Where’s Johnny? A sculptor wants to immortalize 'the real' Johnny Appleseed in downtown Fort Wayne

At age 85, sculptor Hector Garcia wants to live long enough to make Fort Wayne’s first serious public work depicting John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.

The folk art carving in the mall doesn’t count, he says.

Nor does Johnny TinCap, the playful mascot of Fort Wayne’s minor league baseball team.

“Those are cartoons,” explains Garcia, whose numerous sculptures include the towering Little Turtle in Headwaters Park and Jesuit Priest where the city’s three rivers meet. “I want the real person.”

The sculptor Hector Garcia, center, received the Mayor's Arts Award from Arts United in 2019. (Photo by Daniel Church)

In February, Garcia won the Arts United Mayor's Arts Award recognizing his 60 years as a public art sculptor. For more than two decades, he was also a professor at IPFW.

According to him, no local artist has captured the historical Chapman as a trained orchardist who respected settlers, Native Americans, and the land they shared.

“He’s been short-shifted,” says Garcia, whose recent relief plaques include The Good Shepherd (2014) and Let the Little Children Come To Me (2016).

Garcia's “The Good Shepherd” plaque (2009) is at the entrance of the Rescue Mission.

Garcia's “Let The Little Children Come To Me...” plaque (2015) is located in the Charis House.

With his ear for accents, Garcia is a colorful storyteller, often punctuating phrases with “ha!” or “you betcha.” He fondly recalls American bicentennial celebrations of 1976, when the city commissioned him to create the 10-foot Chief Little Turtle in bronze.

For months in the 1970s, Garcia biked from his home near Time Corners to the Journal-Gazette building on South Clinton Street. There, in the publication’s abandoned power room, he channeled the great chief of the Miami nation. A photograph from that time shows Garcia astride a ladder. His shoes are roughly the size of Little Turtle’s kneecaps.

“It’s got to be something formidable,” he decided of this massive statue that would stand near the Old Fort. “It’s got to be something that says, ‘I’m here. Look.’ You’ll notice that one of his hands is closed and the other open, as if he’s saying, ‘We can fight about this. Or we could talk.’”

Garcia's Miami Indian Chief “LittleTurtle” sculpture (1976) is located in Fort Wayne's Headwaters Park East.

The challenge of sculpting a legend like Chapman is that his true likeness was never captured in a formal portrait.

“I see him when I have clay in my hands,” Garcia says.

Born in Massachusetts before the Revolution, Chapman established nurseries through the Midwest, Pennsylvania, and Canada. A missionary of the New Church, he read the Bible to his hosts and wore their cast-off clothing, even though he owned land and often carried cash.

In his lifetime, he was a celebrity whose eccentricities inspired folk tales. When he died in 1845, the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported on his “cheerfulness” and “the strange garb he usually wore.”

Garcia's “Transformation" sculpture (2002) is located at the Allen County Juvenile Center.

He died in the Worth family home, according to Johnny Appleseed: The Man Behind the Myth. The Worth’s cabin was on the present-day golf course at Canterbury Green. Despite controversy over Chapman’s actual grave site, a 1930s commission determined Chapman may have been buried honorably in the old Archer Cemetery, where admirers celebrate his birthday each September in Johnny Appleseed Park.

When the Apple Orchard opened in Glenbrook Mall in the 1980s, a life-sized Johnny greeted shoppers in a thematic garden. But today, that carving dwells in the men’s section of H&M, close to its original location, but out-of-context among mass-produced fashions.

There’s also a memorial rock in Swinney Park near the herb garden, but Garcia believes Fort Wayne can do more to flesh out such “a holy man.”

Garcia's “Jesuit Priest” (1976) stands at the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant.

Garcia envisions a non-Disney-fied John Chapman in a four-by-four bronze relief plaque that could go on the wall at the entrance to Parkview Field. The plaque might show vignettes of Chapman’s life—him reading scripture and communicating to Native Americans. The scenes would surround a barefoot man with a bag over his shoulder and a “hat of his time.”

The TinCaps would welcome a sculpture at downtown’s Parkview Field, especially if it highlights their gentle-hearted hero, says Michael Limmer, vice president of marketing.

In 2009, TinCaps ranked No. 1 for merchandise sales among all American minor league teams and continues to be a top-selling brand name. The moniker makes Fort Wayne stand out, an example to other municipalities searching for positive role models amid their complicated backstories.

An apple tree grows at Parkview Field, Limmer says. Drafted from Chapman’s last living tree, it memorializes the actual person whose presence is everywhere, and yet so hard to see—at least, for now.

As downtown continues to be a destination welcoming new residents, “Johnny” could prove an amiable neighbor, especially compared to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne whose iconography dominates.

Fort Wayne has other heroes, Garcia says. He wants us to meet one in particular.
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Read more articles by Ann Votaw.

Ann Votaw is a New York City-based writer who was born in Fort Wayne.