Rescuing The Johnny Appleseed Museum

An educational center celebrating Ohio’s famed orchardist seeks rebirth amid Franklin University’s Urbana campus demise.

Brian R. Ball
Betsy Coffman at the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum

When COVID-19 dealt a death blow to Franklin University’s 6-year-old branch on the former campus of Urbana University, it started a scramble among supporters and caretakers of an affiliated museum dedicated to the legacy of 19th century pioneer and folk hero Johnny Appleseed. The school’s May 2020 shuttering included Browne Hall, the 1880 mansion where the collection had just relocated in 2018. 

“When the campus closed down, Franklin had the staff box up everything, take down displays off the wall,” says Betsy Coffman, an Urbana graduate who first attended the university in the early 1960s and is now the president of the nonprofit Johnny Appleseed Foundation, which owns The Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum. “They wanted us to take it all out, but we had no place to move it in the middle of a pandemic.” 

The issue became more critical as Franklin prepared to place the 115-acre campus and its 22 buildings on the market in early 2021. But in May the university offered the foundation’s leaders and the Johnny Appleseed Society, which trained docents and operated the museum and gift shop, the chance to buy the property at a deep discount. The foundation then relied on a pledge from an anonymous donor to cover the bulk of its $250,000 campaign to purchase the mansion and various displays, interactive games, artwork, books and historic records. 

A Johnny Appleseed sculpture on display at The Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum

Appleseed, born John Chapman, has deep roots in Champaign County, having sown apple seeds there in the early 1800s. He later encouraged a local friend to donate the land for the creation of Urbana University, which Franklin purchased in 2014 amid fiscal problems. The 2020 closure comes at a high cost to the region, as the branch had an annual impact of $60 million, says Champaign Economic Partnership director Marcia Bailey. “We’d love to see it as a postsecondary campus again,” she adds, citing rumors of larger universities with an interest in a branch on the southwestern edge of Urbana. 

As for the museum, its revival is just starting, as the foundation juggles the need to rehab the main floor, reinstall the exhibits and refile historic documents available to researchers. Officials hope to reopen its doors to schoolchildren on Chapman’s birthday, Sept. 26. 

The unnamed benefactor has offered another $50,000 in matching funds, so the foundation, which typically raises just $5,000 to $6,000 annually, has to step up. “We’ve changed our role from fundraisers to stewards,” says Coffman. “We’re starting from scratch.”