FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sept. 20, 2007
EDITORIAL CONTACT: Gina Logue, 615-898-5081
STUDENT REVIVES LEGACY OF NATIONAL CHAMP FROM TENNESSEE
“Pop” Geers, Harness Racing Pioneer, Modest Forgotten Hero of Sports History
(MURFREESBORO) – He once graced the sports pages of national newspapers, but he has yet to be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He and his horse were the first to break a two-minute barrier and set a new record, but no one hails him as the Roger Bannister of his era.
He advanced his sport by strengthening horses’ bloodlines and introducing the use of the pneumatic tire. Yet the major existing tribute to his memory is a solitary granite spire in a small park that bears his name in Columbia, Tenn.
Edward Franklin “Pop” Geers (pronounced JEERS) was the “Grand Old Man” of harness racing, a sport that elevated the spirits of downtrodden Reconstruction-era Tennesseans and filled the idle hours of elite Northeasterners. Now an MTSU graduate student is bringing his life and his legend into focus with her master’s thesis.
History major Sarah Elizabeth Hickman, a Columbia native, was steered toward Geers by Maury (pronounced MURRAY) County Historian Bob Duncan, an old family friend. She knew immediately that she wanted to tell Geers’ story.
“It just amazed me how a country boy from Tennessee … was known up in New York like he was and how he was known throughout the harness racing industry,” Hickman says.
Geers was born in Lebanon, Tenn., in 1851, the son of a storekeeper and a homemaker. He satisfied his first fascination with racing animals by yoking two calves, tying their tails together with a rope. When one of the calves lost half a tail, Geers traded them for a horse and threw $50 into the deal.
While training in Columbia, he met and married a local girl and accepted the town as his own. Geers raced at local fairs throughout middle Tennessee as spectators wagered their hard-earned savings for a few seconds of excitement. In 1875, he competed outside the midstate for the first time, and he traveled north to take on the sport’s premier circuit the following year.
“He never said a harsh word to a horse,” says Hickman. “He never used a whip. They said he had something in his voice, something in his demeanor that made the horse go. I can just see this little short man from Tennessee just talking to the horse, sort of like a horse whisperer.”
Geers’ genteel tactics paid off handsomely. Hickman’s research shows he made more than one million dollars in his career. The pinnacle of his success was the record he
achieved with Napoleon Direct, a former plow horse with whom Geers broke the two-minute barrier. The team was timed at 1:59 and ¾ seconds on Aug. 14, 1916, a paramount achievement.
Tragically, the glory came to an end at a race in Wheeling, W. Va., on Sept. 3, 1924. At the start of the second heat, Geers urged his mare, Miladi Guy, to speed up to keep pace with two other teams.
“The horse tripped,” Hickman says. “Then the sulky started twisting and wailing and the horse fell. Pop was thrown from the sulky. Other sulky drivers tried to miss him, but when they tried to miss him, one of them hit him on his shoulder.
“He laid there on the track unconscious. They took him back to his stable, and the horses, as a rider put it, seemed to know something was wrong with their master. They all sort of stuck their heads out of their little stalls and looked to see what was happening.”
The trade publication Trotter and Pacer reported that “Pop” Geers’ final words were “I had a fall.”
To find out as much as she could about Geers and harness racing, Hickman traveled to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and Museum in Goshen, N.Y. She says the staff was delighted to enlighten her about Geers, a 1958 inductee, allowing her to touch Pop’s racing jacket and one of his sulkies.
A local racer took Hickman riding around the track in one of his sulkies so she could get the feel of harness racing. Since she was brought up on a farm, Hickman was no novice around Jagger Blue Chip, a horse valued at $100,000, but this was unlike anything she had experienced at home.
“You’re right on the horse,” Hickman says. “There’s no room for error or anything.”
In addition to materials from the hall of fame and the Maury County archives, Hickman’s sources include various books, newspapers and magazines, and Geers’ granddaughter, Jane Janus, as well as the Margaret Lindsley Warden Collection at MTSU’s Albert Gore Research Center, where Hickman also worked on the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project.
However, Hickman, ever the historian, wants to know even more about Pop. In fact, she wants to publish her thesis as a book someday. For now, graduating this December with a master’s degree in public history will suffice.
“I need a break from school,” Hickman says. “I need to let my career start to take off and to decide what I actually want to do.”
In the meantime, anyone with any additional information about “Pop” Geers and his legacy can contact Hickman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at the Sam Davis Home in Smyrna at 615-459-2341.
ATTENTION, MEDIA: For jpegs of rare historic photos of “Pop” Geers and/or an interview with Sarah Elizabeth Hickman, contact Gina Logue in the Office of News and Public Affairs at 615-898-5081 or email@example.com.