The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 08, 2021 1:00 am

June 1976: Carving Johnny Appleseed

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

In June 1976, Dean Butler began chipping away at an 800-pound, 12-foot log at Glenbrook Square to sculpt Johnny Appleseed.

The project began when the log was delivered to the mall on June 14 and Butler – an art teacher at Bellmont High School in Decatur – spent about seven hours a day carving with a hammer and gouge.

During the carving, money was collected to improve the Johnny Appleseed gravesite.

When complete, the full-figure carving was put on display in the mall.

A 1976 story about the project appears below.

To suggest a date or subject for History Journal, email Corey McMaken at


"It's tough chipping off the ol' block," by Dell Ford (June 26, 1976)

Dean Butler's summer job gives him free rein to let the chips fall where they may.

Literally, the chips are falling at Glenbrook Mall where Butler, an art teacher at Decatur's Bellmont High, is sculpting the likeness of Johnny Appleseed from a 12-foot log

Now putting a fine edge on John's facial features, Butler estimates the full figure project will have him chipping away 500 or more hours.

Originally, he thought he'd put in 10 hours a day but he's been held to seven in the early going. He reports to his wooden platform at 10 a.m. and works "as long as I can hold out. It's hard work," he said, looking down at his hands, "but when my wrists and hands get built up, I think I can go 10 hours."

Glancing toward the log, he 'noted "this is much harder wood than I thought. It's ash. Takes a strenuous pound to make the chisel go in on the outer edge. Because it's dry there. Where the wood has some dampness, it's softer. That's the case with every wood, of course.

Butler, who began chiseling (actually, he uses hammer and gouge, a tool with a rounded cutting edge) right after the June 14 arrival of the log at Glenbrook, said when he gets John's face finished "it's going to be easy for about three feet because there'll be just body."

Then comes what he considers to be the most difficult stage of the project he designed: the lower section-animals and Johnny Appleseed's feet. | This section, Butler explained, will be "a little harder because there are so many forms to get unified."

He included animals in his design because he thought it would interest children "but also because the log needed to be strengthened. Having the animals there keeps me from carving away too much wood. And," he added, "the animals symbolize what Johnny Appleseed stood for. He was an early ecologist. He loved nature. All life."

Butler, who chips away at the log, unmindful of the passersby who stop to watch him work, said this is the sixth summer he's spent carving.

His first venture into the art form (I didn't know if I could do it") was a 36inch bull and a 27-inch "old grouch. The bull," he said, "came out of my background. I was a farm boy. The old grouch was a test-to see if I could make a face."

Johnny Appleseed (nee John Chapman) is the largest piece Butler has tackled.

Although he didn't see Glenbrook's ad seeking a wood sculptor for the project, a friend did. The friend told Butler and Butler "got on it right away. The ad asked for a drawing or a model and I turned in a two-foot tall plaster of paris model and bid a price."

The job was his and, he said, "they even let me pick out the log (which came from Daleville) so I have no complaints."

Well, there is one slight complaint, soon to be remedied.

Butler presently is using a "regular ball peen hammer. I've been working so hard to get the chisel to go into the wood-sometimes I miss the chisel and hit my hand. It was swollen to the point where I had to soak it in hot water in the evening. I have an order in for a wooden mallet and I think it will solve that problem."

The only other problem is the timetable Butler has set for himself. He hopes to complete Appleseed by mid-August. Otherwise, he's going to find himself with two jobs. Teaching art and chiseling chips.

Butler, who did some research on his subject, thinks Johnny Appleseed is a man to look up to."

At 12 feet, folks are going to look up to this Johnny Appleseed who, when Butler is finished, will have a permanent place on Glenbrook Mall.

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