NEW MARKET — He’s described as weird and whimsical, but those are terms of endearment that make him timeless and treasured.
“There’s pictures of Johnny everywhere,” said Mary Smith, general manager of the Quality Inn and Johnny Appleseed Restaurant on West Old Cross Road.
“Johnny” is the statue of Johnny Appleseed outside of the eatery bearing his name — a 14-foot figure that, on demand, will offer about a minute commentary on what’s tasteful on the menu.
“If I had a nickel for every single time somebody has pushed that button,” Smith said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Nothing would have stopped her from doing that through the years, but questioning the business plan of the restaurant seems unfair: Out of about 25 Johnny Appleseed restaurants that once existed in various states, New Market’s is the only one still running, Smith said.
“We were the first,” she said of the restaurant dating to 1972, “and now we are the last.”
Boosting its popularity is the statue standing out front and visible to every northbound traveler on Interstate 81. The figure even graces the cover of “Weird Virginia,” a 2007 travel guide for “local legends and best kept secrets” that’s available at the restaurant’s gift shop.
“It just seemed to epitomize everything the book was about,” said Jeff Bahr, a northern New Jersey resident and one of the book’s authors. “[The publishers] just decided to go with it. I wasn’t even looking for it. I just stopped to eat lunch. I had a schedule where I was going to be interviewing people, and I snapped a picture and lo and behold it was on the cover, which was surprising.
“It’s kind of a fun little statue.”
Appleseed holds an apple, which makes sense, but, for an unconfirmed reason, also wears an upside-down pot on his head. Natural Bridge artist Mark Cline, who the restaurant chain hired to make replicas of the New Market statue in the late 1980s, said his “best guess” is that the company modeled it from a Walt Disney cartoon, if not taking the original figure from Disney World itself.
Character traits of John Chapman may provide an answer. Born in 1774, the man later known as Johnny Appleseed was a nurseryman who established orchards around the Midwest. Among Chapman’s eccentricities was “a threadbare wardrobe, which often did not include shoes and often did include a tin hat,” according to biography.com.
He also was a “staunch believer” in animal rights and denounced cruelty toward all living things, the site adds. That probably wouldn’t make him happy to know his statue now tells people to come inside a restaurant named after him to eat fried chicken or catfish, although he got some payback when his voice was out of commission for a while, until about seven years ago.
A local radio personality is the voice of Johnny, but that person’s identity is kept a secret.
Smith said the restaurant, started by Petlin Inc. a year after the Quality Inn opened, likely got its name based on the Shenandoah Valley’s apple orchard heritage.
“It was such an apple area,” she said.
Bent, Not Broken
Cline said he was called to make several statues as the company sought to grow the chain in the late 1980s. The New Market statue predates when Smith began working at the restaurant in 1985.
The local figure needed repair at the same time Cline was contacted. He made “a few” new ones out of a mold from the New Market one and fixed the existing statue, he said.
Cline didn’t fully repair the New Market Appleseed, though: A car had hit it at some point and it wasn’t pieced back together properly, giving the man a crooked stance, he said.
“It still has the bent-looking legs,” said Cline, owner of Enchanted Castle Studio in Natural Bridge. “I didn’t want to mess with the way it looked. They were happy with the way it looked.”
One of Cline’s remakes, which he made for a now-closed restaurant in Kissimmee, Fla., is now referred to as “Johnny Donutseed” in Lloyd, Fla. It stands outside of a gas station and carries a doughnut and coffee mug.
Cline produced another Appleseed statue for an orchard in Bedford and made just an upper torso for his studio.
“He’s holding a leprechaun over a windmill. As it turns, the windmill kicks the leprechaun in the [butt],” said Cline, whose most famous work was Foamhenge, a full-size replica of Stonehenge.
He lost the Appleseed mold in a fire at his studio in 2001.
Smith said “countless, countless” people have made the statue a part of their visit. The fact the restaurant has survived for 40 years helps.
“It’s so frequent that we have people in their late 20s, 30 years old … in here because their parents went here,” she said. “It’s so common that restaurants open and close, open and close.”
But that’s not the case for the local establishment with its “weird” greeter.
“I think any kind of whimsical figure that stands in front of an attraction always attracts families,” Cline said, “and at this point, it’s become a nostalgic figure. It’s taken on a whole new life as an Americana piece.”
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or email@example.com