Judy Zehner often wonders whatever happened to Black Swamp Charlie.
“He sat around in character and told stories at the festival,” she recalls. “And then, he just disappeared.”
Zehner, Dick and Phyllis Florea, and Teddy Harmon were among the many volunteers who planned and carried out the first Johnny Appleseed Festival. Now celebrating its 35th year, the festival runs Saturday and Sunday at Johnny Appleseed Park.
How it started
It was 1975, and America was planning a yearlong celebration of its 200th birthday. As part of the festivities, Fort Wayne's Bicentennial Commission organized a festival honoring local legend John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman.
Peter Eckrich & Sons, the Old Fort Settlers, Psi Iota Xi, and Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department sponsored the Sept. 27-28 event in Archer Park, near the Chapman memorial.
Clippings from Phyllis Florea's files reveal that children's activities, music, a puppet show, drama and traditional Shaker dancing filled the program. The Settlers demonstrated pioneer crafts of rug hooking, dulcimer making and spinning, while the Barr Street Farmers Market sold produce and flowers. Fort Wayne Turners and the Bicentennial Commission provided food for festival-goers.
John Platt III, a potter, was one of five original demonstrators.
“We had chair caning, a wood chip carver and a lady who did herbs,” he remembers. Platt, his wife, Amera, daughter Carol and son John IV still participate in the festival, as do his grandchildren, Joseph, Sarah and John V.
The early years
It was originally planned as a one-time event, but the founders recognized its potential, and, in 1976, it was proposed a board be formed and the festival incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
“The people who spearheaded and developed the event ... had a passion for ‘social history,'” says Zehner. “We had several Settlers members, a couple Civil War re-enactors, period musicians and artisans who practiced period crafts.”
Harmon, who spent 38 years with the parks department, recalls the financial challenges after the first two festivals.
“There was less than $1,500 (seed money),” she says. She vowed to find funding, enlisting long-running support from Eckrich and Lincoln National Life.
Stringent standards were developed to maintain 19th-century authenticity and ensure the event's integrity. Organizers were vigilant in overseeing materials, clothing, cooking methods and primitive activities. Nonprofits prepared food associated with the era — beef stew, funnel cakes, apple butter and parched corn — all cooked over an open fire.
The Platts appreciate the strict requirements. “Adhering to a certain standard has benefited the festival,” says John IV. “It's also educational.”
Man and myth
So, who was Johnny Appleseed?
There's general agreement that John Chapman was born Sept. 26, 1774, in Leominster, Mass., and traveled westward through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana establishing apple orchards. However, the year of his arrival in Fort Wayne, the date of his death — reported variously between Feb. 18, 1845, and summer 1847 at the Worth cabin near what is now Canterbury Green apartment complex — and the exact location of his burial remain in historical limbo.
Portrayed as a gentle nomad garbed in rags, with a bag of apple seeds slung over his shoulder and a tin pot on his head, Chapman was an astute businessman who anticipated the westward surge of pioneers.
His pattern was to identify a plot of fertile soil near a river or stream, plant his seeds and sell the seedlings to newly arrived settlers. Four orchards have been identified in Allen County, one totaling 15,000 trees. Upon his death, his sister inherited more than 1,200 acres of nurseries.
A convert to the Swedenborgianism faith, Chapman preached “news fresh from heaven” at every opportunity. The tenets of the faith promoted charity to all; he responded by practicing vegetarianism, extreme generosity and a reported refusal to harm any living creature — even mosquitoes.
Coming from far and wide
Since 1975, the Johnny Appleseed Festival has drawn visitors and participants from across the United States and Canada. Smoke rising from kettles of steaming stew, the clanging of the blacksmith's hammer, the whirring of the potter's wheel and the gentle rhythm of the spinning wheel beckon visitors to step into another century and experience a simpler time.
“The weekend is a historical, art and culture experiential lab piquing the senses of all visitors,” says Zehner.