Tucked off County Road 658 in Ashland County, not far from the northward-flowing Vermillion River, a squat, knobby tree stump sits near a modest white farmhouse. The stump is flanked by two newer trunks sprouting from its remains, their branches reaching above the nearby roofline.
At first glance, it looks like a typical, if rather inelegant, tree. But to assume it as such would literally be a mistake of historic proportions, because this particular tree is none other than the last living apple tree planted by John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed.
Folklore paints Johnny Appleseed as an eccentric nature lover, scattering apple seeds while wandering barefoot and wearing a tin pot as a hat. While he was a devout conservationist, he was also a calculating and successful orchardist whose passion sprang from a blend of religious devotion, humanitarianism, and strategic economic thought.
Traveling as a missionary and orchard specialist throughout the Midwest in the early 1800s allowed him to spread the message of his beloved Swedenborgian religion while simultaneously planting apple orchards to ensure a consistent food supply for the incoming wave of pioneers. Those orchards also served as legal proof for homesteaders to stake an official claim on the land they settled. From the time Chapman started his mission in 1797 at the age of 23 until his death in 1845, it’s estimated he planted more than 6 million apple seeds — including the one that sprouted into the tree standing today on what is now known as the Harvey-Algeo Farm.
Patti Algeo Young represents the sixth of nine Harvey-Algeo generations that have looked after the tree. She is the great-great-grandchild of John and Jane Harvey, who traveled from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to find suitable farmland among the serene rolling hills near Ashland. The Harvey-Algeo family still has the original land grant signed by John Quincy Adams in 1837. “I found it in a tin box in the attic,” Patti says. “My grandparents didn’t think anything was wrong with storing it like that. I put it in between glass to better preserve it.”
The family has passed down stories from generation to generation, recalling the times Johnny Appleseed came to visit. Patti remembers her father, Richard Algeo, telling the stories that his great-grandmother told him. “Johnny would drop in when he was visiting his sister, who lived nearby,” she says. “He would eat dinner with the Harveys but would always sleep in the barn — the same one that is not far from the tree,” she says. “He preferred to be as close to nature as possible.” Tradition has it that Johnny, grateful for the hospitality the Harvey family showed him, planted an orchard of Rambo apple trees on the farm, similar to the orchards he planted in Savannah and Ashland.
Apple trees normally have a life span of about 35 years. Weather and old age eventually felled the trees Johnny planted in Ohio and across the neighboring states, with the exception of this one single tree.
What is so special about it? There are a couple of theories, but Patti and the rest of the family think they know the secret. “It’s planted right on top of an aquifer. We think its roots grew down to the water and nutrient supply,” Patti says, also speculating that the house and the other nearby outbuildings helped shield the tree from wind damage and added to its unusual longevity.
At roughly 190 years old, the tree still occasionally produces apples, although now only a handful at a time, even in the years when it does produce. While the days advance the tree toward its inevitable end, its legacy will continue to live on beyond the farm. The tree has been independently certified as genuine by the Johnny Appleseed Museum, the Ohio Historical Society, and the Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization American Forests.
The Harvey-Algeo family supplies tree grafts for the purpose of keeping history alive. The last living apple tree of Johnny Appleseed will continue to live on in the form of thousands of genetically identical offspring trees that are available to the public so they, too, can plant a little history in their backyard.
“Although our family is the steward of this tree, it is really meant for everyone. It’s a part of our history, but it’s also part of American history, and that means it belongs to everyone,” says Algeo. “Johnny Appleseed shared it with us, and it’s only fitting that we share it, too.”
Grafts from the last known surviving Johnny Appleseed tree are available here.