By any standards John Chapman was an odd character. Even those folks on the frontier who adored him during his lifetime could hardly imagine the tremendous national respect and veneration such an unlikely character as barefoot “Johnny Appleseed” would attract in the centuries after his time on Earth.
There wasn’t anyone who met him in Richland County however, who could ever forget him. He was a wholly memorable person: the kind of man who inspires legends; the kind of man who deserves to be remembered.
The last time anyone around here saw him was in the 1830s. By 1900 there were few folks alive who had actually stood in the presence of John Chapman.
In 1900 there were still apple orchards bearing fruit that had been planted by Chapman’s hand, which stood as strong memorials to the genius of heart that he represented. But an apple tree, like a human memory, has a limit to its term on Earth.
The way we have to remember people in America in the generations after their life has ended is by the most durable method we know: stone. Granite, preferably, which can stand up to decades of weather; but sandstone will do if that’s what is at hand.
Fifty years after John Chapman was in his grave folks in Mansfield imagined there might come a day when some new future generation of Richlanders might grow up not hearing the stories of Johnny Appleseed unless they committed his memory to stone that could weather the failing memories of old folks.
Money was raised, funds were allocated, stone was harvested and engraved, and a special scenic knoll was chosen in the city’s new park system where the memory of John Chapman could be permanently enshrined into the public imagination.
In 1900, they were still planting trees in Middle Park. When the city acquired the land a dozen years earlier, as a connecting green space between North Lake and South Park, the property was mostly bare of all greenery except grass.
There were two natural knolls behind the creek, and the larger of these was where the ‘resting pavilion’ gazebo was built.
The second, smaller knoll was designated as the site of Mansfield’s memorial to Johnny Appleseed.
The sands of time
A half century after the Johnny Appleseed monument had been dedicated in Middle Park, the old memorial was showing its age. The obelisk shaft on top had weathered enough to tempt teenagers into defacing it with all manner of indignities; and the words of remembrance were chipped and eroded.
It was, after all, carved of sandstone which is, after all, nothing but sand.
In the 1940s, during and after WWII, the US was reviving the memory of American folk heroes in a blush of patriotism, and Johnny Appleseed was enjoying a reemergence of community pride.
His old stone in Middle Park was lacking the nobility it served to express when it was new, so, in a fresh renewal of community memory the Johnny Appleseed monument was recreated in shiny granite.
It seemed appropriate to place the new stone next to the one authentic relic surviving from Johnny Appleseed’s epic early days in Mansfield, so in 1953 the reborn memorial left the Middle Park location and was repositioned near the blockhouse in South Park.
Another half century
Since 1953 there have been considerable alterations to the grounds where Johnny Appleseed’s monument was placed. The Blockhouse itself has experienced a rebirth and moved a few dozen yards to higher ground.
Today the Appleseed memorial site is largely the domain of squirrels. Chapman would, no doubt, have had it no other way.
There are new generations in Mansfield, and it is time once again to reimagine how we want to remember John Chapman to future generations.