Martin Burns was born in a log cabin on a farm in Cedar County, Iowa on Feb. 15, 1861. His parents were Mary and Michael Burns, Irish emigrants.
Martin was eleven years old when his father died, leaving him, his mother, an older brother and five sisters. To help support the family, Martin worked at a nearby farm for $12 per month. The heavy work helped him develop his physical strength.
Wrestling was a popular sport in the army camps during the civil war years. President Abraham Lincoln had once been a champion wrestler. And so it was also popular among the young boys in his home town and the surrounding area. At age eight, Burns defeated an older rival for a fifteen-cent prize.
As a teenager, Burns traveled around the Midwest, wrestling in carnivals and fairs to make money. He also worked in grading camps where he wrestled rugged strong men who, according to one biography, were heavy drinkers, smokers and chewers who stayed up all night playing cards. They depended on their “brute strength” and Martin was able to beat them because he never drank, smoked, or participated in other activities that would hurt his conditioning. He spent much time perfecting the strategies and techniques of catch wrestling (defined as “the basic grappling style where various holds and tactics are used with the intent to pin both opponent’s shoulders to the ground at once). Burns’ conditioning, his intellectual approach to wrestling and his advanced skill made him nearly unbeatable.
On his first trip to Chicago in 1889, Burns was given his nickname, “Farmer.” He had traveled there on a cattle car and noticed a sign offering $25 for anyone who could last 15 minutes with two well-known wrestlers – Jack Carkeek and Henry Clayton. He accepted the challenge and showed up at the Olympic Theater dressed in his regular farmer’s overalls. The announcer introduced Martin as “Farmer” Burns. The “Farmer” defeated Carleek the first night, returned the next night and defeated Clayton. He was declared a wrestling hero the next day in Chicago newspapers.
He traveled the country, challenging the greatest wrestlers of the day. He weighed only 165 pounds, but regularly defeated men who outweighed him by as much as 50-100 pounds. His success is credited to his intense workout routine which he developed for himself and, later, his students. He was well known in the early twentieth century for his 20-inch neck. It is reported that he gained fame by being put into a noose, getting hanged and living, while whistling “Yankee Doodle” – one of his favorite stunts.
According to his obituary, “The one time middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight wrestling champion of the world was a total abstainer from all forms of drinking and tobacco, but was never a fanatic on the subject. He had his first major match when he was nineteen years old. Never more than a light heavyweight, Burns held the heavyweight title from 1895 until 1898. He won the title from the original Strangler Evan Lewis in Chicago and lost it to Tom Jenkins. He held the light heavyweight title until 1911 when he passed it on to Freddie Beel.
In 1902, Burns began training another farm boy, Frank Gotch, who became one of the nation’s greatest heavyweights and retired as undefeated world champion. Burns later taught wrestling at the Farmer Burns School of Wrestling in Omaha. In 1921, he coached the Cedar Rapids Washington High School wrestling team to the first state wrestling championship.
According to his obituary, Farmer made a fortune in wrestling but lost most of it during the depression in second mortgages on Iowa farms. During his declining years he wrote and sold his book, “Learn to Wrestle by Mail” – a correspondence course that combines calisthenics, light dumbbells and resistance exercises in a very effective way. He hated modern wrestling, saying, “It’s a shame to degrade such a fine sport.”
Charles Loch, a local promoter and former student of Burns, said of him, “Burns was the greatest athlete that ever lived. I would like to have a wrestler half as good as the ‘old man’ in ability, faithfulness and morals.”
Farmer was inducted into the International Wrestling Institute and Museum Hall of Fame in 2001.
Martin Burns and Amelia Hoffmaster were married in 1887. They had four children: Cecelia, Mary, Raymond and Charles. The Burns family lived at several locations, including Omaha, Chicago and (in the 1920 census) on Mill Street in Council Bluffs.
Burns retired from active competition in 1922, but later trained wrestlers in Omaha for several years. Amelia died in 1930 and Martin went to live with his daughter Cecelia, her husband C.Wesley Beem – president and co-owner of Beem-Belford Funeral Home – and their three children.
Martin “Farmer” Burns died at age 75 on January 8, 1937 at the home of Cecelia, then a widow living at 710 S. 9th St. His funeral was held in the Catholic Church in Toronto, Clinton County, Iowa. He is buried in St. James Cemetery there.
The house at 710 S. Ninth Street is one of two houses built of concrete blocks on one lot, purchased by J. H. Ingoldsby in 1906. The Ingoldsby family is listed in the 1907 city directory as living at 901 7th Ave. (one of the two houses) but there is no listing for the 710 S. 9th St. house – possibly because there was one house number for the entire lot until it was divided in 1926. The style of the two houses supports a circa 1906 date of construction. The full width front porch was originally an open porch.
– Sources of information for this story are: Pottawattamie County auditor’s office, Kathleen Meldrum, several newspaper articles about the career of Martin “Farmer” Burns, his obituary and biographies. Mary Lou McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.