Though cracked, splintered and held together by chains, the last known living apple tree planted by John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed, still produces a good crop of tart, red-striped apples each fall. Growing on the farm of Dick and Phyllis Algeo near Nova, Ohio, the 170-year-old tree has long been a proud member of this family, which still has four generations living on the farm.
“It’s been handed down through the family that Johnny planted it,” says Dick, 81, of the tree by his family farmhouse. “And when I got older, I understood the importance of it.”
In the early 19th century, Chapman, by trade a nurseryman, wandered throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana planting apple trees, as well as mediating between white settlers and Native Americans and spreading an appreciation for nature. For a while, he lived in Mansfield, Ohio, just up the road from the Algeo farm, which was founded by the family’s Scottish ancestors in 1837. And at some point, family lore has it, he visited the farm and planted the tree that grows there today.
The Algeo tree is an old-fashioned Rambo variety, and cuttings from the tree have been taken by the conservation organization, American Forests, to sell to the public as Johnny Appleseed Trees. Rambo apples were introduced to America around 1640 by the Swedish immigrant Peter Gunnarsson Rambo, and the variety on the Algeo farm is a Winter Rambo.
These tart, flavorful heirloom apples are particularly good for pies and dumplings. They also make good applesauce, which Phyllis, 81, prepares by cooking down chopped, peeled and cored apples, putting the mixture through a sieve and then freezing it. Her grandkids love the applesauce, and she uses it in cookies, following a recipe that has been handed down for generations.
Typically, apple trees live only 50 or 60 years, so the Algeo tree has surprised experts with its longevity.
“Every spring I think it’s the last year,” says Phyllis, as she looks proudly at the tree. “But Johnny’s watching over it.”
—Story by Vivian Wagner, a food writer in New Concord, Ohio.