. It was enough for him to think the forests would be ablaze with blossoms, and some fall heavy with fruit.
Growing a good apple from seed is almost a one in a million chance and the Johnny Appleseeds legends do not relate that he ever planted one worth growing.
But Ohio history for schoolboys and their parents is richer in far more than apples for the misty tale of the Homeless Mystic who roamed unmolested by Indians, befriended here and there by whites, preaching his Swedenborgian faith to all who would listen, tearing pages from his Bibles to give to his listeners remorseful because he once killed a snake, eating at a mans table...but never sleeping under his roof
The old tree stands in a scenic rural setting 15 miles west of Wooster between route 250 and 30. Alonzo Fridline sold his farm two years ago to his long time tenants (the Roy Funks, who are watching out for both old trees and old farmer with solicitude)
The Fridline orchard was a spot that Johnny Appleseed must have known as well as his Bible. The farm straddles the watershed between Muddy Creek Fork and the Mohican River, and an Indian trail led of it past the old log cabin that was the home to Conrad Fridline. Indian mounds and burials are still to be found on the farm.
Johnny Appleseed worked out of Marietta, paddling his way up the Muskingum to the Walhonding to the Mohican as far north as Sandusky.
The Fridline orchard could have been planted in or about 1821, when Conrad bought the farm from one Yankee Smith but not later than 1837 when Johnny made his last trip to Ohio. Conrads son, Ludwig, was 16 then and able to garner firsthand tales to pass on to his son, Alonzo.
More sentiment than good apples were harvested from the old orchard.
“Of the seven trees I remember only two amounted to anything, and one was as poor an apple as you could fine” Alonzo Fridline said.
Ellenwood rates the fruit of the last survivor as only fair. It is an attractive red apple ripening in Mid September . The trunk is two feet in diameter and from the ground to dead top is about 25 feet. The last attention it got was some dead limb pruning 18 years ago.
Even older trees are still in production in Marietta nurseries. The commercially productive life of an apple orchard is 30 – 40 years.
Another authenticated Johnny Appleseed tree lived until 1944 on the Cleft farm, 3 miles west of the Fridline farm. Scions were taken from it were grafted to a tree at the experiment station to perpetuate the variety.
Johnny Chapman was born in Leominster Mass in 1774 and had migrated to the Ohio territory before his fathers family moved to Marietts in 1798. He died in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1845.
Monuments to his memory stand near Marietta in Ashland and Mansfield and in Ft. Wayne. A sister living in Mansfield associated him with that town.
From seeds scooped up at cider mills he established nurseries in Licking, Ashland, and Richland counties. One nursery on the Walhonding was said to be planted with 16 bushels of seeds.
“From all accounts he was a cultured man and it seems likely he knew a good deal of botany.” He is said to have preferred growing seedlings rather than propagating by grafting because his method was more natural. He gave hope and inspiration to many a discouraged settler. Most of all he was a symbol of patience and faith in the future. His planting might not square with modern ideas of economics, but it encouraged the settlers to believe there would be a harvest and this was all-important.” “I’ve run a knife into thousands of apples, but there was just a little different feeling when I took a slice from one from this tree. I guess the quality was not exciting, but I can remember I was thinking about the fellow who planted the tree.”