Gene Harris: The Pony King

Gene Harris poses with pony in Leon, Iowa.

By 1955, the breeding, raising, selling and showing of Shetland ponies was a $31 million industry in America. Gene Harris expected demand to double. Illinois became the world’s capital of Shetland Pony breeding and, by 1958, Harris described himself as the “world’s largest pony dealer,” owning farms in Illinois and in his home town of Leon, Iowa.

The ever innovative Gene Harris sold his ponies via mail-order catalogs, including Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Spiegel. An early advertisement read: “You may choose my name. I am a male pony (gelding) 40 inches tall. I am black in color and 5 years old. I’m very gentle and affectionate—very much of a pet. I am suitable for a child 4 to 12 years of age. I am in good health. $250 is my price—$50 to be sent with the order and $200 C.O.D. when I arrive.”

One journalist quipped that ponies had become Harris’ main business. The Club Alabam was a sideline.


If you enjoy local history, especially the world of entertainment, follow me at or on the Facebook page: The Blackest Sheep.

The Blackest Sheep: Dan Blanco, Evelyn Nesbit, Gene Harris and Chicago’s Club Alabam is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online bookstores.