Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Every day thousands of travelers – some exhibiting curiosity, others showing pure amusement – zoom by an immense weightlifter revolving atop a commodious but otherwise ordinary corporate office complex flanking Interstate 83 north of York.

Many know the giant athlete marks the headquarters of the York Barbell Company, but few realize the company’s significance in the history of American – and International – sports. For nearly a half century this medium-sized firm, largely through the efforts of founder Bob Hoffman (1898-1985), was the world’s leading producer of cast iron weights and fitness paraphernalia. As publisher of Strength & Health magazine, Hoffman propagated a gospel of physical rejuvenation in the 1930s, which led to the acceptance of weight training as a means for achieving lifelong health and fitness. Consequently, York – widely known as “Muscletown” – dominated the sport of weightlifting, along with bodybuilding and powerlifting, in the United States for decades.

As visionary as he was irrepressible, Hoffman pioneered related innovations, including weight training for athletes, health foods (especially protein supplements), exercise therapy for convalescent and geriatric patients, women’s weightlifting, isometrics, even anabolic steroids. Not only was York Barbell run nearly exclusively by weightlifters, but Hoffman himself proved unusual – he was the only person ever to realize financial success and worldwide fame strictly from weightlifting. He eventually attracted tens of thousands of followers who accorded him the coveted title “Father of World Weightlifting.”

Born in Tifton, Georgia, to Pennsylvanians, Bob Hoffman was raised in Pittsburgh, where he excelled in sports and became an expert oarsman. Dubbed the “iron man” of canoeing by the Pittsburgh Press, he won the national quarter-mile championship in 1915 and the world championship ten years later. He also engaged in weight training. After serving in World War I, during which he was decorated for heroism, Hoffman entered the oil burner business in York with a friend, Ed Kraber, and learned about machines, patterns, foundries, and marketing. Those who knew him believed him to be “the world’s greatest salesman and promoter.” A former employee insists Hoffman “could sell snow to Eskimos.” His interests in business and in other sports eventually were overshadowed by his passion for weightlifting. In 1927, he won the national heavyweight championship, and two years later he began manufacturing barbells and organized a team in his oil burner factory. The lifting platform was originally located in the middle of the shop, aptly characterizing the relationship of weightlifting to the York business.

Ernie Zimmerman, who had been in his youth a weightlifter in Germany, constructed Hoffman’s first revolving barbell from a German design. What compelled Bob Hoffman to become a lifting promoter was the United States’ lackluster performance in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the years before World War II he put together a formidable assemblage of talent. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Tony Terlazzo became America’s first gold medalist in weightlifting since 1904. At Paris the following year, the United States won two world titles and at Vienna in 1938 won two gold, one silver, and a bronze, in close pursuit of the perennially favorite Germans. These successes encouraged Hoffman in 1938 to sell his interest in the oil burner business and devote his energies to manufacturing barbells. Profits generated by the barbell business supported the sport, and the publicity from the sport promoted the business. Hoffman had wrought an economic and athletic miracle in the heart of the Great Depression.

The key to Hoffman’s success as a promoter was recruitment. York was ideally situated in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country where remnants of Teutonic strength traditions endured. It was largely local lifters of German heritage that Hoffman initially recruited. In Reamstown, for instance, a community of barely a thousand residents in eastern Lancaster County, he found the Good brothers, Harry, Walter, and Bill. Walter Good lifted as a middleweight on the 1936 Olympic team, and Bill Good gained renown as “America’s strongest man.” During the thirties, Hoffman’s club competed successfully against new York’s German-American Athletic Club and against teams of predominantly German origin from Baltimore and Hagerstown, Maryland. A sure-fire method of recruiting lifters during the Great Depression years was the prospect of a job at ten dollars a week in the oil burner plant. Hoffman recalled that Dick Bachtell, who originally captained the Hagerstown team, told him that “he would walk from Hagerstown to York, a distance of sixty-five miles, on his hands and knees if he could get work in York and lift as a member of our team.” So he “borrowed” Bachtell and gave him a job. Dick Bachtell remained York’s top featherweight until 1947 and a loyal company employee until he retired in 1977.

It was not long before lifters of various nationalities began descending upon York. Italian-Americans, led by Tony Terlazzo, came from New York and the coal region of Pennsylvania, and were followed by Eastern Europeans Wally Zagurski (Polish) from Indiana, John Terpak (Ukranian) from Mayfield, Pennsylvania, and John Grimek (Czech) and Steve Stanko (Hungarian), both from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Grimek was exceptionally strong, but he added a new dimension to the iron game – bodybuilding. For fifteen years Grimek’s physique was in a class of its own. After he garnered his second consecutive Mr. America title in 1941, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), realizing that he would otherwise win indefinitely, passed a rule barring a competitor from winning more than once. Grimek became the York Barbell Company’s icon in advertisements and athletic promotions. Virtually all of today’s bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, trace their lineage to John Grimek. Hoffman began collecting bodybuilding stars to join his stable of weightlifting champions. By the late 1940s, York was known as “Muscletown” and Hoffman – never known for modesty – was calling himself “Father of American Weightlifting.” When 1946 Mr. America Alan Stephen first visited York, foreign metaphors alone sufficed to capture his experience. “He said it was like a prayer – like a Mohammedan would say ‘Mecca,’ or a Buddhist would say ‘Nirvana,’ ‘York, Pennsylvania!'”

A critical factor of Bob Hoffman’s success was socialization. In recruiting young lifters, Hoffman set high moral standards that encouraged the acceptance of wholesome American values. He idealized his lifters as “a fine bunch of happy, enthusiastic, ambitious, clean­-living fellows” who “did not smoke, swear, drink, gamble” or date “question­able women.” Indeed, Hoffman served as an example to his followers in every category-except the last. After being married for a decade, he developed an unquenchable appetite for multiple relationships. He explained to a Fortune magazine reporter in 1947 that, “A strong man can take more than anyone else, but there are limits. He can smoke or drink or make love to the ladies. I don’t smoke or drink.”

Hoffman used his girlfriends and other women to demonstrate the novel concept of women’s weightlifting, promote his strength and health lifestyle, and advertise his products. Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, who initiated “Bar­belles,” a column in Strength & Health in 1944, became the nation’s first genuine female bodybuilder.

Despite his pioneering efforts and business success, Hoffman was for many years regarded as a social pariah in York. It was only too easy for the unenlightened to label his collection of young lifters as freaks, foreigners, and misfits. And it was even easier for civic leaders and citizens to look askance at this relative newcomer who pursued impro­prietous relationships with local women and who published a magazine contain­ing pictures of nearly naked men.

Hoffman more than made up for the acceptance and respect denied him in York by attracting fame – and even greater fortune – throughout the nation and world. From 1945 to the early 1960s, he inspired a golden age of American weightlifting. It began at the 1946 world championships in Paris with a surprise victory by the United States over the Russians and Egyptians. American lifters went on to claim world titles in 1947, 1950, and 1951, and Olympic triumphs in 1948, 1952, and 1956. Much of the impetus for these victories was provided by a continuous influx of ethnic-Ameri­cans to Muscletown. These included such Olympic and world champions as Joe DiPietro (Italian) from New York City; Stan Stanczyk and Norbert Schemansky (Polish) from Detroit; Frank Spellman (Jewish/Ukranian) from Philadelphia; John Davis (African) from Brooklyn; Tommy Kono (Japanese) from California; and Pete George (Bulgarian) from Akron. Tommy Kono especially fitted the model of the young, ambitious ethnic-American. The youngest son of fruit cannery workers in Sacramento, he was intro­duced to weightlifting while his family endured internment in a relocation camp during World War II. He became Ameri­ca’s brightest star in the fifties. The most remarkable athlete coached by Hoffman, Georgia strongman Paul Anderson shattered all heavyweight records. On a goodwill mission to Moscow in 1955 he hoisted an unbelievable 402-pound press, a 314-pound snatch, and a 424-pound clean and jerk. The capacity crowd of fifteen thousand called him Chudo Pirody (“A Wonder of Nature”) and a flabber­gasted Russian official exclaimed, “He’s Mr. America.” Anderson, whose size and strength signified a new standard­ – almost a quantum leap – in weightlifting, was a gold medallist at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956. Hoffman was hailed as “the world’s greatest coach” and enlisted by Vice President Richard M. Nixon to undertake a world tour.

What made York a mecca for athletes in the 1950s were not only the feats of Hoffman’s weightlifters and body­builders but also his successful business enterprises. After World War II there was a flurry of barbell sales and increased interest in physical fitness. Gross sales at York Barbell soared from $282,900 in 1945 to $558,419 in 1946. Hoffman catered to the heightened interest by publishing countless books and articles extolling the virtues of weight training and by creating new products, among them elixirs such as Hoffman’s Sun Tan Lotion and Athletic Rub and devices such as incline benches, squat racks, and lat machines. Hoffman personally profited from various business­es, properties, and capital investments he held in the York area. What made him a multi-millionaire, however, was his line of health foods. He concocted Hoffman’s Hi­-Proteen, and later Super Hi-Proteen, by adding a batch of Hershey’s sweet chocolate to a vat of soybean flour, then stirring the mixture with his canoe paddle. The markup on these items was so high
that prices did not need to be raised for decades. Other product lines soon followed – fudge bars, cookies, vitamin­-mineral supplements, Energol, seaweed extract – all designed to build a healthier and happier America, ensure American weightlifting supremacy, and bring fame and fortune to York’s health food pioneer, Bob Hoffman.

Hi-Proteen, he hoped, would be the nation’s “secret weapon” in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Hoffman regarded victory in weightlifting as tantamount to victory over Communism and a verifica­tion of the American way of life. “Fight for sports leadership, fight for world leader­ship; fight, if need be, for our lives and those of our loved ones” was the message conveyed in Strength & Health. While Hi­-Proteen reaped handsome dividends for the York Barbell Company, it failed to yield American lifting triumphs. As early as 1953 the Soviets and several eastern bloc nations found their own “secret weapons” in testosterone and anabolic steroids. These ergogenic aids, along with nationalized sports programs patterned after Hoffman’s corporate socialization techniques of an earlier era, led to their domination of the sport. York was by no means oblivious to these challenges. John Ziegler, a “country doctor” from nearby Olney, Maryland, began administering steroids he received from CIBA Pharma­ceuticals to York’s lifters in 1959. Within a few years their use spread like wildfire through the country’s sports community, but York Barbell could neither sell nor ethically endorse such controlled sub­stances. Ziegler also introduced functional isometric contraction and other perfor­mance enhancing techniques to York. Isometrics was heralded widely in such publications as Sports Illustrated, and Hoffman marketed various related gadgets designed to produce instant strength. However, their popularity, like fads in general, quickly faded, and American weightlifting receded from its golden age. Chuck Vinci of York Barbell Club won America’s last gold medal at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome.

Hoffman faced a formidable challenge in this era by a rival bodybuilding organization headed by Joe and Ben Weider of Montreal. Bodybuilding had been an ancillary activity to weightlifting, and Hoffman controlled it through his influence on the governing councils of the AAU. The Weiders offered a flashier approach to fitness through their publica­tions and shows, and in 1949 they instigated the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) as a challenge to the AAU. They offered rival Mr. Universe and Mr. America titles and marketed many of the same kinds of fitness items and courses as York, albeit with emphasis on physique. Commercial rivalry led to personal dislike and an acrimonious feud between the two organizations that lasted for decades. Employing cold war rhetoric, Hoffman accused his adversaries of using the “big lie technique” and of promising anything to make a dollar. The Weider organization responded in kind to his charges, and soon rival muscle magazines were exchanging bitter blows. “I have been insulted and my reputation has been unfairly and maliciously blackened,” claimed Hoffman. “I want and demand satisfaction.” He accepted Joe Weider’s personal challenge that the two should vie for supremacy by lifting and physique contests. To compensate for being much older than Weider, Hoffman proposed that a boxing match in skintight gloves also be included, and precede the other events. No such bout ever ensued, and York continued to outdistance all commercial rivals until the mid-1970s.

Even though York continued attracting American weightlifters and bodybuilders through the 1960s, teams from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Japan, and East Germany began claiming the top spots in international weightlifting competitions. American morale suffered, and critics harshly derided Hoffman’s antiquated promotional techniques and coaching style. A generation gap also developed between the “old gang” who had joined the company in the 1930s and the “new York gang” which wore their hair long, dressed in wild, psychedelic clothes, indulged in drugs, and were sexually and politically liberated. Disenchanted with their trendy, conspicuous lifestyles and, especially, their failure to win Olympic or world championship titles, Hoffman began channeling his support to a new sport, powerlifting. In 1964, the York Barbell Company hosted the first national powerlifting meet and launched Muscular Development, dedicated to powerlifting and bodybuilding. Hoffman staged the first world powerlifting championship in York in 1971, and for most of the seventies he financed the International Powerlifting Federation, yearning to become “Father of Powerlifting.” That American powerlifters utterly dominated international competition was for him a source of endless delight and boundless pride.

Not content with these endeavors, Hoffman aspired to make York the “Softball Capitol of the World.” In the course of spending $100,000 yearly to promote the sport, he hosted a number of national championships, constructed a seven-field Hoffman Memorial Stadium, and sponsored as many as seventeen softball teams. He twice sent a women’s team to Hawaii and once induced a Hawaiian team to York. In 1975, he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Softball Hall of Fame, which he housed adjacent to the Weightlifting Hall of Fame at the barbell plant.

Hoffman sought even greater recognition by cultivating the friendship of President Richard M. Nixon. He attracted the president’s attention by donating 152 acres of farmland near York for a Richard M. Nixon County Park. A staunch supporter of the administration’s Vietnam policy, he invested much time and money in the Campaign to Re-elect the President (CREEP) in 1972. He hoped ultimately to enlist Nixon’s support in his epic battles with the Food and Drug Administration and in his crusade to convert the nation to the York way of strength and fitness. But such grandiose plans never materialized. While the first-name relationship Hoffman enjoyed with the president provided the greatest ego boost of his life – “we stand very well with the ‘powers that be,'” he observed in 1973 – Nixon’s fall from grace in the wake of Watergate proved a shattering experience. Convinced that it was neither Nixon nor himself who was out-of-step with American ideals, Hoffman launched his quixotic Save the United State Movement. Its twelve commandments include abstinence from tobacco, stimulants, and alcohol, consumption of natural foods, exercise, and avoidance of drugs and sexual indiscretions. Oddly enough, the quintessential ladies man contended that America was losing its moral strength. He believed the greatest threat to the nation was no longer the Soviet Union but an internal enemy, symbolized by the drug culture, the anti-war movement, and the conspiracy that toppled Nixon. By this time Hoffman’s health and mental capacity were deteriorating. Notwithstanding his claims to being the “World’s Healthiest Man” in the 1980s, he suffered from at least a dozen serious afflictions and by the time of his death in 1985 was quite unhealthy.

A decade of decline ensued during which the York Barbell Company failed to keep pace with changes in the fitness and health foods industries. Gone, too, were the days when York was a mecca for iron game enthusiasts everywhere. “We’re Not Muscletown Anymore,” was the heading for a local newspaper column when the York gym closed its doors in October 1988. But the story of Muscletown does not end on a low note.

A revival of fortunes came from an unexpected quarter – the company foundry, U.S. Lock and Hardware, whose director, Vic Standish, became majority shareholder of the York Barbell Company in 1995. Not surprisingly, Standish steered the corporation back to its original cast-iron specialization, providing anaerobic fitness equipment on all levels – from low price import weights to elite Olympic barbell sets. Operation levels have improved accordingly, with a doubling of plant employees and a tripling of sales. “York Barbell is alive and well,” boasts a recent brochure. “After twenty years of slumber, the giant has come to life.”

The most exciting development in several decades, however, is York Barbell’s takeover by a local investment group, Susquehanna Capital. President Paul Stombaugh and associates are taking bold steps to restore the magic and glory of the York tradition. The new owners have established a center for strength research and revived an annual York picnic, a three-day “strengthfest” where iron game enthusiasts are treated to powerlifting and strongman contests, celebrity appearances, lifting stunts, and audience participation. “We want to reestablish York as a mecca for weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding,” says Stombaugh. York equipment will likely appear again in Olympic and world championships. Nor would it be surprising to see a reappearance of Strength & Health. Renewed emphasis is being placed on food supplements, with the hope of generating the kind of income and reputation that made York such a potent force under Hoffman. Susquehanna Capital, recognizing that York’s future lies in its past, seems determined to give new meaning to its claim to be “The Strongest Name in Fitness.”

 

For Further Reading

Fair, John D. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1999.

Hoffman, Bob. Weight Lifting. York: York Barbell Company, 1960.

Schwarzenegger, Arnold, et al. New Ency­clopedia of Modern Bodybuilding: The Bible of Bodybuilding, Fully Updated and Revised. New York: Simon and Schuster,
1998.

 

John D. Fair’s Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell, available from the Penn State University Press, explores the history of the York Barbell Company. The company’s founder Bob Hoffman single-handedly made York, Pennsylvania, the capital of weightlifting in America for a half century, from the 1930s through the 1980s. Muscletown USA concentrates on Hoffman and the unique physical culture movement he launched. He emerged as one of the most prominent – and prosperous – proponents of competitive weightlifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. He also pioneered the marketing of health foods and dietary supplements. The book contains seventy illustrations.

 

The editor wishes to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Peter J. Potter, editor in chief of The Pennsylvania State University Press, for making photographs available to illustrate this article.

 

John D. Fair is professor of history and chairman of the department of history and geography at Georgia College and State University in Milledgville, Georgia. His illustrated book Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell will be published by the Pennsylva­nia State University Press in May. A native of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, he holds degrees from Juniata College, Wake Forest University, and Duke University. He is the author of British Interparty Conferences: A Study of the Procedure of Conciliation in British Politics, 1867-1921 (1980) and Harold Temperly: A Scholar and Roman­tic in the Public Realm, 1879-1939 (1992). The author has competed in more than fifty Olympic and powerlifting meets, coached several teams, taught weight-training classes, staged competitions, been a national referee, served on the national weightlifting commit­tee, and judged a Mr. America contest.