05/26/11 This year’s Yellow River Festival will feature a special guest: Johnny Appleseed. Playing the mythical pioneer is Steve McPhail, who entertains and educates as Johnny Appleseed throughout the region. At the festival, people can expect to see the colorful character in full costume, which McPhail points out does not include a tin pot on his head. “Walt Disney put a pan on Johnny’s head,” McPhail claims, “there’s no recorded evidence of that.” Instead, festival-goers will see Johnny Appleseed roam the park with a floppy hat, his signature bag of seeds, raggedy clothing, and probably bare feet. Adults and children alike will be able to ask questions about the apple-planting pioneer as well as early Indiana history.
McPhail first started his journey on Johnny Appleseed’s trail 25 years ago. A history teacher at Mississinewa High School (near Gas City, Indiana), he began performing as historical figures in his classes. When he was awarded a Teacher Creativity grant from the Eli Lilly Endowment, McPhail spent time researching and developing his Johnny Appleseed character. The step to take Johnny outside the classroom came soon after. “Somebody told me “you could probably put Johnny on the road,” McPhail recalls, “so I made up a very ugly brochure and handed them out. He started getting calls, and the rest is, well, history.
Steve’s travels as Johnny Appleseed have taken him throughout the Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois region, where the pioneer famously planted apple trees and preached. While Johnny was a man of deep faith, McPhail notes, he was primarily an entrepreneur. Settlers needed apples not just for eating and drinking, but mostly for vinegar to preserve their food. The apple trees took about 5 years to grow, McPhail explains, so “Johnny would try and figure out where the population would be settling in and then put in his orchards or nurseries close by enough that by the time [the settlers] got there, the trees would be ready to be dug up, wrapped, and sold.” His willingness to write IOUs to poor settlers resulted in his reputation for charity, McPhail points out, because “His whole attitude was ‘If they don’t pay me back, that’s between them and God’.” Overall, his business model succeeded, says McPhail, and Johnny Appleseed was in fact “one of the richest guys on the frontier.”
When visitors to the Yellow River Festival encounter Johnny Appleseed this year, they can expect to meet a man Steve McPhail admits is “a peculiar person.” He gives away a little stone mementoes as a remembrance to everyone he talks to at festivals, partly to commemorate Johnny Appleseed’s generosity. As always, the Yellow River Festival happens on the first Saturday in June, this year falling on June 4. The festival will take place on LaPorte St. on the banks of the Yellow River in Plymouth. More information is available at www.yellowriverfestival.org.
Joel Thomas Correspondent