DNA testing leads to book about Grandma Burright, harness racer of Oregon
‘She is arguably the most famous person to ever live in Oregon'
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When Kevin Groenhagen had his DNA tested several years ago, he had no idea that the results would ultimately lead to a book about Neva “Grandma” Burright, the harness racing driver and the first woman to win a Grand Circuit race.
“I knew I had Burrights in my family tree, but I was shocked to find that about 15 percent of my DNA matches were also Burright descendants,” Groenhagen said. “I decided to research the family and write a book.”
Groenhagen found that the descendants of Cornelius Burright (1774-1873), buried in Chapel Hill Cemetery in Chana, Illinois, live in nearly every state in the country and Canada. However, the most famous Burright lived in Groenhagen’s hometown of Oregon, Illinois.
“I had heard of Grandma Burright, whose second husband, Forrest Burright, was my first cousin, three times removed,” Groenhagen said. “However, she died in 1958, a few years before I was born, so I knew very little about her.”
Using an online newspaper database, Groenhagen discovered hundreds of newspapers from New York to Hawaii reported on Grandma Burright during the 1940s and 1950s. General interest magazines such as Life, Look, Esquire, and Coronet also featured her and her exploits. She even appeared before a television audience of millions on What’s My Line? in 1954.
However, despite all the media attention she garnered while she was alive, Groenhagen found that her legacy has been largely forgotten today.
“Early in 2023, I read the Wikipedia article for Oregon, Illinois, and noticed the list of ‘notable people’ from Oregon, Illinois, which has a population under 4,000, didn’t even include Grandma Burright,” Groenhagen said. “In my opinion, this was a bit of an injustice because she is arguably the most famous person to ever live in Oregon.”
Groenhagen submitted an article about Grandma Burright last June. Wikipedia approved the article in November.
Groenhagen also believed that Grandma Burright’s story was worthy of a book. After a year of reviewing newspaper and magazine articles, gathering photos, and writing and rewriting copy, he published Grandma Burright: The Queen of Harness Racing.
“Grandma Burright’s life as a harness racing driver is a classic underdog story,” Groenhagen said. “She was a diminutive woman of modest means who experienced the deaths of a husband, two grandsons, and two sons, all within 12 years. Nevertheless, she persevered and, in 1943, became the first woman to win a Grand Circuit race. In doing so, she defeated the legendary Sep Palin, ‘the aristocrat of drivers,’ who had the financial backing of automobile heiress Frances Dodge Johnson. During that Grand Circuit race in Delaware, Ohio, Grandma Burright and Luckyette, her bay gelding, also shocked the harness racing world by setting a record for women drivers over a half-mile track with a time of 2:04 ¾.”
Grandma Burright: The Queen of Harness Racing is available at Lulu.com.