‘Catch’ wrestling legend ‘Farmer’ Burns to be honored by hometown

Updated: June 18, 2024

Photo: Martin “Farmer” Burns is well known for discovering the equally-legendary Frank Gotch and later served as an assistant high school coach in the 1920s.

By Mike Chapman

Readers of this column know how much I love to bring attention to the great figures in wrestling’s rich past …. and today’s column reaches all the way back to the time of the Civil War, and then extends forward into this summer.

On the afternoon of June 22, a true legend will be recognized for his immeasurable impact on the sport, which had its origins in a tiny village in Iowa. His name was Martin Burns, but he was best known as “Farmer” Burns and his fame eventually spread from coast to coast and even overseas.

He was born on Feb. 15, 1861, in a log cabin in a spot in the road called Big Rock, located in eastern Iowa not far from the Mississippi River. At age 11, he was already working long, tough hours on the little family farm when his father died. Martin continued his farm work but also hired out to area grading camps, hoping to pick up enough money to support his mother, one brother and three sisters.

It was there in those rugged camps that he learned how to wrestle, facing off against much larger men in a style known as “catch-as-catch-can”. There were few rules and only the toughest could survive. And Martin was one of the toughest even at such a tender age.

In an era when submissions were far more common than pins, he became an expert in joint locks and toe holds.  At age 21, he took a load of hogs to Chicago to sell and saw a sign that said anyone who could last a few minutes with the star wrestler could earn a few dollars. Martin walked onto the stage in overalls and someone in the crowd yelled, “Look at that farmer,” and he became known ever after as Farmer Burns.

He began touring the Midwest to take on all comers and he eventually became the world heavyweight champion, though he weighed little more than 170 pounds. By the time he retired, he reportedly had wrestled 6,000 matches and suffered just six losses.

He opened a wrestling school in Rock Island, Ill., but a few years later moved it to Omaha, Neb. He also began a mail-order business which not only taught wrestling holds but stressed the importance of fresh air, strict exercising and clean living at all times.

He was in demand by other athletes as a trainer, including champion boxers. Burns discovered the great Frank Gotch and helped him become the most celebrated wrestler of the first half century. Burns also trained Earl Caddock, a three-time AAU national amateur champion who became world professional champion when Gotch retired.

In 1921, Burns was the assistant coach when Cedar Rapids Washington won the first Iowa high school state wrestling title.

During my writing career, I had the opportunity to interview three of the coaches who took Iowa colleges to NCAA team titles: Paul Scott at Cornell College, Dave McCuskey at Iowa State Teachers College and Harold Nichols at Iowa State. All three said they looked up to Farmer Burns during their youth and he was a source of pride and inspiration to all Iowans.

Robin Reed grew up on rough and tough on the streets of Portland, Ore., and won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. He never lost a single match during his amateur career. In an interview when Reed was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he told historian Don Sayenga that Farmer Burns was one of his two wrestling idols!

Among his other admirers were President Teddy Roosevelt, legendary Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody and the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. Cody said Burns was the toughest man he ever knew.

The legendary wrestler died on Jan. 9, 1937, at the age of 75. His physician said he simply wore his body out. He is burred in St. James cemetery in Toronto, Iowa, just ten miles north of Big Rock.

Yet today, one can find shirts, drinking cups and trading cards bearing his name and image, and a poster of Burns and Gotch posing together, all on eBay.

So, on June 22, a memorial will be held in Big Rock, thanks to the efforts of local citizen Wes Fox, who grew up in the area listening to stories from men who actually knew Farmer Burns personally. Fox has idolized him for decades and has led an effort to have a memorial in his honor put up in a small, grassy spot next to a house where Burns once lived.

The memorial plaque has a photo of Burns and a biography. Wes and I worked together to raise the funds for the tribute and the sign includes the names of those who helped us with donations, including some very famous wrestlers. We also received support from the Gov. Terry Branstad Historical Fund.

I will give a brief introduction and Curran Jacobs, former Michigan State Spartan star who has won several major catch tournaments, will be there to film the event for a podcast. Curran is a movie actor who co-wrote and directed the popular documentary “For the Love of Catch”.          

So, if you are in the area of Big Rock, Iowa, in the late afternoon of June 22, we would love to have you stop by and help us honor the memory of one of the giants of the sport.

(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN Magazine, the Dan Hodge Trophy, the National Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, author of 30 books and is a member of 11 halls of fame.)