INDIANAPOLIS – A Fort Wayne festival that honors the life and legend of Johnny Appleseed rejected an animal rights group's call to forsake meat in honor of the pioneer's vegetarianism, but organizers have called on vendors to offer meatless options on next year's menus.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says John Chapman – Johnny's real name – never ate meat and rescued countless animals when he wasn't planting apple trees. The group wants the Johnny Appleseed Festival in Fort Wayne, where Chapman died in 1845 and is buried, to honor his "compassionate legacy" by going meatless.
Although festival organizers recognize that Chapman was a vegetarian, festival spokeswoman Bridget Kelly said meat will remain on its menu. But in response to PETA's letter, the festival's executive board recently voted unanimously to ask its food vendors to consider adding vegetarian foods next year.
She said it's too late to make that suggestion for this year's festival, which takes place Sept. 15-16.
Kelly said PETA clearly wants the festival to go meatless, but that's out of the question because festivalgoers look forward to chowing down on popular meat dishes such as grilled turkey legs, pork chops and ham and beans.
And while Chapman was a vegetarian, as well as a Christian missionary, she said he didn't try to force his ways on others.
"Johnny was a vegetarian but that wasn't something he expected other people to follow. The counsel and advice he brought to people wasn't hung on that," Kelly said.
About 250,000 people attend the festival each year, in part to see vendors who wear early 1800s garb and are required to cook their food over the wood or coal fires of that period. Twenty percent of their sales go toward supporting the festival, which charges no admission.
PETA contends Chapman "would be horrified" by modern industrial-scale farms where thousands of animals are raised in close quarters. It also questions whether the meat served at the festival built around his colorful legacy comes from such farms.
Kelly said it isn't organizers' place to dictate where the vendors get their meat, and she and other organizers don't know what type of farms the meat comes from.
PETA said it was disappointed by the festival's response, but it believes it would be "a great start" next year if vendors offered vegan food. PETA campaign manager Danielle Katz said the group plans to distribute leaflets at this year's festival urging festivalgoers to try Chapman's vegetarian lifestyle.
"We just hope we can spark a conversation and people will be interested in learning more about how to go vegetarian and will follow in Johnny's kind footsteps," she said.
The details of Chapman's life are murky because the earliest accounts of him were penned long after his death and are a blend of fact and folklore, said Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.
The Pittsburgh museum includes Chapman in its "Innovators" exhibit, highlighting his time in the area planting his first apple tree nurseries using seeds he collected from local cider mills.
Chapman purportedly walked barefoot through the wilderness wearing a tin cap that doubled as his cooking pot, but Masich said like many stories about his life it's debatable whether that's true.
What's known for certain, he said, is that Chapman found success as a traveling nurseryman sowing apple tree nurseries in frontier areas. Settlers bought his saplings to plant orchards that helped them claim their land by showing they had improved it.
Many stories about Chapman mention his kindness to animals, including rescuing neglected horses, and some accounts say he never killed wild animals, Masich said. Yet one tale states he once killed a bear that attacked him, cooked and ate some of its meat and gave the rest to nearby settlers.
"We really don't know if he wore a pot on his head or what he might have cooked in that pot," Masich said. "My guess is that he was a pretty practical guy who took from nature what he needed to survive, but very little more."
- The Journal Gazette's Fall Events Guide features festivals in northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio.