Here are three stories from the grave:
One is about a 5-foot-6 world champion bicycle racer — “The Little Dayton Demon” — who was also a famed racecar driver until he lost a leg in a flaming crash that brought fans rushing from the grandstands to save him from the flames. Though small in stature and later hobbled, he should be remembered as an athlete who stood taller than almost any other who came from the Miami Valley
Another story is about a nationally-acclaimed cowgirl who had the courage to try what her male counterparts would not. The act would cost her her life, but not before she uttered a defiant epitaph, one that stirred cowboys to erect a monument to her here in Dayton.
And the other story is about a bigger-than-life marksman from here who was known worldwide, a fact that made the announcement of his murder in a Dayton Daily News headline so shocking to everyone … including him when he read it. After all, he would live for another 23 years.
These stories — of Earl Kiser, Marguerite “Maggie” Doane and Rolla “Pop” Heikes” — will be explained in more detail tonight during the Sports Legends Tour at Woodland Cemetery.
The two-hour walking tour — which will feature some 13 sports figures buried at Woodland — begins at 6:30 and is free. To register, call tour guide Angie Hoschauer (937-228-3221) and meet at the cemetery’s front gate.
Woodland is, as Dave FitzSimmons, the former president and CEO of the cemetery, once noted, “Dayton’s outdoor museum,” a place where 105,000 people and their stories have been laid to rest among the 200 acres of rolling hills, towering trees, flowers, birds and spectacular views of the city.
I began to really appreciate this about a decade ago when I began taking my dog, Leo, there for a walk a couple of times a week.
We’d always drive in through the back entrance off Waldo Street and park near the grave of former University of Dayton basketball coach Tom Blackburn. From there we would explore and one day I happened to notice a grave with an unusual inscription:
Marguerite E. Doane
Beloved wife of Edward Wright
Champion Lady Rough Rider of the World
Died Aug. 4, 1917, aged 22 years, 8 mo., 9 ds.
This monument erected by her Western Friends
I perused David B. Kingman’s book “The Shrines of Woodland” and then scoured the microfilmed back issues of the Dayton newspapers to find her story.
Soon I began to wonder what other sports figures were buried at Woodland. With more research and tromping around, some of it with the help of a former Woodland volunteer, I found several stories that made up a column I wrote for the Dayton Daily News.
Soon after that Woodland put on its inaugural Sports Legends Tour and has continued to do so for the past seven years.
“We don’t do the tour as often as we once did, especially since we’ve moved on to our History, Mystery, Murder & Mayhem Walk, but when I go out and present the sports program to the community at libraries or something, people are very interested because we have so many sports heroes and legends here,” Hoschauer said.
Tonight the tour will visit some of the close to three dozen sports legends who are at the cemetery. The lineup will include, among others, famed sprint car driver Johnny Shackleford, who was killed at Dayton Speedway, William Shroyer, who invented the aluminum baseball bat, Al Tucker Sr., who played with the Harlem Globetrotters, and his son Al Jr., the college basketball All-American and first-round NBA draft pick and, of course, Blackburn.
When the tour stops at the graves of Kiser, Doane and Heikes, you will get three of my favorite stories:
• Maggie Doane was a pioneer in women’s sports. At 22, she rode the rough stock events at rodeos, which is what she was doing at the Colorado Athletic Carnival at Denver’s Overland Park on Aug. 17, 1917.
A week earlier she had been named the Ladies’ Champion at the Cheyenne Frontier Days and that brought a Hollywood movie crew to Denver to film her. And maybe that’s what prompted her to crawl atop the misnamed Gentle Annie, a rank, snorting bronc that the male cowboys wanted no part of that day.
The horse rocketed out of the chute, bucked several seconds without unseating Maggie and suddenly bolted to the far end of the arena, crashing through a wire fence, stumbling and falling atop Maggie, before standing and kicking her head.
Gravely injured, Maggie looked up at the cowboys who cradled her and before dying reportedly whispered:
“Well, I rode her!”
Maggie’s body was shipped back to Dayton, where her mother lived. She is buried in Section 119, beneath the marker supplied by her “Western Friends.”
• Rolla “Pop” Heikes, with his long blonde hair, big yellow handlebar moustache and a magic touch on the mandolin and banjo, caught people’s attention. That was even more the case when he picked up a gun.
He was once the best-known marksman in the world. A contemporary of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody, he won the first Great American Handicap in New York City, represented more companies in ads than almost any other American athlete and toured the world giving shooting exhibitions.
After a show in Detroit in June 1911, he departed the Wayne Hotel but left behind a bag containing his personal papers and money. Two thieves quickly snatched the bag and hopped a train to Chicago.
On the way the pair got into an argument and one shot the other dead. The body was found with Heikes’ papers and it was assumed he was the murdered man.
Word was sent back to Dayton and the Dayton Daily News’ afternoon edition published a story with the big, blaring headline:
“Rolla Heikes Famous Dayton Marksman Reported Murdered. “
No one was more surprised to read the headline than Heikes himself when he arrived from Detroit. And as you can see from his simple, flat headstone in Section 113, he did not die until 1934.
• Earl Kiser — who has two Dayton Streets named after him, Earl and Herbert — is buried in Section 101 near both the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although they are far more celebrated, his story is certainly compelling.
When he crashed the famed Winton Bullet racecar during a race at the Glenville Horse Track in Cleveland, news of his injuries made worldwide headlines, including in the Dayton Daily News, which proclaimed: “Earl Kiser Horribly Injured: Left Leg Reduced to a Mass of Pulp.”
A Dayton Herald headline a couple of days later read: “Earl Kiser desires severed member interred in local cemetery where he will rest.”
The man and his member wouldn’t be reunited for another 31 years. In between, Kiser ran an auto dealership in downtown Dayton and then developed real estate and owned a hotel in Miami Beach.
But the grandest thing he did involved Major Taylor, the black bicycle racer from the 1890s and early 20th century. That’s when Kiser was riding for the famed Stearns Yellow Fellow Team.
Back then, Taylor was banned from racing in the South and treated poorly other places, as well. Competitors tried to knock him off his bike. Fans threw nails in the roadway and pelted him with rocks. A competitor in Massachusetts choked him unconscious and the League of American Wheelmen banned all blacks as members.
Against that avalanche of racism he found a defender in Kiser, who successfully petitioned races to include him. Taylor went on to win the first of his two cycling world titles in Montreal in 1899. That made him the first African-American athlete to win a world title.
Years later, immediately after Kiser lost his leg in that crash, he met with one of his friends in the hospital. A newspaper captured what he told his pal:
“I’m still on earth Pat, but minus a leg. They will have to advertise me as the only one-legged racer on the circuit. I’ll be a big drawing card.”
As the Sports Legends Tour will attest tonight, he still is.