The Ohio Museum that Separates Johnny Appleseed History from Legend, and Celebrates Both



(Photo of illustration of Johnny Appleseed from Wikimedia Commons)


(Writer’s note 4/23/20: Today, the Enquirer reported that Urbana University — which became a campus of Franklin University in 2014 — will shutter for good due to financial problems. In 2012, I visited the lovely small town campus to write about its unusual Johnny Appleseed Museum. I hope it survives in some form, ideally at its existing location.) 

It is fitting that Florence Murdoch is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery, since it is home to a lovely statue honoring Johnny Appleseed. For Murdoch, who died in 1977 at the age of 90, was such a devoted protector and defender of Appleseed’s legacy that some think she funded the statue.

She didn’t, but without her gift the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum in Urbana, about 40 miles northeast of Dayton, would be severely devoid of information and artifacts. The museum, on the campus of Urbana University has the world’s largest collection of items related to Chapman. And authors writing about Appleseed would find it much more difficult to search information.


While Appleseed is one of the great American folk heroes, like John Henry and Paul Bunyan, his legend is actually based on the life, times and exploits of a true person. John Chapman, who lived from 1774-1845, was a nurseryman who traveled this region saving apple seeds and planting trees to help residents of the still-rugged frontier find shade and sustenance from the land.


He was born in Massachusetts and traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana before his death in Fort Wayne. Through time and storytelling, he came to be portrayed as a mythical itinerant figure that walked the land barefoot and wore an upside-down pot as headgear.

He was also a missionary with the Swedenborg church, founded by followers of 18th Century Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have been directed by God to reform and update Christianity. A key church belief was that angels are real. Chapman traveled to Swedenborg meetings in Cincinnati in the 19th Century, as the church had made Cincinnati a Midwest center. (Urbana College is a Swedenborgian-founded university.)

And as a member of Cincinnati’s Swedenborg Church of the New Jerusalem as well as its librarian, Murdoch fiercely collected and preserved material related to Chapman, and advocated on his behalf. She had a personal connection – he stayed with her great-uncle, Milo Williams. (She grew up in Urbana.)

“She became known as the keeper of the Johnny Appleseed collection,” says Joseph Besecker, director of Urbana University’s Johnny Appleseed Society. “People sent her things they felt were worthwhile to save.” When the church, at the corner of Oak Street and Winslow Avenue, was demolished for Interstate 71 in the 1970s, all of Murdoch’s collection was donated to Urbana. (The church’s Tiffany-designed stained-glass windows, also preserved, were displayed this year at Taft Museum.)

Murdoch, who lived in Clifton and never married, held powerful sway in her church. In Carol Skinner Lawson’s short 1999 memoir of the Church of New Jerusalem, It’s Not in Buildings, she remembers the older Murdoch as “a pear-shaped lady of great determination (who) used her snapping black eyes to underscore her opinions.” She also says Murdoch was “a watercolorist who specialized in tiny florets, which she observed through a 30-power microscope as she pained the enlargements.”

Mary Ann Fischer, who today is keeper of the church’s records (the congregation no longer has a building) says she has heard colorful stories about Murdoch from members. “Florence had a great big trunk and traveled through Europe sell her stuff. She did that rather than having a coming-out party, because she did have a family with money.” She also helped the state purchase Cedar Bog nature preserve in Urbana.

The “definitive” biography of Appleseed, in Besecker’s estimation, would never have come about without Murdoch. The museum has bound copies of letters between her and Robert Price, an Otterbein College professor who wrote Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth, that go back years before he finally published in 1954. (The book has been republished three times since, most recently last year by Urbana University.) Price’s book was groundbreaking in locating the actual properties that Appleseed owned and/or was active. He relied on her information and contacts. “As you look through the letters, it’s clear how much she helped,” Besecker says. “He gave her credit, but didn’t give her enough. He did the legwork, but she saved him a lot of trips by telling him where to go.”

The museum separates the history from legend concerning Chapman’s life, while celebrating both. It is inside the oldest building at Urbana University, the 1850 Bailey Hall. The historic building had been closed and slated for demolition before concerned faculty and trustees put the Appleseed museum there in 1999.

After a $1.6 million renovation to stabilize Bailey Hall, and a $75,000 remodeling of the museum space, the museum at Urbana University now has a bright, cheerful, modernized space. The gallery has one wall lined with book cabinets and an apple-shaped table for children. There are graphics repeating quotes about Chapman from the likes of General William Sherman, Sam Houston and Chapman, himself. In an entry room, there is a small gift-shop area with items ranging from books and photo reproductions to apple earrings and glass apples.

Some display items are pop-cultural – you can hear songs about Appleseed by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry; there’s a case full of Appleseed figurines. And there are offbeat ephemera – a fire department patch, depicting an apple, from Chapman’s birthplace of Leominster, Mass. Some items are historic. The museum owns the cedar apple press that belonged to an Urbana resident, John James, whose trees were planted by Chapman and who gave his land to create the school.

And for those doing library research, there is invaluable information on how he has been remembered throughout American and Ohio history. That includes files on Ohio’s now-forgotten Appleseed Highway, which followed existing state routes from the Ohio River in the southeast to Toledo and was planted with crabapple trees. The museum would like to replant and rededicate that highway.

It was Murdoch’s attempt to protect Chapman’s reputation that is responsible for one of the museum’s most fascinating artifacts – correspondence between her and Walt Disney Studios relating to its 1948 animated movie, “Melody Time.” These are framed and occupy choice display space. The film, which combined storytelling with American popular music, featured a segment on “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed,” (The character was voiced by a singer of the era, Dennis Day.)

Murdoch had only seen an ad for it when she wrote to Disney, on May 26, 1948, to complain that the animated Appleseed is shown with the “extraordinarily grotesque figure of a ‘guardian angel.” She requested it be changed to a child or the “spirit of the frontier.”

Less than a month later, she received a reply from Hal Aldequist, manager of Disney’s Story Department, that showed how seriously the company took her complaint. “We trust that after you have viewed the picture you will agree that we have treated the angel with a sincere respect and endowed him with a certain dignity,” he wrote. Aldequist goes on to argue that Chapman believed in “the direct physical manifestation of heavenly beings upon this earth.”

Murdoch did see and enjoy the film, and wrote back to say so. But she waited until 1955 to do it. That letter, and so much more concerning Johnny Appleseed, is on display at this museum.



1 thought on “The Ohio Museum that Separates Johnny Appleseed History from Legend, and Celebrates Both

  1. Thanks for a terrific article on the special story of Chapman. The directors of the museum are devoted to finding a new home for it. Hope they do. Chapman was an extraordinary person, as Price’s biography bears out. He was far more complicated and accomplished than his simple legend indicates…

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