Johnny Appleseed Cake

I track down the story of how 20th century America rediscovered—and reinvented—our favorite tin-pot-wearing pioneer hero.

Today we begin with an utterly charming foldable pamphlet that I found online for three bucks. It’s a promotional piece for Indiana apples (“ain’t God good to Indiana!”), published by the Indiana Fruit Growers Co-op Association. It’s not dated, but judging from the illustration and design, I’d guess 1950s.

Indiana Apples pamphlet, 1950s

Indiana Apples pamphlet, 1950s

I love this as an artifact of classic Americana: apples cultivated in the American heartland, religious patriotism, and a freckled boy with a wholesome, toothy grin. It’s the postwar era. America is on top. Life is good.

The pamphlet includes a rundown on apple varieties and their uses, as well as purchasing guidelines, interspersed with cheery praises to the Indiana apple (“Grand cookin! A pleasure servin’!”). And, naturally, there are recipes. From pies to cakes to fritters, none of these recipes would look out of place on a 21st century table—with exception to the Jellied Harvest Apple Salad, because of course there’s a Jell-O salad recipe in the mix. This one takes chopped apples, pecans, and celery (sigh) and suspends them in a mixture of apple cider and apple-flavored gelatin.

Indiana Apples pamphlet, 1950s

Indiana Apples pamphlet, 1950s

There is also a recipe for Johnny Appleseed Cake, which seems like pretty much your standard spice cake, fortified with hot applesauce, and embedded with raisins and chopped walnuts:

Johnny Appleseed Cake recipe, 1950s

It got me wondering about how the fable of Johnny Appleseed would have been celebrated in midcentury America, around the time this pamphlet was published. I grew up learning about Johnny Appleseed in grade school, and every year we celebrated Johnny Appleseed Day with some kind of activity. I want to say the theme was environmental, though my memory of it is pretty vague, which makes me feel kind of old. I mean, grade school was only mumble-mumble years ago.


First things first: who was Johnny Appleseed, and how did he become an American folk hero?

Johnny Appleseed was an actual person, born John Chapman in Massachusetts in either 1774 or 1775. A Swedenborgian missionary, he really did plant apple seeds across America, dressed in a coffee sack, with a tin pot on his head. His eccentricities made him a legend during his own lifetime. But after his death in 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he swiftly transformed from man to myth.

According to William Kerrigan’s Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, what “catapulted John Chapman to national fame” was a biographical article titled “Johnny Appleseed—A Pioneer Hero,” published in the November 1871 edition of Harper’s Monthly Magazine. It was authored by W.D. Haley, an abolitionist-turned-activist for the Grange movement, which was an organization that had sprung up in the aftermath of the Civil War to support economically struggling American farms. (I’m tickled by the fact that we can follow this thread all the way back to the Civil War.) In his article, Haley describes Chapman as a saint of the American frontier, who perfectly embodies the Grange’s values of “piety, frugality, and charity.”

Johnny Appleseed, Harpers Magazine illustration
Illustration from the W.D. Haley article in Harper’s Monthly Magazine

Haley continued to write about Johnny Appleseed for a local Ohio newspaper, as another voice sprung up to elevate the myth: a woman named Rosella Rice, also from Ohio, who had known Chapman when she was a girl. Together, Haley and Rice were, as Kerrigan says, “fundamental in turning John Chapman into a kind of magical Santa Claus responsible for almost all the apple trees planted across Ohio.”

“a kind of magical Santa Claus responsible for almost all the apple trees planted across Ohio”

Johnny Appleseed was also the subject of “Apple-Seed John,” an 1881 poem by Lydia Maria Child, author of the classic American poem “Over the River and Through the Wood.” Child saw herself and Johny Appleseed as kindred spirits: both lived frugal and simple lives, and shared a passion for making the world a better place. Case in point:

Poor Johnny was bended well nigh double
With years of toil, and care, and trouble;
But his large old heart still felt the need
Of doing for others some kindly deed.

(I have to digress for a second to tell you more about Child, because she was a woman ahead of her time: born in 1802, Child was a novelist, women’s rights activist, abolitionist, Native American rights activist, and anti-imperialist. Her writings occasionally shocked her audiences as she addressed issues like white supremacy and the subjugation of women. She was also the author of The American Frugal Housewife (for those who are not ashamed of economy), which deserves its own place in American culinary history—here is a good article from the Chicago Tribune that explores some of the recipes.)

Anyhoo, while Child’s sentimentalist interpretation of Chapman’s life may not actually have been accurate, it no longer mattered. She was a successful writer and held an enormous audience. The legend of Johnny Appleseed now eclipsed the true story of John Chapman.

Kerrigan sums it all up nicely:

The Johnny Appleseed myth that emerged in the years after his death became part of the national origin story. And that story was essentially a celebration of American empire—the transformation of a continent from savage to civilized. But mythmakers had to address the reality that their America was the result of the dispossession of the original inhabitants of the continent. […] [Johnny Appleseed’s] story was free from the taint of that violence. As such, he became, for sentimental reformers who were unsettled by the vulgarity and violence of the Crockett myths, a more appealing champion.

Rediscovering—and reinventing—Johnny in the 20th century

Given all the hoopla about Johnny Appleseed in the late 19th century, I assumed that Johnny Appleseed Day must have followed soon after. But when, exactly? There’s been a ton of ink spilled over the legend of Johnny Appleseed, but I’ve never seen anyone talk about the inaugural Johnny Appleseed Day. Moreover, I was curious what those early celebrations were like. I wanted to know how my grandparents and great-grandparents might’ve observed the holiday when they were children.

But attempting to pin down these details was much more difficult than I expected. My Google-fu was failing me. So I thought I’d contact some actual humans and see if I could get some answers.

I reached out to the Leominster Public Library in Leominster, Massachusetts. where John Chapman was born. Their Historical & Genealogical Collections Coordinator, Jeannine Levesque, was wonderful and dug deep into their archives for me.

The earliest records she could find for any Johnny Appleseed-related celebrations weren’t until 1938—a whopping 57 years after Lydia Maria Child’s poem!—but the anticipated events (celebrations at the library on Johnny’s birthday and an apple festival) were thwarted by the great hurricane of that year. Then, nothing until 1940, when a monument was placed in Leominster to indicate John Chapman’s birthplace. Then seemingly more nothing until 1948, when Johnny Appleseed stepped back onto the scene. Sort of.

A local high school student was selected to impersonate Johnny at the local Apple Blossom Festival. He was flown to Washington, DC to drum up publicity for the festivities and to invite government officials to attend, and then flown later to New York City, where he visited both Walt Disney Productions and the United Nations. Here are some local Leominster newspaper clippings that Jeannine scanned from 1948. I’ve highlighted the interesting stuff:

Johnny Appleseed newspaper clippings, Leominster, MA, 1948
Scans courtesy the Leominster Public Library

But even with all the excitement around Johnny in 1948, it seems that he remained at the periphery of the festival itself. It wasn’t until 1957 that Johnny Appleseed was finally the focus. His 183rd birthday was the theme of that year’s apple festival, a three-day celebration comprised of beauty queens, a record hop, and a ball. Yet it seems that Leominster was unique in celebrating Johnny around this time. According to the folks at the Johnny Appleseed Museum in Urbana, Ohio, there weren’t any other prominent Johnny Appleseed festivals in the United States until the late 1960s/early 1970s.

That’s nearly a full century after W.D. Haley’s legend-making 1871 article in Harper’s Monthly Magazine. So what’s the deal? Given all the love for Johnny in the late 19th century, why did it take so long for Americans to rediscover the legend of Johnny Appleseed?

Well, first of all, they forgot he was real.

Despite Johnny Appleseed’s brief surge to national prominence before the turn of the century, it seems that he was demoted to a local legend in Indiana, Ohio, and other parts of the Midwest. That’s where he lived, planted his orchards, and formed friendships, and so people there remembered him personally.

But for the rest of the country, Johnny Appleseed was an abstraction. Even in his hometown in Massachusetts. John Chapman was a young man when he left New England for the frontier, still yet to make a name for himself. And as Jeannine from the Leominster Public Library points out, “Who remembers a nineteen-year-old who heads west, like so many others, with nothing to distinguish him?”

“Who remembers a nineteen-year-old who heads west, like so many others, with nothing to distinguish him?”

It wasn’t until 1936, when Leominster librarian Florence Wheeler found the birth certificate of John Chapman in the town records, that it was established that Johnny Appleseed was indeed real. This was an exciting piece of information and a point of local pride, spurring local festivals (like the one in 1938, even if it was doomed) and the placement of new monuments (like the one in 1940). Imagine finding out, for example, that Santa Claus (a) was a real person, and (b) from your hometown! Who wouldn’t rush to join the local Santa Claus Festival organizing committee?

These remembrances on the part of John Chapman’s home state may have inspired the Disney film about him, released in 1948 (which in turn was likely the reason “Johnny” made his appearance during the 1948 Leominster Apple Blossom Festival). The film launched Johnny Appleseed yet again to the national stage, and there he stayed.

But this 1948 Disney Johnny Appleseed looked different than his 1871 Harper’s counterpart. While W.D. Haley had praised Chapman for his frugality and altruism, there was no room for those ideals, as uncomfortably close to Communism as they were, in a Cold War-era America. Instead, this Johnny Appleseed story keeps his Bible and his faith in God at its focus.

(Unrelated: props to 1948 Johnny for keeping his cool when that swarm of bees descends upon him.)

Back to William Kerrigan from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, who says:

The Johnny Appleseed story told by Disney is a near perfect sermon on postwar American values. Faith in God and the ability of the individual to make a difference in history are the central themes. Johnny celebrates American freedom, singing, “Here I am ’neath the blue blue sky, doing as I please,” thanking God for that freedom. Soon his attention is drawn to a long train of Conestoga wagons pushing west, each containing a pioneer family. The wagon train has its own song celebrating American individualism.


While John longs to join them, he believes he cannot—that he is too weak and too small, and doesn’t own the gear he needs. Johnny’s “private guardian angel,” sent down from heaven, convinces him that all he needs is his faith, his Bible, and his apple seeds. Johnny sets out through a rugged wilderness, “a little man all alone, without no knife, without no gun,” but to avoid the impression that Johnny is a pacifist, Disney included a scene where he imagines he is shouldering a rifle like the ones he saw the men on the Conestoga wagons hold, and another where he picks up a stick from the woods, and pretends to aim and shoot with it.

Of course, all of this only answers part of our question—how Johnny Appleseed was celebrated in early 20th century America. But what about our initial question? When was the date of the inaugural Johnny Appleseed Day?

For that, I turn to Chase’s Calendar of Events. This annually-published book is where all those oddball holidays come from, like National Taco Day or National Step in the Puddle and Splash Your Friends Day. (The Times wrote up an article about it just this past July.) I corresponded with Holly McGuire, Senior Editor at Chase’s.

She was able to speak with the publication’s 96-year-old co-founder and longtime editor, Bill Chase, who often created holidays when it fell on a notable person’s birth or death anniversary. Mr. Chase confirms that he created the holiday in 1975, which roughly aligns with the resurgence in festivities described by the Johnny Appleseed Museum. Says Bill Chase: “I remember thinking that John Chapman’s name needed to be listed in a way that would give the man the deserved credit for his environmental prescience.”

So there you go! Mystery solved. Now I think we deserve a snack.

Let’s eat some cake.

Johnny Appleseed Cake

Johnny Appleseed Cake

Johnny Appleseed Cake

2 cups sifted flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves

1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cups thick, hot applesauce
2 tsp baking soda

Sift together flour, sugar, salt, and spices. Add raisins, shortening (i.e. butter), and nuts. Mix well. Combine soda with hot applesauce. Add to above mixture and beat until well blended. Pour into greased and lightly floured 11x7x2″ pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes. Cake needs no icing; stays moist several days.

Midcentury Americans might’ve churned out some horrifying and questionable Jell-O “salads”—but if there’s one thing they did do well, it’s cakes.

This cake tasted like coziness on a plate. Moist and sweet, with a deep spice flavor reminiscent of gingerbread. Almost molasses-like. Every bite is studded with crunchy walnuts and soft, honey-like raisins. I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy this. And since there’s no frosting, you can pair it with a cup of coffee and call it breakfast. Obviously a keeper.

(If you make this recipe, put your photos on social media and tag me @lettucemousse!)

Johnny Appleseed Cake
These are all for me.

One last thing

I’ll leave you with something I stumbled across during my research. It’s a 1945 Soundie by the musical group the Mel-Tones, singing a sweet ode to Indiana. I couldn’t find a place to fit it in the article above, but I wanted to share it anyway because it’s just so gosh darn wholesome. I’ve watched it six times. Enjoy:

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  • Published quite appropriately on John Chapman’s 244th birthday! He was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774, the first son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Simond or Symonds) Chapman.
    Very nice piece, Lettuce Mousse! In his wanderings John was known for giving away any good clothing or goods he was given, as he felt others needed them more than he. Hence his wearing coffee sacks and sometimes wearing his tin pot on his head (though not always). He bought land ahead of settlers and planted apple seeds in groves, raising apple trees needed by settlers as they arrived so they had food and sustenance – you could survive on apples in those days! Sometimes he sold the trees, sometimes he traded for them, perhaps as often he gave them away. He kept moving westward, across Ohio and into Indiana, ahead of the pioneers, making the way ready for them. And evangelizing as well. He lived very simply, in harmony with people, animals and the land.