Martin “Farmer” Burns was born February 15, 1861, in a log
cabin located in Springfield Township, Cedar County, Iowa.
When Martin was only eleven, his father died, leaving him behind
with his mother, one brother and five sisters. In order to help
support the family, Martin worked for a neighboring farmer for
twelve dollars a month. He also took jobs sawing wood, plowing
corn and digging graves.
Although he received little schooling, Martin made up his mind early
on that he wanted to become a professional wrestler. When he was
only eight years old he wrestled another boy for his first stake; fifteen
cents was put up by each side. The opponent, James Magrin, was three
years older than Burns, but young Martin tossed him and walked away
with the prize. He also left with an even stronger desire to achieve even
In the book, Life Work of Farmer Burns (copyright 1911), it says, “From the
age of twelve to the age of nineteen years he spent his time plowing corn
in the daytime and wrestling evenings every time he secured a chance with
whoever he could find to hold up the other end of the work. At the age of
nineteen years he was quite well known in the neighborhood of Denison, Iowa,
as a very husky young man with a reputation as a winner in every match into
which he had entered, and it was here that he met a professional wrestler
for the first time in his life.”
Burns developed many of his theories about wrestling, mostly because he had
to continually whip bigger and stronger men who were in good condition.
In 1886, Burns lost his first match to Henry Clayton, who wrestled under the
name of Evan “Strangler” Lewis (not to be confused with Robert Friederich,
who wrestled in another era under the name of Ed “Strangler” Lewis). One
year later Burns lost again, this time to Tom Connors. Burns later avenged
both of these losses.
In the spring of 1889, Burns made a trip to Chicago with two carloads of hogs.
Because he had a ten-day stay, Burns unloaded the hogs and went sight seeing.
While wandering around the town he spotted various advertisements posted in
regard to two wrestlers, Jack Carkeek and Evan “Strangler” Lewis, who were
taking on all-comers.
The bill read as follows:
JACK CARKEEK and EVAN LEWIS, the STRANGLER, at the OLYMPIC THEATRE.
WILL MEET ALL COMERS. $25.00 to anyone staying fifteen minutes or $2.00
per minute after the first seven minutes. No limit to time and nobody barred.
Parson Davis, Manager.
Burns, viewing this as his chance to break into the professional ranks of
catch-as-catch-can wrestling, seized the day and went to the manager’s
office to say he wanted to take the $2 per minute challenge. The manager
booked Burns for the following evening. But word soon got out and
Carkeek met with the manager, trying to persuade him to call off the
engagement. Burns was not to be turned away. He told Manager Davis
that he would be in town for 10 days and any night would be just fine.
The following evening was not only Burns’ chance to make it big, it was
also the night he became known as the “Farmer.” As wrestling was only
part of the show and most of the rest was comedy, the crowd waited for
J.W. Kelly, who showed up for work drunk, to make the introduction of
the next contestant. Burns had to literally shake Kelly awake, and when
he finally came to and saw him dressed in overalls, he rushed onto the
“What would you call a man who hoes potatoes and squash and shucks
corn?” Kelly asked.
“A farmer,” replied the musician.
“Well, then,” he continued, “if this farmer would get locked up in a house
and the house would catch fire, what would happen to the farmer?”
“I do not know,” the musician replied.
“Farmer Burns,” replied Kelly.
He then ran off the stage and the audience sat dumbfounded. A few moments
later, however, when Burns appeared in overalls and shook hands with Carkeek,
who was bare-chested, they understood.
Although the large crowd now understood the joke, they had no idea that this
“Farmer” was going to put on one helluva show. Burns took Carkeek off the
mat and tossed him about the stage, knocking the scenery around with him
for fifteen minutes. He was finally declared the winner after 15 minutes as
Carkeek was unable to throw him.
Then it was time for Lewis. 15 minutes proved to be too short a time for Lewis
to throw Burns, and the “Farmer” won that bout as well. The next day the
Chicago newspapers lauded this unknown “farmer” and within short order
his story was known across the land.
Burns went on to become champion of America, even though he was a
In his day, professional wrestling matches were, for the most part, real
contests (but not always). Unlike amateur catch-as-catch-can (collegiate
or freestyle wrestling), professional catch wrestling often had no time limit.
Some matches were takedowns only and the match was decided by a throw;
other matches were decided by pin or submission. On several occasions, title
matches would last for several hours. In some the objective was to throw the
opponent within a specified time limit. If the match wasn’t decided by a throw
within a certain time, you could win the bout with a three-second pin (holding
both shoulder blades of your opponent on the canvas) or by submission.
In most matches, the strangle or choke holds were barred … in some, toe
holds were banned. No points were given for takedowns, throws, reversals,
escapes or the like in a professional match. Burns was an all-around wrestler
who excelled on his feet as well as on the mat. He was a master of the pin,
perfecting the Nelson series, the hammerlock, double-wrist lock, chicken wing
and a great many toe holds. If Burns didn’t pin you – he found a way to make
you beg for mercy. From 1890-1893, “Farmer” Burns traveled around the
country taking on all comers as part of various carnival shows. He never
lost a fall. One of his biggest victories was over Japan’s Matsada Sora Kichi,
whom he defeated in Troy, New York, in four minutes.
In 1893, “Farmer” Burns opened a gymnasium in Rock Island, Illinois, where
he trained several hundred students. Later still he opened a wrestling and
physical culture school in Omaha, Nebraska, and helped others across the
country establish schools as well.
In 1908, “Farmer” Burns top student, Frank Gotch, of Humboldt, Iowa,
captured the world heavyweight championship when he soundly defeated
the Russian Lion, George Hackenschmidt. Over the years there have been
many Hack fans who have claimed that Gotch used “foul tactics” to win,
but these claims are hardly worth entertaining. A Burns’ trained wrestler
didn’t need to resort to foul tactics to win.
Burns involvement in wrestling was so rich and so deep that he taught
amateur catch-as-catch-can in Iowa high schools. Without question,
the reason why high school and college wrestling is so BIG in Iowa
to this day, is a direct result of the forgotten but not lost foundation
the “Farmer” laid there a century ago. In fact, in 1921, “Farmer”
Burns coached Cedar Rapids Washington to the first-ever Iowa high
school state championship, held in Ames, Iowa.
Burns also trained many other professional wrestlers. Three of the
most noteworthy were light weight Jack Reynolds and heavyweights
Earl Caddock, who won the world title in 1917, and Joe “Toots” Mondt,
a man feared both outside and inside the ring.
In wrestling historian Mike Chapman’s book, From Gotch to Gable – A
History of Wrestling in Iowa, a number of renowned collegiate coaches
heaped praise on Burns. One notable coach, Dave McCuskey, who led
Iowa Teacher’s College to the national team title in 1950 referred to Burns
as “the cornerstone” of Iowa wrestling. “He organized clubs and taught
young men to wrestle,” McCuskey said.
It wasn’t just wrestlers who believed in “Farmer” Burns, either.
In 1910, when Jim Jeffries was making a comeback after a long lay-off,
he was viewed as a “Great White Hope.” In order to get in shape for his
title bout against Jack Johnson, Jeffries hired Burns to help with his
While in training camp in Reno, Nevada, Burns got into a heated debate
with another trainer, who just happened to be Billy Papke, a former
middleweight boxing champion. Burns, in his 50’s, was much older
than Papke, but the “Farmer” decided that the two should settle
their argument in an all-out street fight. Papke took a few swings,
then Burns took him down and submitted him, making him cry
In 1914 Burns published a mail order course entitled, Lessons in Wrestling
and Physical Culture – http://www.mattfurey.com/farmerburns.html
The course was sent out in a newsletter format. Each set of instructions was
16 pages long and contained two lessons. The first lesson was on exercise
and physical culture; the second dealt with wrestling techniques. The complete
course was 96 pages long; divided into six booklets containing a total of 12 lessons.
Of all the wrestling books and literature I have ever read, there was something
about the words of the late “Farmer” Burns that stirred my soul.
How great it must have been, I wondered, to have been born during his era, and
to have been one of his students. Although his course could never replace hands-on
wrestlinginstruction, it was the next best thing. And the information in it on getting
fit is some of the most powerful training information I have ever read.
One of the amazing things about “Farmer” Burns is that he was thoroughly
familiar with jiu-jitsu, judo and other methods of grappling and self-defense.
His neck was so powerful and so resistant to pain, that he often challenged
people to try and choke him out. No one ever succeeded although it is said
that thousands tried.
In his mail order course “Farmer” Burns laid out his training method for
wrestlers … and for that matter, anyone who wanted to improve his
overall health. Although Burns’ contributions to the wrestling world
were great, his training method is even more impressive, as he was
teaching in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s what most people today
would consider “Eastern” martial arts principles.
Deep breathing exercises (known as chi kung in China) were the foundation
of Burns’ training method. Gymnastic and calisthenic exercises took the
place of heavy weight lifting.
Hand and foot movements were done speedily in order to develop timing.
Light dumbbells were used to stretch the muscles more deeply in every direction.
Bridging was done to develop the muscles of the neck and spine.
Isometrics were done solo or with a partner for added resistance. Distance
running and boxing were encouraged to build “wind.” And wrestling was
considered the greatest exercise an athlete could participate in.
Martin “Farmer” Burns died at the age of 77 but his legacy and his spirit will never
leave us. That’s why today, he is 146 years old.
It may be hard to imagine, but can you picture yourself as a person who will
devote nearly 70 years of your life to your chosen art? That’s what “Farmer”
Burns did. He championed “America’s martial art” and showed why it was
In the U.S. we do not typically use the words “master” and “Grandmaster”
for our wrestling champions and our great teachers. But as we enter this
new millennium, it is time to make an exception. It is time to break tradition.
It is time to give Martin “Farmer” Burns his rightful place in history.
He is the Grandmaster of American wrestling.
If you don’t have Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture in your library, let’s
take care of that NOW. I have all the lessons bound for easy keeping and have
added my comments. You’ll find a treasure trove of wisdom in this course – which
sold for $35.00 in 1914, when it was released.
In tribute to the “Farmer” – I’m keeping the fee the same as it was in 1914. Get
the course now at http://www.mattfurey.com/farmerburns.html
Also, for those of you who are serious students of catch wrestling and grappling,
you’ll be blown away with what I reveal in the Farmer Burns Catch Wrestling DVD
course – available at www.farmerburns.com
P.S. For a complete listing of all Matt Furey products go to
Copyright, Gold Medal Publications, Inc 2007