Discovering Johnny Appleseed at SunWatch

By Ehron Ostendorf

Photo: Children can interact with Johnny Appleseed’s legacy at SunWatch Indian Village through September

SunWatch Native American [“Indian”] Village opened its doors to a legend this summer.

Upon first arrival, it may seem surprising that the room has been converted into a miniature maze. It’s all crafted from wood, since the exhibit is about Johnny Appleseed, who, you may have heard, had a green thumb.

Throughout the miniature maze, there are games for kids to play that help them learn more about the life and journey of Johnny Appleseed: a crank to mimic making apple cider, a memory game, a tracing station to make apple inspired art, and chairs constructed from wood in the shape of apples. In the center of all this is a tree, and if you follow the trunk down, there are books and a place for reading about apples and Johnny Appleseed. There’s period clothing in one corner for children to dress up and play. Next to that, there’s a snippet about how women had to wear corsets and how harmful they actually were to women’s bodies. Educational and fun — but what’s the highlight of this exhibit?

“It’s hands-on for kids; they love it,” says Joshua Keeton, SunWatch employee.

Unlike other exhibits that may be more suited to adults, this exhibit is conducive to children’s learning. Interacting with their environment and experiencing pieces of history may help them remember it – and enjoy it – better than a traditional museum exhibit. So, why Johnny Appleseed?

“This is the first time this exhibit has gone on display. It was designed by the Johnny Appleseed Museum at Urbana University and fabricated by the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati. Essentially, once the exhibit was done, they delivered it here and put it up,” says Andy Sawyer, site anthropologist and manager.

You have most likely heard the name Johnny Appleseed, but his true name was John Chapman. Born and raised in Leominster, Massachusetts, Sept. 26, 1774, he was a son of a soldier of the American Revolutionary War. John learned about the apple business at a young age from his neighbor who owned an orchard.

When John grew older (age 18), he traveled with his brother to New York to visit his uncle. His brother was exhausted and later returned home. John, however, felt invigorated and had a thirst for adventure and travel. He travelled to Pennsylvania where he planted his first apple orchards. There in Pennsylvania, John was exposed to Swedenborgianism, a Christian belief system teaching that heaven can be experienced on Earth through a life of useful service.

John would discuss his beliefs with anyone willing to listen during his travels. He used those teachings to interact, with settlers and Native Americans equally, with peace and love. At the time when the early federal government promised land in Ohio (not theirs to give, of course) for ex-soldiers to keep as long as they could plant 50 fruit trees within three years, John helped them by planting apple orchards.

The SunWatch exhibit differentiates between the man and the myth – like the myth that John Chapman betrayed the Greenwich natives – when in reality, it was the militia. Or, the one that says Johnny Appleseed traveled as far as California, when he only went as far as western Indiana. And, although he wasn’t a soldier during the War of 1812, he made a Paul Revere-like ride from Mansfield to Mt. Vernon, Ohio, to warn the nearest militia of settlers being pinned down
by Redcoats.

“While what we concentrate on is the pre-European contact era of southwest Ohio, the history of Johnny Appleseed is a part of not just the history of Ohio, but of the Midwest. We had space available to host it, and when the possibility came up, we thought it would be a good addition to what we offer to give visitors a look at a different aspect of Ohio history,” Sawyer says.

John Chapman lived in central Ohio for 20 years, finding ways to use apples for substances like apple cider vinegar for cleaning and preserving food. He was also a master of herbs and refined them for medicine. There’s much to learn and much to explore.

Discovering Johnny Appleseed runs through September in the Prairie View Room on the second floor of SunWatch Indian Village, 2301 West River Rd. For more information, please call 937.268.8199 or visit sunwatch.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Ehron Ostendorf at EhronOstendorf@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Reach DCP freelance writer Ehron Ostendorf at EhronOstendorf@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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