Harness racing ‘Pop’ Geers proved to be the ‘Dale Earnhardt’ of his era
By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post
In a beautiful, quiet little corner of Donna Evins’ yard, where redbud and dogwoods peak with their early April blooms, a chunk of granite, almost 7 feet high, preserves the name of one of Lebanon’s most notable native sons.
The name Geers has nearly been forgotten. For decades it has been mispronounced (it rhymes with jeers). Nevertheless, the fame of sportsman Edward Franklin “Pop” Geers remains hitched to horse-racing lore.
Born in a farmhouse 3 miles east of Lebanon in the middle of the 19th century, Geers was the king of light harness racing. When the grand old man of the U.S. trotting turf died on a track in 1924 at age 73, “Time” magazine paid tribute reporting that Geers brought more horses under the wire first than any other driver in history, and his winnings totaled nearly $2 million.
Amends of sorts were made last night when Geers was enthroned in the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame. But, truth be told, few locals know of the man and his legend.
“He was the Dale Earnhardt of his day. He even died on the track,” said Maury Couny historian Bob Duncan, who lives on West Seventh Street near downtown Columbia, directly across the street from a one-acre green space known as Pop Geers Park.
The site boasts a 45-foot-tall granite obelisk, almost like a miniature Washington Monument, that serves as a memorial to Geers, who bore the nickname “The Silent Man From Tennessee.”
In 1916 on an ex-plow horse named Napoleon Direct, Geers became the first man to pilot a sulky (a two-wheeled cart) and a horse below the 2-minute barrier in the mile (in 1 minute, 59 and three-quarter seconds). The feat was the equivalent of Roger Bannister being the first man to run a sub 4-minute mile.
But Geers, who won thousands of races on hundreds of horses, also held world trotting records at 2 miles, 3 miles, other distances and several pacing records. In 1892 he amazed fanciers of the sport, the NASCAR of its day, by driving a horse a mile in 2 minutes and 4 seconds while hitched to a featherweight sulky with ball-bearing, pneumatic tires.
Maury Countians, more so than Wilson Countians, know the legend of Geers, since he made the Columbia area his home base for most of his illustrious career. Columbia native Sarah Elizabeth Hickman-McLeod seems to be the expert on Geers and recently completed her master’s thesis at Middle Tennessee State University with her project titled “The Forgotten Man of the Trotting Turf: The Story of Edward Franklin “Pop” Geers and Harness Racing.” It’s likely to become a book in the near future.
“My whole life I was fascinated with this monument in my hometown,” said Hickman-McLeod, who turned to her historian friend, Duncan, when choosing a topic for her thesis. “He handed me a folder about ‘Pop’ Geers, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Two-and-a-half years later and after extensive research at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y, she had her task complete: 100 pages on the life and times of Geers.
“He was absolutely fascinating, an amazing person,” she said. “He was the first man to break the 2-minute mile, and he also helped introduce the bicycle sulky to the harness-racing world. Everybody laughed at him the day he appeared on the track with small tires compared to the normal big wagon-wheel tires.
“He was the silent man of the trotting turf. A very gentle man, a nice man and man of few words. He liked cigars and ice cream. I have not found any bad things written about him or his character. His peers said there was something in his voice that made the horses go. He rarely used a whip on the horses. There was just something in his voice.”
Duncan concurs with his protégé: “Geers was probably the earliest horse whisperer. He never raised his voice. He could get more out of a horse than anybody else could. The horses all loved him.”
The fleet driver really knew his horseflesh, according to Duncan.
“He really had an eye for picking horses. He purchased Napoleon Direct out of a field where a farmer was plowing with him. He took one look at the horse and paid for it on the spot.” Geers also helped strengthen the bloodlines of stock which eventually carried on into Tennessee Walking Horse history.This “Iron Man of Harness Racing” ruled his sport for a period of about 40 years from the 1880s to the 1920s. The sport consists of several drivers steering horses from a sulky around a dirt track. The rider is tucked right up underneath the back end of the horse.
Geers, who practically spent a lifetime in the sulky, broke both arms and legs several times in many accidents. The greatest horse trainer of his era, he scorched the tracks on such horses as Mattie Hunter, Hal Pointer, Brown Hal, Star Pointer, Nightingale, St. Frisco, The Harvester, Anvil, Dudie Archdale, The Abbott and Little Brown Jug.
But beyond his natural-born talent with the horses was his sterling character.
“His demeanor,” Duncan said, “was dead calm, unflappable, and he was absolutely scrupulous in his dealings. … People trusted his word. His yes meant yes and his no meant no.”
(His nickname came in 1888 while he was on the road and received a telegram announcing the birth of his son, Walter Akin Geers. A friend told him, “Well, Ed, you’re a pop now.”)
Written accounts of Geers note that he loved clean sportsmanship and that he was a gentleman, simple and kind. He didn’t swear or drink alcohol. The poker-faced Geers played cards but not for money. His sole vice was a cigar, ever-present between his lips. With deeply tanned features, he raced in a black jacket and black cap.
Hickman-McLeod spied these two artifacts and one of Geers’ sulkies close up at the Harness Racing Museum.
“To see the black silk racing jacket with his number placed on it, No. 1, and to touch it was amazing (they made her wear gloves). It was like he had just taken it off,” recollected the MTSU graduate, who now works for 1220 Exhibits in Nashville where she assists in museum fabrication and planning museum exhibits.
Geers was born Jan. 25, 1851, in a house that stood until the 1980s about 100 yards east of the Maple Hill church of Christ on the south side of Highway 70. His father operated a farm and ran a country store. The horseman won his first race at the Wilson County Fair in approximately 1872. The horse, a brown Morgan stallion named Little Dave, covered the course in 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Its driver never looked back.
Hickman-McLeod said that Geers left Lebanon for Nashville in 1874 to work the stables for John Harding at Belle Meade Plantation. He gravitated to Columbia in 1876 where Major Campbell Brown got Geers’ career off and running.
At that time, Maury County was the locale of several big prime-breeding operations. But Geers, working for horse owners across the U.S., worked out of several stables in different towns while he traveled the sport’s Grand Circuit, a series of competitions held in towns big and small, mostly in the East.
At the time of his death, Geers, by then a millionaire, made his headquarters in Memphis. It was reported that he rode from 20 to 40 miles a day in the sulky training his charges even into his 70s. He probably died the way he wanted, on the track he loved, but his death on Sept. 3, 1924, was “horrific,” according to Hickman-McLeod.
“He was in Wheeling. W.Va., preparing to break a record. He was racing Miladi Guy. He came in third place in the first heat and was determined to do better in the second heat. He was following closely behind two other horses, and Geers was making a move on the track. He passed a horse but his horse broke her stride and stumbled. The mare somersaulted and flipped the sulky sideways and up and threw ‘Pop’ 15 feet.”
As he sat stunned on the track, he was struck by the wheel of another sulky on his chest. He died unconscious with a fractured skull several hours later.
Geers had three daughters, a son and a step-daughter. His legacy includes a 150-page book, Ed Geers’ Experience With the Trotters and Pacers, that he published in 1901. But in Columbia it is the tall obelisk that keeps his name alive and bears proof to his popularity among his peers and acquaintances.
Geers, his wife and two of his children are buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia. The horse he took below 2 minutes in the mile, is also buried there. In fact, Napoleon Direct lived 10 years longer than Geers, until 1934. Its demise was paid tribute by the citizens of Columbia who had the Maury County courthouse bell toll its death.
Meanwhile, back in Geers’ hometown, a state historical marker dedicated to him is missing. A graveyard with a big stone, a subdivision with two streets bearing his name and memories of his house remain.
His home finally fell in or was demolished in the late 1970s or 1980s. Lebanon artist Bill Hunter was the last resident to live in the old farmhouse in 1967-1968.
“The house was in fairly good shape,” Hunter remembered. “They had attached several houses to the back with many, many little rooms. Before we moved in, it had been a nursing home (Geers Place Nursing Home) for years. We used it as an art gallery to show my work and we did framing. It was very old but a charming house and spooky.”
One of the few Lebanon natives who remembered “Pops” Geers’ story is farmer and State Rep. Stratton Bone, also a member of the local Agricultural Hall of Fame Committee.
“I’ve known about him for years and years and what he had done. I remember the old house down there across from Sports Village. We got to looking at Geers, who had no family around, and decided we wanted to select someone who had made a big contribution to agriculture years ago.” “Geers came from Lebanon and his impact and accomplishments in harness racing were known internationally,” said Wilson County Extension Agent Ruth Correll. “But he also was known as a very honorable person.”
As for “Pop” Geers’ missing state historical commission marker, which stood alongside Highway 70 from at least the early 1950s until Geers Place subdivision went up in the 1980s, it had been relocated some years back to Donna Evins’ yard on Geers Drive, a stone throw from where it forks with Geers Court. A year or two ago, the marker fell from its post.
“It’s being repaired and refurbished in Nashville,” Bone said. “I talked to the state Historical Commission, and we’re going to get it put back up before too long.”
While many residents of Geers Place subdivision, set on “Pops” Geers’ father’s farm, may not have a clue where the name originated, probably fewer know that the granite memorial in Evins’ backyard is most likely a cemetery and the final resting place of Geers’ mother and father.
A black metal fence, 20-feet-by-32-feet, wraps around the granite memorial and plot of earth that flourishes with grass, flowers and trees.
“I was told that there was a horse buried here, but I doubt it. I think it’s full of people,” said Evins, who has lived here since the early 1990s. “I didn’t mind it being a little family cemetery. I love little cemeteries.”
During the past 15 years, Evins has laid to rest several of her pets nearby, and the fenced-in area has served as a playground for her grandkids. “My little grandchildren walked around this so much. It was once a well-hidden spot. When I looked at this house, that was one of the drawing cards. I just loved it.”
Diane Weathers, a genealogist and member of the Wilson County Library Board, has concluded that the plot is the Geers family graveyard.
“I think that his parents are buried there as well as a couple of his sisters who didn’t marry,” Weathers said. “In the 1930s, the state tried to record country cemeteries, and they listed it in a book as Geers Graveyard. I really think his parents are buried there, as there is no record of them being in Cedar Grove (Lebanon’s most prominent cemetery).”
The granite marker offers clues but nothing conclusive. Inscriptions are carved into all four sides. One side simply reads: Geers, and another has the date, 1929. The side that faces Evins’ back door bears the names of “Pop” Geers’ father and mother, below which is located the horseman’s name and then eight other Geer family member names (possibly “Pop’s” siblings), along with their birth and death years.
The much taller memorial back in Columbia, implanted into Pop Geers Park three years before the stone in Evins’ backyard, carries these words chiseled into the stone: “Erected to the memory of Edward Franklin Geers by his fellow horsemen and friends throughout the world.”
A second side reveals: “A tribute from those who loved the greatness of his soul from the start of the race through the final home-stretch of life.”
And now, finally in his place of birth, Edward Franklin Geers, a legend in his own time, gains a permanent and proper place in Wilson County’s Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Rest in peace, “Pop.” We vow to never forget you again.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.