“I've been fortunate,” Mertz said of his longevity in the role. “Johnny's been a character not that many people want to portray — at least as John Chapman.”
This year's festival takes place 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday in Johnny Appleseed Park, behind Memorial Coliseum.
The event also will be without another highly visible and longtime actor, President Abraham Lincoln. Fritz Klein, who portrays Lincoln, has a schedule conflict this year but is expected back next year.
Mertz, 54, has portrayed Chapman at almost every Johnny Appleseed Festival since 1979. He performed for the first 10 years for free, and then took about five years off.
During planning for the 1993 festival, the festival board and local historic group Settlers Inc. invited him to put in a bid to return as a paid presenter of John Chapman. He did, and he has been paid to portray the legend each year since.
He will be replaced this year by Steve McPhail of Upland, who has been a history teacher for 35 years and has been portraying John Chapman for about 25 years, said Bruce Hayes, festival director of administration.
Hayes said the change to McPhail grew out of the festival board's efforts to put a float in the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival parade in July.
The Johnny Appleseed Festival doesn't usually put a float in the parade, he said. But with the parade theme "Legends and Landmarks," Johnny Appleseed Festival board members thought their absence would be conspicuous, he added.
They scraped together a minimal amount of money to create a float, and asked Mertz to volunteer to be Johnny Appleseed on it, Hayes said, noting all festival board members and workers are volunteers.
Mertz asked to be paid for being on the float, but they had no money to pay him, Hayes said. After a few attempts to persuade Mertz to change his mind, they contacted McPhail, who appeared as John Chapman on the float for free.
"He did a great job with it," Hayes said, so they decided to hire him to portray John Chapman at this weekend's festival.
McPhail will be paid for his appearances this weekend, but he charges a lower rate than Mertz, Hayes said.
Festivalgoers will see him around the grounds and also at several "Meet John Chapman" appearances on the Festival, Folk and Pioneer stages at various times Saturday and Sunday.
Hayes said all vendors and performers have to reapply each year, and their performance this year will factor into whether they are invited back next year.
Mertz has researched John Chapman extensively and tries to portray him as accurately as possible, he said. McPhail has done the same, it says on his website, www.johnnyappleseed1774.com.
Mertz, who plans to continue portraying John Chapman at future area events, has enjoyed participating in the Johnny Appleseed Festival, which celebrates pioneer life around the time of John Chapman.
“It is just a really pleasant way to reflect on history and to immerse yourself in it,” he said.
The festival also helps many good community groups, which sell food or other items as a fundraiser, he said. In addition, he enjoys the friendships he has made over the years with other regular vendors and performers.
But Mertz said this year's change may be “a good break.”
He's had some back problems in the past, and walking around the festival grounds for two days in one shoe and one boot — to illustrate Chapman's use of castoff clothing — isn't always easy. He also is concerned that, if he ever can't portray Chapman, there may not be anyone else to do so.
So Mertz plans to give the festival, and McPhail, some space.
Saturday, he will be at his job as a young adult specialist at the Allen County Public Library's Shawnee branch library. Sunday, he probably will just stay home.
But the festival likely won't be far from his mind.
“I probably will hear the cannons,” he said, “because I don't live that far away.”
Festival infoWhat: Johnny Appleseed Festival
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Johnny Appleseed Park, behind Memorial Coliseum
Cost: Free admission