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Escapes: A museum in York, Pa., tells a weighty tale

By James F. Lee,

Driving along Interstate 83 in York, Pa., one recent weekend, I was suddenly hit with a giddy revelation: It’s rotating!

“It” was a giant model of a weightlifter holding a barbell high over his head, the symbol of York Barbell, weights and fitness-machine manufacturer that has been operating in York since the 1930s. I’d heard a rumor that the weightlifter, who’d been spinning atop the company’s headquarters building for the past 50 years, had stopped turning, and the thought had for some reason saddened me. But today I had proof that the rumor was untrue. Thank goodness! York wouldn’t be the same without the rotating weightlifter.

Escapes: Details, York, Pa.

Bob Hoffman, often described as the father of modern weightlifting, founded York Barbell in 1932. He built his company and trained serious weightlifters over the years, making York synonymous with “muscle town.” Next door to the company’s production facility, Hoffman built the York Barbell Museum and USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame. This impressive building, fronted by a large glass lobby and with a statue of Hoffman out front, was my destination.

The museum celebrates four areas of weightlifting: powerlifting, Olympic-style weightlifting, bodybuilding and historical strongmen. The first exhibit featured 18 color drawings depicting individual feats of strength through time, starting with Milo of Croton, the 6th-century B.C. wrestler carrying a bull on his shoulders, and ending in 1945 with John Grimek, a former Mr. Universe and Mr. America.

Milo apparently was an inspiration for the strongmen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured in the “Mighty Men of Old” exhibit. These burly men entertained crowds with their impressive feats of strength during the Golden Age of Strongmanism: men like Louis Cyr, “the Canadian Sampson,” who could lift a 270-pound dumbbell over his head with one hand, and Louis Attila, “the Professor,” known for creating the globe barbells that can be filled with water, sand or lead shot to add weight. One fascinating photo from about 1910 shows one of the Professor’s female students, Caroline Braumann, doing a one-arm dumbbell press. My favorite was Eugen Sandow, whose act included walking across a stage while hefting a small horse with one arm.

These entertainers performed onstage and in the movies; they advertised mail-order remedies and bodybuilding secrets, and some wrestled as well. One of the wrestler-strongmen was Maurice Tillet, known as “the French Angel.” Tillet made a career based in part on both his strength and his shocking appearance: He suffered from acromegaly, a condition that produces overly large feet, hands and head. I was mesmerized by a photo of Tillet seated at a table, arm-wrestling. His head, the size of a large watermelon, doesn’t look as if it could be real. In the display case is a casting of his head at death, showing its incredible size. It’s said that the character Shrek was based on Tillet.

Some of the weights on display defy the imagination. In the central gallery, where the Hall of Fame is located, I was astonished at the size of the Travis Dumbbell, so huge that it looks like two deep-sea diving bells connected by a metal bar. This prodigious 1,500-pound weight was developed by Warren Lincoln Travis, a strongman from Brooklyn who used to entertain crowds at Coney Island around the turn of the 20th century. He would do hip lifts and harness lifts with the huge dumbbell. Travis was so strong, he could lift 667 pounds with one finger.

In the next room, labeled “The Story of Weightlifting,” I learned the distinction between Olympic weightlifting, a style that encompasses strength, agility, speed and muscular coordination, and powerlifting, which considers only strength. Panels showing the various U.S. Olympic teams and Olympic winners line one wall. The United States won its first Olympic gold in weightlifting at the 1936 Berlin Games.

The room contains two life-size sculptures, one a naked body cast of Sandow, the father of modern bodybuilding, whose impressive body is strategically covered for modesty. The other is a marble sculpture of Grimek. Also in this section are photos of great bodybuilders, including Steve “Hercules” Reeves, Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger and Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno.

Beyond the exhibits, the museum and Hall of Fame also host weightlifting competitions. Mark Chaillet, a member of the Hall of Fame who volunteers there once a week, showed me the bleacher-filled auditorium where the competitions are held. Hoffman originally built the facility as a center for Olympic-style weightlifting training, but today it’s a major center for competitive powerlifting. “The first world powerlift competition was held here in 1971,” Chaillet said. He also showed me an impressive weight room for serious training.

Leaving the museum, I walked next door to the York Barbell Co. to get a closer look at the spinning weightlifter. He’s 14 feet tall, made of Styrofoam and fiberglass. David Kogut, the company’s operations manager, said that the figure has to undergo maintenance every other month, because revolving 24 hours a day on the roof of a building takes a toll on both model and machinery.

Sometimes, emergency repairs are necessary. In 2010, the weightlifter cracked right at the small of his back. “He looked like he was mooning people,” Kogut said. They took him down and worked on him for three weeks, repairing the break and applying new paint before putting him back on his pedestal. The new paint job apparently made him look bulkier. “He looks ripped now,” said Kogut.

But more important to me, he’s still going around in circles.

Escapes: Details, York, Pa.

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.

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