BARBELLS BY THE TON! The Story of Andrew Jackson

by Fred R. Howell

(Reprinted with permission of Vic Boffs AOBS Newsletter. Join the AOBS- See Link section.)



A large truck pulled up in front of a spacious three-story home and carefully backed into the driveway that ran alongside the house with a side door basement entrance.

Later in the day, when the truck left, there were 12,000 pounds of barbell plates, a large pile of bars and solid dumbbells sitting in the driveway. Then Andy Jackson, many times working against possible bad weather, would move the castings, bars, and dumbbells down into his basement barbell factory by sliding them down the stairs on a long, wide plank.

Most of the time it was his job alone until his wife Mae returned home from her work as a nurse and helped him. Other times, relatives and friends, when available, would pitch in and help move that mountain of metal.

This hard labor was easy compared to the years when the castings were sent by railroad freight car before the railroad quit the freight business. Then a boxcar full of castings would be put on a siding a mile or more from his home. Andy would then have to hook up a trailer to his car, drive to the siding, load up the trailer, and drive back home, unload it, and then go back for the next load. This could take anywhere from two days to a week according to the amount of iron there was to move. Plus staying home for customer visits and keeping up with his day-to-day orders.

I well remember when a friend gave me my first copy of Iron Man magazine. There in its pages was an ad for The Jackson International Barbell Company, and to my surprise it was located in Springfield, New Jersey, about forty minutes from my home.

As soon as I had a few bucks saved, I talked a friend into taking my skinny fifteen-year- old bones to Springfield to buy a few plates with my birthday money.

When we found 17 Bryant Avenue, I expected a factory building, but we were in front of a large three-story home.

I thought it must be a mailing address but walked down the driveway to the side door. There in a tiny corner of a window pane was a little sign, "Jackson International Barbell Company."

A few seconds after I knocked on the door, a tall, wide-shouldered, husky Andy Jackson opened the door and said, "Come on in; watch out for the lifting sets on the landings," as we started down the stairs to the barbell wonderland.

Here I was greeted with piles of barbell plates, bars, barrels of collars, bins of parts, squat racks, benches, and so many machines it was a miracle they would all fit in one basement.

After serving in the Army four years during World War II, Andy was mustered out in September 1945. He returned home to find most machine shops were too busy to do any work for him.

So as Andy said, "When I couldn't get any work done, I was forced to buy my own machines and do the work myself. At the time my only machines were a ten-inch grinder and a bench drill press I bought in 1935."

Andy continued, "I bought a 20-inch lathe, a No. 3 Warner and Swasey turret lathe, Nendi Tool Room lathe, 21-inch drill press, double spindle drill press, 25-ton hydraulic press, power hacksaw, plus benches, roll-top desks, files, hand tools, and chairs."

"Now," as Andy said, "I was ready to build my barbell business and not have the hassle of dealing with outside help."

During my first visit Andy talked to me like an old friend, and with my driver anxious to leave, I gathered up my 35-pound plates and left for home. It was a visit I would make many times again in the next thirty years, as both a customer and a friend.

Andy's interest in barbells began in 1925, when he was 19 years of age, and worked on ships in the engine room. Walking down a pier to sign on a ship, he spotted the chief engineer repairing a stateroom door. It was a warm day and he was in short sleeves, and Andy could see his massive arms and deep chest. Andy was quick to ask him how he got such a build. He told Andy it was through exercise with weights.

During the trip the chief educated Andy in how to train with weights. Once back home, he started reading Strength magazine, published by Mark Berry, and made himself some concrete barbells.

Not too happy with the self-made weights, Andy, with his friend Jack Kent, went to York, Pennsylvania, to see the York Barbells. "I felt with my skill and machinist training I could make a better barbell, especially an Olympic lifting set," explained Andy. "After that visit I started thinking about my own business. With the idea of starting my own barbell business, I left the sea and drove a coal truck for two years. I saved every penny possible so I could save enough to buy barbell patterns, tools, and have plates cast."

:'Jobs were tough to find at the time, so a local toolmaker was glad to make my patterns. Barnett Foundry, in nearby Irvington, New Jersey, made me my first plates. To try the patterns they cast 100 pounds of small plates, and when they delivered them, I put them in the corner of my basement. When I came home from work the next day, I called my dad to come downstairs to look at my first little pile of plates. My dad came downstairs, looked at the little pile of plates, and said, "You'll never be able to give them away, let alone sell them!"

"Once I started to get enough stock to run an ad and started to sell barbell sets and plates, my dad changed his mind. In fact, he was a big help to me doing the paperwork. Mark Berry was then the president of the Milo Barbell Company, and I had a small classified ad in his Strength magazine."

"When Milo folded and he sold out to Bob Hoffman, Mark started the Berry Barbell Company and sold Jackson Barbells on a commission basis. When the orders started to come in, we also used Physical Training Notes, The Ring (a boxing magazine), MacFadden's Physical Culture, Mechanix Illustrated, and a large newspaper, The Newark News. Around 1938 I had my first ad in Iron Man Magazine. I used a full page with a picture of Sam Loprinzi, who used Jackson barbells and was willing to say so in print."

Like so many strongmen, Andy tried his hand at pro wrestling. He had been a good amateur and felt it was a good way to get extra money to use to build his business. At about 175 pounds, he did fine for the first 12 bouts at Laurel Gardens in Newark, New Jersey. "Then the promoters started to put me in with guys like Serge Kalmikoff, who weighed 300 plus pounds! After a few broken ribs and other injuries from guys who couldn't outthink a golf ball, the extra cash didn't look so good, even if it was to build up my barbell business. A nice guy and fine wrestler named Jack Steele told me to get out of wrestling or I would wind up a cripple. Jack knew I was starting a barbell business and said, 'why mess up a good thing,'" explained Andy.

As Andy went on to say, "I even had the idea to promote wrestling but the rent of the arena and the cut to other promoters was just too much, so I gave up that idea."

Andy had done some lifting in the basement of St. Hedwick's Catholic Church in Bayonne, new Jersey. "The long-suffering priest used to let us use the church basement for meets and training. I had poor leverage in the press," Andy lamented, "and found I was just an average lifter. This practical experience is where I got the idea I could make a better lifting set."

It remained a part-time business until 1937, when his mother became ill. His dad asked Andy to stay home so he could help lift her and help the nurse they hired to take care of her during the day. It was then he started to build up the business. At that time he shipped all his weights by railroad and had to take them to the freight station.

It wasn't long before Andy made friends with some of the top names in the sport at that time. As he told me, "Before World War II and with the help of barbell magazines, interest in training with barbells started to grow. I was lucky enough to become friends with Mark Berry, Warren Lincoln Travis (the Coney Island strongman), Jack Kent, Sailor Jim White, John Grimek, Peary Rader, and Joe Hise."

"I made equipment for Warren Travis and we exchanged training material and equipment. Warren tried to sell me his strongman act, but I was too busy having fun running my barbell business. I still remember Warren giving me a ride in his car. Like many strongmen, he was a wild driver and went through stop signs, and we missed a telephone pole just by pure luck. He took me to the warehouse where his show business equipment was stored, and I had fun trying out some of his oversized barbells. Warren didn't have the best of eyesight, but he did have a good eye for the girls and a line of talk to go with it!"

"Jack Kent and I were pals, and John Grimek and I used to visit each other at our homes and enjoyed those early days of the barbell game. Grimek wanted to work for me, but at the time I just didn't have the money to hire anyone to work for me. One can only wonder how things would have been if my business had grown enough to work with John Grimek."

"Just as my sales were starting to grow bigger, World War II came along and I was drafted on July 10, 1942. I had a lot of material stockpiled, so my dad would work on weekends to fill the orders until it was all sold out."

"After I was mustered out of the army after the war ended, in September 1945, I returned home, sure I would have to spend months rebuilding my business. Both York and Weider had printed their magazines during the war and had enough iron on hand to sell sets, so I felt I was forgotten. There were new barbell companies starting up that had ads in Iron Man."

"Much to my surprise, I wasn't forgotten, and as soon as I ran ads, mail orders came flooding in, and there were a lot of customers showing up in person!"

"People do remember good quality. I tried to build the best set I could, and I built good will too. I wrote friendly letters to anyone who asked a question. If there was a delay in shipping out an order, I let the customer know about it. I would trim the plates to the ounce, and for years, every plate, even the exercise plates, had the center hole drilled out to make sure they fitted properly."

"I was very proud of the fact that Consumer's Report testing lab tested all the Olympic sets on the market at the time, and the Jackson Olympic Barbell was rated number one for quality, durability, poundage of the plates, and workmanship."

"It wasn't too long after the war when I couldn't keep up with all the orders for the Jackson Number 1 Olympic weightlifting sets. In a few short weeks I shipped over 300 sets to England, Italy, and other countries, all Olympic sets. Soon photos of major lifting contests all over the world showed Jackson lifting sets in action!"

"For most of my business life it was a one-man operation with the help of my wife. One time I hired a friend to work evenings because we had so many orders, and everything went fine for three weeks. Then, since he was a union member, a union rep showed up and wanted me to put guards on all the machines and make major changes in my machine setup. To be told what I should do by a stranger made me a little mad, so I said to heck with the whole thing and went back to doing it all myself. I just put in some extra hours, and that was the end of that idea!"

"You mentioned some of the big names in the barbell game you knew over the years, Andy. Who were the unforgettable characters that will be remembered by you the rest of your life?"

"The first one that comes to mind is Warren Lincoln Travis. A ride in his car is something you would never forget! He lifted such massive weights and made it look easy. I already mentioned my good friend, Jack Kent. Jack once did a wrestler's bridge with 300 pounds down in my shop. I had told him if he could do it, I would give him two ten-pound plates when we were talking about strongman feats listed in a book. Jack was one of the few men who pressed the Ronaldow dumbbell."

"Who could forget Joe Hise? He rode the rails from his home in Homer, Illinois, and when he got here his eyes were full of cinders. My dad spent an hour cleaning out the cinders from his eyes. Joe was powerful, and when we trained together he used very heavy weights. He wasn't much of an Olympic lifter, but he was some man. While staying here with me, he deadlifted 700 lbs, which was far above the record at the time. It was Joe, with his articles in Iron Man and Vim, who started trainers doing the squat and gaining massive strength and muscles."

"I can't forget Joe, with his full beard when it wasn't the style; his cowboy hat, tall stories about the wild west, and his great strength. Why, he even prospected for gold and other metals in his spare time. Joe was a very talented man who chose to live a very hard life out west, working in the uranium mines and other very tough jobs."

"I was so surprised to open my shop door one day and find Bert Elliot, a grand guy who was Mr. Clean in the TV commercials. Then I can't forget our friends, Mabel and Peary Rader, who built a business from nothing with lots of hard work. Peary used to park his car in my driveway while he was away on business in Europe. So we were able to visit before and after his trips."

"There were so many fine people who were first customers and then became friends; I could fill a book with their names. Guys like Donne Hale, who owned a hotel and health food stores in Florida. We used to talk on the phone when it wasn't so darn expensive, and I had many letter writing friends."

"What famous people bought your weights, Andy?"

"A few of these names will surprise you. There was Peary Rader, Joe Hise, Joe Weider, Dan Lurie, Sig Klein, Doug Hepburn (who bought some sets for the British Empire Games), Father Lange at Notre Dame, Reg Park, John Davis, dozens of universities, and of course the hundreds of sets I sent to Europe and such faraway places as Australia."

"I sent so many Olympic lifting sets to Europe and places I never heard of before that I became a regular in Port Newark. The stevedores, when they saw me, used to holler out, 'Don't worry, Andy, we'll make sure your lifting sets get on board and don't get lost!' I guess many of them were lifters and bodybuilders."

"We have talked so much about your business, Andy, but just how did you operate from your home in a residential section of town?"

"Around 1932 or '33 there were no zoning laws in town. You could do as you wishes as long as it was clean and quiet. It wasn't until 1938 that zoning laws were passed. I was covered by the grandfather clause, so I was able to stay in business."

"I was very quiet, because you couldn't hear any of my machines outside. I used to make all my deluxe chrome equipment such as squat racks, back machines, lat machines, leg press machines, flat and incline benches and all sorts of special stuff in my basement shop. Then I would assemble them in the driveway to make sure they all fitted and worked right. I would then take them apart and pack them up to ship to customers."

"Now this has evolved into a question and answer interview, so what was your biggest challenge in business, Andy?"

"It was fun building my business before the war, and while in the Army I looked forward to getting back to my barbell business. Things had changed a little, for I had been married in April 1942, a couple of months before I went into the Army."

"York, Weider and Rader published their magazines during the war, and I wondered if anyone would remember The Jackson Barbell Company."

"The business changed so fast after the war. There were so many barbell companies selling weights and equipment. There were of course York, Weider, and Lurie, plus Marcy, Paramount, Sid's System, Strong Barbell, Good, Reading, Burr Barbell, Southern Barbell, Lookout Barbell, Rosemont Barbell, Billard, and L. E. Ringland."

"But I worried needlessly, for with ads in Iron Man and a few other magazines we had orders coming in so fast I was hard put to keep up with them. I had to work extra-long hours to fill them and had to keep after the foundry to supply me with enough castings."

"In fact, the foundry owner visited us here in New Jersey to see who was using all the tons of plates, solid dumbbells, and bars we ordered. As he said, 'Andy, many times your orders kept us in business when things were slow in our other casting business.'"

"What about other hobbies, and do you train with weights yourself?"

"Sure, I train with weights. I have a lat machine between the machines and benches in my tool room. I learned long ago I had poor leverage for weightlifting, so I train for strength and muscle building. In the winter I train in my shop, and in the wonderful summer I train outdoors, and after a workout take a nice swim in my pool."

"I'm a railroad fan and like to take special trips on the old steam trains. Both my wife, Mae, and I like to travel and enjoy exploring the western states and visiting friends like Hise and Jim Douglass."

Time marches on, and Andy Jackson retired in 1975. Things had changed and, whereas in the past you sent for a barbell set by mail, now you could buy a set in sporting stores, department stores, and specialty exercise stores.

Andy spent his time taking long walks, exercising outdoors when the weather was warm, swimming in his large swimming pool, taking care of his large yard full of all sorts of plants and flowers, and traveling.

In June 1999 I got a phone call from Mrs. Jackson, who said, "We would like you to come down and visit us next week. Andy feels good, and I know he would enjoy talking with you. You two are like a couple of old women when you get together, spinning yarns and trying to top each other with wild stories."

During my long day's visit we talked about many of the things you read about in this article. Andy was very talkative this day. We talked about his early days in the business when he felt he could make a better weightlifting set and did it! He was upset to read about the drug use and hoped with education the iron game would get back to exercise for health, strength, and muscle.

Late in the day, with the sun going down, when I was about to leave, Andy extended his hand and we shook hands as he said, "Fred, this may be the last time we meet, for I'm 93 years of age, and you never know what the next day will bring to me."

In my car as I backed out of the driveway I hoped this was just "old age" talking and that, as one of the builders of the golden age of barbells, he and his wife would be around for a few more years.

One week later, on Saturday afternoon, July 3, 1999, Mrs. Jackson called and told me that Andy had taken ill and had been in the hospital three days and had passed away that morning.

The man who had such great pride in the workmanship of his barbells and gym equipment was, on a warm sunny day, buried at the church of which he was a member for 81 years.

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