BARBELLS BY THE TON! The Story of Andrew Jackson
by Fred R. Howell
(Reprinted with permission of Vic Boffs AOBS Newsletter. Join the AOBS-
A large truck pulled up in front of a spacious three-story home and
backed into the driveway that ran alongside the house with a side door
Later in the day, when the truck left, there were 12,000 pounds of
plates, a large pile of bars and solid dumbbells sitting in the
Then Andy Jackson, many times working against possible bad weather,
move the castings, bars, and dumbbells down into his basement barbell
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
her work as a nurse and helped him. Other times, relatives and
available, would pitch in and help move that mountain of metal.
This hard labor was easy compared to the years when the castings were
railroad freight car before the railroad quit the freight business.
boxcar full of castings would be put on a siding a mile or more from
home. Andy would then have to hook up a trailer to his car, drive to
siding, load up the trailer, and drive back home, unload it, and then
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
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
There in its pages was an ad for The Jackson International Barbell
and to my surprise it was located in Springfield, New Jersey, about
minutes from my home.
As soon as I had a few bucks saved, I talked a friend into taking my
fifteen-year- old bones to Springfield to buy a few plates with my
When we found 17 Bryant Avenue, I expected a factory building, but we
front of a large three-story home.
I thought it must be a mailing address but walked down the driveway to
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,
Andy Jackson opened the door and said, "Come on in; watch out for the
sets on the landings," as we started down the stairs to the barbell
Here I was greeted with piles of barbell plates, bars, barrels of
bins of parts, squat racks, benches, and so many machines it was a
they would all fit in one basement.
After serving in the Army four years during World War II, Andy was
out in September 1945. He returned home to find most machine shops
busy to do any work for him.
So as Andy said, "When I couldn't get any work done, I was forced to
own machines and do the work myself. At the time my only machines were
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
lathe, Nendi Tool Room lathe, 21-inch drill press, double spindle drill
press, 25-ton hydraulic press, power hacksaw, plus benches, roll-top
files, hand tools, and chairs."
"Now," as Andy said, "I was ready to build my barbell business and not
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
It was a visit I would make many times again in the next thirty years,
both a customer and a friend.
Andy's interest in barbells began in 1925, when he was 19 years of age,
worked on ships in the engine room. Walking down a pier to sign on a
he spotted the chief engineer repairing a stateroom door. It was a
and he was in short sleeves, and Andy could see his massive arms and
chest. Andy was quick to ask him how he got such a build. He told
was through exercise with weights.
During the trip the chief educated Andy in how to train with weights.
back home, he started reading Strength magazine, published by Mark
made himself some concrete barbells.
Not too happy with the self-made weights, Andy, with his friend Jack
went to York, Pennsylvania, to see the York Barbells. "I felt with my
and machinist training I could make a better barbell, especially an
lifting set," explained Andy. "After that visit I started thinking
own business. With the idea of starting my own barbell business, I
sea and drove a coal truck for two years. I saved every penny possible
could save enough to buy barbell patterns, tools, and have plates
:'Jobs were tough to find at the time, so a local toolmaker was glad to
my patterns. Barnett Foundry, in nearby Irvington, New Jersey, made me
first plates. To try the patterns they cast 100 pounds of small
when they delivered them, I put them in the corner of my basement.
came home from work the next day, I called my dad to come downstairs to
at my first little pile of plates. My dad came downstairs, looked at
little pile of plates, and said, "You'll never be able to give them
alone sell them!"
"Once I started to get enough stock to run an ad and started to sell
sets and plates, my dad changed his mind. In fact, he was a big help
doing the paperwork. Mark Berry was then the president of the Milo
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
Barbell Company and sold Jackson Barbells on a commission basis. When
orders started to come in, we also used Physical Training Notes, The
boxing magazine), MacFadden's Physical Culture, Mechanix Illustrated,
large newspaper, The Newark News. Around 1938 I had my first ad in
Magazine. I used a full page with a picture of Sam Loprinzi, who used
barbells and was willing to say so in print."
Like so many strongmen, Andy tried his hand at pro wrestling. He had
good amateur and felt it was a good way to get extra money to use to
his business. At about 175 pounds, he did fine for the first 12 bouts
Laurel Gardens in Newark, New Jersey. "Then the promoters started to
in with guys like Serge Kalmikoff, who weighed 300 plus pounds! After
broken ribs and other injuries from guys who couldn't outthink a golf
the extra cash didn't look so good, even if it was to build up my
business. A nice guy and fine wrestler named Jack Steele told me to
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
rent of the arena and the cut to other promoters was just too much, so
up that idea."
Andy had done some lifting in the basement of St. Hedwick's Catholic
in Bayonne, new Jersey. "The long-suffering priest used to let us use
church basement for meets and training. I had poor leverage in the
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
dad asked Andy to stay home so he could help lift her and help the
hired to take care of her during the day. It was then he started to
the business. At that time he shipped all his weights by railroad and
take them to the freight station.
It wasn't long before Andy made friends with some of the top names in
sport at that time. As he told me, "Before World War II and with the
barbell magazines, interest in training with barbells started to grow.
lucky enough to become friends with Mark Berry, Warren Lincoln Travis
Coney Island strongman), Jack Kent, Sailor Jim White, John Grimek,
Rader, and Joe Hise."
"I made equipment for Warren Travis and we exchanged training material
equipment. Warren tried to sell me his strongman act, but I was too
having fun running my barbell business. I still remember Warren giving
ride in his car. Like many strongmen, he was a wild driver and went
stop signs, and we missed a telephone pole just by pure luck. He took
the warehouse where his show business equipment was stored, and I had
trying out some of his oversized barbells. Warren didn't have the best
eyesight, but he did have a good eye for the girls and a line of talk
"Jack Kent and I were pals, and John Grimek and I used to visit each
our homes and enjoyed those early days of the barbell game. Grimek
work for me, but at the time I just didn't have the money to hire
work for me. One can only wonder how things would have been if my
had grown enough to work with John Grimek."
"Just as my sales were starting to grow bigger, World War II came along
was drafted on July 10, 1942. I had a lot of material stockpiled, so
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
I returned home, sure I would have to spend months rebuilding my
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
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,
orders came flooding in, and there were a lot of customers showing up
"People do remember good quality. I tried to build the best set I
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
know about it. I would trim the plates to the ounce, and for years,
plate, even the exercise plates, had the center hole drilled out to
they fitted properly."
"I was very proud of the fact that Consumer's Report testing lab tested
the Olympic sets on the market at the time, and the Jackson Olympic
was rated number one for quality, durability, poundage of the plates,
"It wasn't too long after the war when I couldn't keep up with all the
for the Jackson Number 1 Olympic weightlifting sets. In a few short
shipped over 300 sets to England, Italy, and other countries, all
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
wife. One time I hired a friend to work evenings because we had so
orders, and everything went fine for three weeks. Then, since he was a
member, a union rep showed up and wanted me to put guards on all the
and make major changes in my machine setup. To be told what I should
stranger made me a little mad, so I said to heck with the whole thing
went back to doing it all myself. I just put in some extra hours, and
was the end of that idea!"
"You mentioned some of the big names in the barbell game you knew over
years, Andy. Who were the unforgettable characters that will be
by you the rest of your life?"
"The first one that comes to mind is Warren Lincoln Travis. A ride in
car is something you would never forget! He lifted such massive
made it look easy. I already mentioned my good friend, Jack Kent.
did a wrestler's bridge with 300 pounds down in my shop. I had told
he could do it, I would give him two ten-pound plates when we were
about strongman feats listed in a book. Jack was one of the few men
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
an hour cleaning out the cinders from his eyes. Joe was powerful, and
we trained together he used very heavy weights. He wasn't much of an
lifter, but he was some man. While staying here with me, he deadlifted
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
hat, tall stories about the wild west, and his great strength. Why, he
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
uranium mines and other very tough jobs."
"I was so surprised to open my shop door one day and find Bert Elliot,
grand guy who was Mr. Clean in the TV commercials. Then I can't forget
friends, Mabel and Peary Rader, who built a business from nothing with
of hard work. Peary used to park his car in my driveway while he was
business in Europe. So we were able to visit before and after his
"There were so many fine people who were first customers and then
friends; I could fill a book with their names. Guys like Donne Hale,
owned a hotel and health food stores in Florida. We used to talk on
phone when it wasn't so darn expensive, and I had many letter writing
"What famous people bought your weights, Andy?"
"A few of these names will surprise you. There was Peary Rader, Joe
Joe Weider, Dan Lurie, Sig Klein, Doug Hepburn (who bought some sets
British Empire Games), Father Lange at Notre Dame, Reg Park, John
dozens of universities, and of course the hundreds of sets I sent to
and such faraway places as Australia."
"I sent so many Olympic lifting sets to Europe and places I never heard
before that I became a regular in Port Newark. The stevedores, when
me, used to holler out, 'Don't worry, Andy, we'll make sure your
get on board and don't get lost!' I guess many of them were lifters
"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
wishes as long as it was clean and quiet. It wasn't until 1938 that
laws were passed. I was covered by the grandfather clause, so I was
stay in business."
"I was very quiet, because you couldn't hear any of my machines
used to make all my deluxe chrome equipment such as squat racks, back
machines, lat machines, leg press machines, flat and incline benches
sorts of special stuff in my basement shop. Then I would assemble them
the driveway to make sure they all fitted and worked right. I would
take them apart and pack them up to ship to customers."
"Now this has evolved into a question and answer interview, so what was
biggest challenge in business, Andy?"
"It was fun building my business before the war, and while in the Army
looked forward to getting back to my barbell business. Things had
little, for I had been married in April 1942, a couple of months before
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
companies selling weights and equipment. There were of course York,
and Lurie, plus Marcy, Paramount, Sid's System, Strong Barbell, Good,
Reading, Burr Barbell, Southern Barbell, Lookout Barbell, Rosemont
Billard, and L. E. Ringland."
"But I worried needlessly, for with ads in Iron Man and a few other
we had orders coming in so fast I was hard put to keep up with them. I
to work extra-long hours to fill them and had to keep after the foundry
supply me with enough castings."
"In fact, the foundry owner visited us here in New Jersey to see who
using all the tons of plates, solid dumbbells, and bars we ordered. As
said, 'Andy, many times your orders kept us in business when things
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
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
train in my shop, and in the wonderful summer I train outdoors, and
workout take a nice swim in my pool."
"I'm a railroad fan and like to take special trips on the old steam
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
whereas in the past you sent for a barbell set by mail, now you could
set in sporting stores, department stores, and specialty exercise
Andy spent his time taking long walks, exercising outdoors when the
was warm, swimming in his large swimming pool, taking care of his large
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
you to come down and visit us next week. Andy feels good, and I know
would enjoy talking with you. You two are like a couple of old women
you get together, spinning yarns and trying to top each other with wild
During my long day's visit we talked about many of the things you read
in this article. Andy was very talkative this day. We talked about
early days in the business when he felt he could make a better
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,
Late in the day, with the sun going down, when I was about to leave,
extended his hand and we shook hands as he said, "Fred, this may be the
time we meet, for I'm 93 years of age, and you never know what the next
will bring to me."
In my car as I backed out of the driveway I hoped this was just "old
talking and that, as one of the builders of the golden age of barbells,
and his wife would be around for a few more years.
One week later, on Saturday afternoon, July 3, 1999, Mrs. Jackson
told me that Andy had taken ill and had been in the hospital three days
had passed away that morning.
The man who had such great pride in the workmanship of his barbells and
equipment was, on a warm sunny day, buried at the church of which he
member for 81 years.