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Last updated: Mon. Sep. 23, 2013 - 11:45 am EDT

Johnny Appleseed Festival full of history

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Apples were all the rage this weekend at the 39th annual Johnny Appleseed Festival where visitors packed into the Fort Wayne park bearing his name for food, games, crafts and history.

For some, the weekend was an opportunity to catch up with family from out of town.

Danielle Cardinal of Westfield grew up in Fort Wayne and brought her three children back to visit her parents who still live here.

“We meet here every year,” Cardinal said as her three young children, who were wearing American Indian face paint, huddled around her.

For others, the festival was a chance to celebrate the man behind the legend: John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, who traveled the countryside by foot in the early 1800s and planted orchards to feed settlers moving west.

For Ed and Judy Champa of Indianapolis, the folk legend came to life about a decade ago when they planted a clone of one of Chapman’s original apple trees in their front yard.

The couple made the pilgrimage to the festival for the first time this year to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary.

Ed Champa said his fascination with Chapman began when he noticed 5,000 cuttings, or branches, of a Chapman tree for sale in Ohio for about $30 in a Stark Bros. catalog 10 years ago, and he bought one at half price.

“It’s a little piece of history,” Ed Champa said.

Now the Champas’ tree is a replica of the trees Johnny Appleseed planted called Rambo apple trees.

Judy describes Rambo apples as tasty but thick or dense. She said their tree has had apples for the past three years.

The special Rambo tree is one of five apple trees and 14 fruit trees in the Champas’ yard. Ed Champa said they moved into their house on the south side of Indianapolis 23 years ago, and they’ve been planting ever since.

Now their “standard size” backyard (about 70 feet wide and 55 feet deep) bears nectarines, peaches and a rare pawpaw fruit native to Indiana.

The Champas treasure their Rambo tree and use it as an opportunity to teach local children about Chapman’s legend.

“A lot of kids have no idea who John Chapman was,” Judy said. “We tell them to take an apple, and we tell them a little about who John was and what he did for the United States.”

Legend has it that Chapman died in the Fort Wayne area, and a gravesite memorial is designated for him at the heart of the festival grounds in the former Archer Park.

Even so, the exact location of Chapman’s body is still debated among historians. Some believe he’s buried at the gravesite. Others believe he’s buried elsewhere in Fort Wayne or not in Indiana at all.

“He was unique in American history,” Ed Champa said.

The couple described Chapman as an interesting and eccentric character whose life was as mysterious as his death and whose mystery only grows greater with time.

“The further we get from his life and death, the more eccentric he’ll become,” Judy said.

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