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New Johnny Appleseed actually a familiar face at area festivals

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Friday, September 27, 2013 - 6:26 am

The John Chapman people saw at last weekend's Johnny Appleseed Festival was new here, but he probably looked familiar to many area fall festival fans.

Steve McPhail he has portrayed the legendary nurseryman for years at other nearby festivals.

He'll be in costume and character on Sunday at the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival in Huntington. He'll also appear Oct. 5-6 at the Kendallville Apple Festival and Oct. 12-13 at the Mississinewa 1812 battle re-enactment.

If he hadn't been hired for Fort Wayne's Johnny Appleseed Festival last weekend, McPhail, 64, of Upland, would have portrayed Chapman at the Trail of Courage Living History Festival in Rochester, where he had been a regular for about 10 years. He also has been Johnny Appleseed at the Pioneer Village at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

“When people come to these festivals, I talk to them, I interact with them, I give them a memory,” he said.

The Johnny Appleseed Festival board hired McPhail to portray John Chapman this year after he helped them by portraying the character for free on the festival's float in last July's Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival parade.

He replaced Scott Mertz, who has portrayed John Chapman at the local festival for 31 years. The festival board will decide next year who to invite back for the 2014 event.

McPhail couldn't be reached before last weekend's festival, but he was able to chat by phone this week. Here's a little more about him:

He was born about 20 miles south of Sarnia, Ontario, in Canada, and came to Indiana as a foreign-exchange student to attend Taylor University in Upland.

He met his wife, Darla, at Taylor, where her father worked as a professor. McPhail and his wife lived in Fort Wayne from 1973 to 1975 while she attended Lutheran Hospital's nursing school.

While growing up in Canada, an outstanding second-grade teacher inspired him to want to become a teacher, he said. He then enjoyed class with his eighth-grade history teacher so much, he knew that was the only subject he wanted to teach.

While his wife studied nursing in Fort Wayne, he did some substitute teaching and worked with the maintenance crew for Azar's Big Boy restaurants and hotels.

After his wife finished her studies, they moved back to Upland, and he took a teaching job with the Mississinewa Community Schools district in Gas City, near Marion. He retired in 2011 after 35 years of teaching -- nearly all of them in U.S. history.

A teacher creativity grant he received in 1986 from Lilly Endowment started his Johnny Appleseed journey.

He had proposed enhancing his history classes by “becoming” some of the important people they discussed. The grant allowed him to do extensive research on the people he would portray.

One was John Chapman, the real name of the man better known as Johnny Appleseed.

Afterward, “Someone said, 'You can put Johnny on the road,'” McPhail recalled.

He put together an “ugly, ugly” brochure in 1987 offering his services as John Chapman, and tried to get the word out. The Kendallville Apple Festival hired him, and he's been portraying Chapman there and at other festivals and events since.

Most of his work takes place from August through October, with appearances rare the rest of the year.

“It's a part-time job, in a sense,” he said. “I don't get paid a whole lot.”

He didn't want to get specific about fees, but he said the income helps pay for vacations or other extra things.

McPhail said he originally considered himself more of a storyteller than actor. But as he attended events, he saw different things people wore in their costumes and gradually developed his current look -- Indian trade bead necklaces over a plain shirt, ragged pants and shawl, and bare feet.

When he's working, he usually carries two bags with him. One has pioneer toys, animal fur or other things children can see or touch.

The other contains “perties,” small, pretty, colored stones he gives out to children and adults he meets as he walks around events. Sometimes, the “perties” are river rocks, and other times he hands out the shiny stones often used to decorate tables at wedding receptions.

He estimates he's given out about 40 pounds of “perties” since July.

McPhail also tries to dispel myths about Chapman, such as that he walked around with a pot on his head.

He said interacts with people to give them a reason to come back to the festival the next year. He also hopes they learn Chapman, a member of the Swedenborgian religion, was a man of Christian faith who believed God would take care of him.

“As a teacher, I used to tell my kids at school: 'Find something you love to do, and then get someone to pay you for it. And you never have to work!'”

That's how it has been for him with teaching and now as John Chapman.

“I've been very, very blessed,” he said.