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Episode for Families: Johnny Appleseed and American Stories

Curator Barbara Boehm relates the delightful American story of Johnny Appleseed in this episode produced especially for younger audiences.


Narrator: Would you like me to tell you a story? Then sit back, relax, and get ready to listen, because it's Story Time at the Met.

Barbara Boehm: Today I'm going to tell an American story about a legendary pioneer known as Johnny Appleseed. Maybe you've seen pictures of Johnny Appleseed. He usually carries a big bag of seeds, which he scatters as he walks. But did you know there was actually a real person called Johnny Appleseed?

The date is 1797. The place is Warren, Pennsylvania, on what was then the western frontier of the United States. There's a heavy snowstorm, though it's only October. A man with long, dark hair and ragged clothes—young, exhausted—staggers out of the blizzard. The people of Warren kindly take him in, feed him, and warm him by the fire. The name of the scruffy-looking man was John Chapman. He had left his home in Connecticut when he was eighteen years old to live in the wilderness. He loved forest animals, trees, and plants. He slept under the stars, drank from streams, and ate wild fruit, nuts, and honey. And John Chapman had a strange story to tell the people of Warren.

One night, he said, an angel had appeared to him in a dream. He saw a beautiful community of people surrounded by apple trees, a place where no one was hungry. The angel told him that he should plant apple trees to help feed the new American frontier. And John Chapman intended to plant an orchard right near Warren when spring came.

Apples were very important to early American settlers. They ate them fresh from the tree, and they dried them to eat during the winter. They made apple pies, apple tarts, apple cobbler, apple butter, applesauce—and especially apple cider. Now, apple trees live for many years—longer than most fruit trees. If you planted an apple orchard today, your children could still eat the fruit forty years from now.

People on the American frontier—in Ohio and Indiana—began hearing tales about John Chapman. Johnny traveled on his own, walking along Indian trails in his bare feet, and paddling his canoe along the rivers. Everywhere he went, he planted orchards and offered young apple trees to the pioneers. If they couldn't pay him, he would trade apple trees for food or a night's shelter. And so they called him Johnny Appleseed.

Besides apples, Johnny Appleseed loved animals. They say that one night in the forest, when it started to snow, Johnny crawled into a hollow log to spend the night. But there he found a mother bear curled up asleep with her cub.

Johnny thought, "We can’t all sleep here. And even if bears have thick fur and I don't, I still can't push a mother and a baby out on a cold night like this." So Johnny slept outside in the snow, and the bears stayed safe and warm inside the log.

One day Johnny Appleseed found a wolf with its leg caught in a trap. Wolves may be fierce, but Johnny wasn't afraid. He set the wolf free so gently that it didn't bite or even scratch him. People say that wolf followed Johnny for years, guarding him on his mission.

Johnny lived to age seventy—a ripe old age for a man who seldom wore shoes or slept indoors. Today, apple orchards blossoming in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana are the living legacy of Johnny Appleseed.

Next time you come to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, look for an American painting called Cider Making. Johnny Appleseed was still alive when William Sidney Mount finished his painting in 1841. Cider Making shows farmers making apple juice or cider. They're using an old-fashioned apple press, which crushes the apples between two heavy stones. The juice runs out the sides, where men funnel it into wooden kegs.

Cider Making will be in a special exhibition called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915. Here you can learn about how American painters told stories about America when it was still a new nation. These stories gave Americans a sense of who they were, and taught them their national history. Over time, painters also depicted stories about change, as many Americans moved away from farms to live in cities. American Stories opens October 12, 2009, and continues until January 24, 2010.

This has been an Antenna Audio production.

Narrator: Well, that's it! Thanks for listening to Story Time at the Met.

Kids (7)