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.