The Jackson Barbell (Part II)
As noted in the previous Part Ten of this series, Andy Jackson produced what was considered by many to be the finest Olympic barbell set in the world as a one man manufacturing force. That he did it from the basement of his house in New Jersey made him truly unique. Unlike most involved in weight training, many fellows from my neighborhood knew the different bars, plates, and nuances of the available equipment. There was quite a bit of weight training activity in the neighborhood because it was a “fighting place” and as I have written in numerous articles through the decades, a lot of local men trained in an era when weight training of any kind was not a popular activity. Knowing you would have to fight or protect your family or yourself on the street at some time, was a great incentive to become stronger. Former NFL player Lyle Alzado was two years behind me in high school and to give perspective on the way things were, I often refer others to the numerous comments he made when describing the neighborhood and his own violent past in his many television and print interviews to present a “feel” for the way it was.
The goal, as it was among most men who lifted weights in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, was to become muscularly larger and stronger but Olympic weightlifting in the New York City area was also popular. This was in part because the sport itself was much more popular throughout the U.S. during those years than it is today and because physique competitors were expected to be “athletes” and part of the AAU judging criteria included the awarding of “athletic points.” Attainment of a varsity letter at the high school or collegiate level, competing in another official Amateur Athletic Union sport, or pursuit of the very mysterious and relatively secretive martial arts would earn these important points. Many competitive bodybuilders chose to learn the three Olympic lifts since almost all of them already incorporated the press, clean, squat, and front squat into their bodybuilding routines. Entering an Olympic lifting contest earned instant points and placing earned even more. Thus with the bodybuilders as weightlifting “students” and experienced Olympic weightlifters present wherever weights were lifted, there was an awful lot of comment about the wisdom of being a “York 100-percenter” and using only York products and equipment versus the use of an available Jackson set.
I was rather amazed that Andy Jackson had started his company in 1932 and for its entire run, other than one or two years where a friend might have helped out during his very busy times, maintained a one man show. Jackson hauled the plates, drilled and milled them to exact weight, made the bars and rotating sleeves and completed them with knurling and a finish that made them jump out at the trainee. His sets were known locally because he competed as a weightlifter and even had a fling at pro wrestling. Tony had mentioned that the great John Grimek, perhaps York’s best known representative, and former World Champion John Davis had trained on Jackson’s bars and had admitted that they were better than those from York. The only ads I had seen for Jackson Barbell were in Iron Man magazine but I was told that Jackson ran ads in some of the boxing magazines and that many trainees, once they had used his set, could tell an immediate difference from those produced by York. Years later I would read a quote from Tommy Kono, considered by some as the greatest Olympic lifter the U.S. has ever produced and he had stated that Jackson “…did make the best Olympic bars at the time. I never met the man but knew of his workmanship and his reputation in making great Olympic bars.” If nothing else, even in my ignorance about the quality and actual worth of training equipment, I knew that I was preparing on the very best of equipment and in a lesson that would remain with me throughout my days as a competitor and coach, I was preparing as completely as possible.
Tony also noted that if we used both the York Olympic bar and the Jackson Olympic Barbell set that we had in our small facility, our lifters would have an advantage. This was the first exposure I had to “contest preparation” and some of the lessons from that initial experience have been put into use even until this very day. We had a pair of one hundred pound York plates that had been sold as “standard” plates but these had been drilled out so that they fit an Olympic bar with its two-inch or in the case of the York bar, “almost two-inch” portal. With a chance that the contest organizer would have, and use one hundred pound plates, we would at least squat and deadlift with them because, as Tony explained even to the more experienced men that had been convinced to join in the planned fun, “the hundreds feel different than forty-fives on the bar” and of course, they do. The Jackson set was a mystery to me, an unknown only because I had never before seen one in any of the other garage or storefront gyms I had been to visit, nor at the local YMCA’s in the City or Brooklyn. York was the ubiquitous set and Jackson was, in my mind inferior if it wasn’t pictured in the magazines. I was incorrect.
History Supplement: Benching in California
On the East Coast, the mid-1960’s was certainly an exciting time for strength training and lifting. Of course, everyone who trained with weights, even competitive bodybuilders, was in fact “strength training.” In the modern era, specialization that is possible with equipment, drugs, attire, and nutritional supplements allows for bodybuilders to look like overstuffed Greek statues come to life with strength levels that are little above that of the average man in the street and men who can lift God-awful heavy weights who closely resemble your stereotypical circus fat man. In the by-gone era of the late 1950’s to late ‘60’s almost everyone who trained used the same exercises, other than the absence of the snatch and its variations for non-Olympic weightlifters, and everyone’s goal was to be as strong as possible and to look as if they did in fact “lift weights.” Simply put and a point I have emphasized in almost every one of the Eleikousa articles in this series, men (few women were on the lifting scene) trained in order to become muscularly larger and stronger. If they wanted to be competitive or non-competitive bodybuilders, they added “isolation exercises” or emphasized what everyone referred to as “the showy muscles” like the lats and pecs. If one wanted to powerlift either competitively or just to be strong in the three basic lifts once the sport was organized, that was their primary focus but they still included the overhead press, the power clean, and often, the front squat as adjunctive movements meant to enhance the effect of the competitive powerlifts. In short, there was a core grouping of perhaps a dozen exercises that almost every man did when they were in the gym and the set and rep scheme would be determined by their training goal. Any lifting in the New York City area was considered newsworthy with California and the New York Metropolitan areas being the focal points of training. The University Of Miami and Florida State were recruiting their best football players from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and points north because Florida was still under populated and did not have enough decent football players to allow for in-state recruiting that would allow either program to be competitive among its rivals. The lifting scene in Florida, as elsewhere, did not compare to New York or California in part due to the higher number of participants on the sandy beaches of “Cali” or in the relatively numerous, compared to other parts of the country, gyms of the “Big City.”
For those of us in New York, any news coming out of the California scene was big news. The better bodybuilders whether affiliated with the AAU or IFBB were California guys. The big odd-lifters/powerlifters, despite very good representation from Pennsylvania and Illinois, were the West Coast crews from Peanuts West’s garage gym, the Pasadena Gym and Pasadena Y, and in the waning years of the Sixties, Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym. In the early 1960’s the first California lifter to gain our attention was Pat Casey. I have written about Pat and mentioned him often in articles in POWERLIFTING USA Magazine and the MILO journal. We did not become friends until I arrived on the West Coast a few years after first hearing about him and we remained friendly, communicating weekly at times, up until his death.
Pat’s numbers were huge, as were the reported pressing accomplishments of Chuck Ahrens and Steve Merjanian. In 1964 and ’65 we were treated to many stories about Dennis Melke, Bob Kemper, and an eighteen year old John Kojigian lifting 450 to 500 pounds in bench press contests. With each report coming out of California, our group of dedicated trainees would swing wildly between excitement and frustration, becoming highly motivated to meet the increasing accomplishments of our West Coast brethren and then sliding into semi-depression wondering if we could ever meet the astronomical numbers they were putting up in official contests. In the absence of the internet and/or easy travel, receiving news even months later via word of mouth or a magazine report about a huge lift would prove to be a significant influence on our training. I was so naïve and perhaps removed from the mainstream of daily commerce that I did not realize that one could subscribe to a magazine and have it delivered monthly to their home mailbox. However I was quick to note that if I wanted to learn about the background of some of these better lifters and emulate what they did, I could acquire back issues of the various muscle magazines and I began to do so.
After a great deal of contemplation I was able to recall some of the details of the one trip I made to Springfield, N.J. to see what Mr. Jackson was doing and hopefully, purchase equipment that might have been “left over.” Unlike today where it is almost impossible to get a live voice on the telephone line and receive what passes for minimal customer service, the 1960’s were still a time where people as a general statement, worked hard, built their businesses on personal relationships, and dedicated effort to maintaining those relationships by providing the best service possible. I called Mr. Jackson to ask questions, wax enthusiastically about his barbell set that we had at the storefront gym, and asked if I could drive over on a Saturday to “look around.” I don’t believe I was surprised that he answered in the affirmative because the set we had on the gym floor was purchased via a drive to Jersey. The details after so many decades are sketchy but I did indeed drive to Springfield and meet Mr. Jackson. Perhaps I expected a larger-than-life figure like Bob Hoffman who was huge in reputation and sort of huge in stature too. Andy Jackson looked to be built like my father if not a bit more muscular. A typical “working man” who was hard looking and had noticeably developed forearms from his daily physical labor, Jackson if nothing else, was also very much like most of the guys my father worked with as an iron worker. Obviously tough, hard, to the point, and knowledgeable about what he was doing, I learned the procedure he followed to produce his stacks of plates and bars that were strewn about the basement of what otherwise looked like a large but normal house.
The casted plates were delivered to Mr. Jackson’s house from the foundry, placed onto one of his machines and milled and drilled until they weighed correctly and were of the “right feel” when grasping them. No burrs or spikes, no incomplete or asymmetrical holes, he weighed each plate to insure its accuracy and accurate they were. The bars were hand-made in that parts were machined, the “aircraft quality” round stock was knurled, and each piece was assembled personally by Andy Jackson. In truth, having spent a great deal of my youth in my family’s iron and welding shop observing as well as working and learning the skills of the trade, I was mesmerized. When someone is superb at their craft and has an obvious love and zeal for their work, it can literally take one’s breath away and I remember being incredibly impressed. He had a few unique items that I did not know existed like special Olympic type collars that were made for a standard sized bar. The large winged steel thumb screws were never seen on anything other than the large Olympic bar collars but he had a similar type of product for the “every day” one and one-sixteenth-inch diameter bars. At $3.00 a pair (yes, that’s $3.00 per pair circa the 1960’s) they were still more than I could afford but they truly were as “cool” an item as one could have for their home gym. His adjustable dumbbell was exactly that, a globe type of dumbbell whose “globe” was made from individual plates so that one could have a dumbbell that adjusted from an empty bar of six pounds to as heavy as thirty pounds. The Olympic plates of course caught my eye and as was standard for that era, they were the large hubbed and “easy to grab” rim type of plates as made by all of the suppliers of that time period. As was also standard, the hubs were reinforced by casted ridges that added strength and more or less divided each plate into sections. Unlike the first generation or two of rubber or rubber rimmed bumper plates, the Jackson plates did not break out at the hub when dropped with monster weights on the bar. When the younger generations are fortunate enough to see one of the old barbell sets, they often wonder about the wide rims, large hub around the bar sleeve portal, and the reinforcing “spines” on the bar. Dropping a loaded barbell of 400-plus pounds of casted metal weights from overhead to the platform or rubber mat would cause plate breakage at the hole and hub if not made correctly. The unique appearance of the plates was a reflection of function, not fashion! The Jackson name stood out in large letters as a beautiful finishing touch.
Certainly, it was another era. Examining a price list from 1970-1971, the unique Number 5 Olympic set sold for $120.50 for the 400 pound assembly and $148.50 for the 500 pound set. What had evolved into the top-of-the-line Number 3 Olympic barbell was selling for $151.50 for the 400 pound set. Yes, truly another era but for those fortunate to have a Jackson Barbell set from that time period, it no doubt is still providing excellent lifting service. Joe Orengia thought that the Jackson Barbell was also top of the line. One of the best powerlifters in Pennsylvania and one of the better deadlifters in the entire nation, Joe had ironworking experience and when Mr. Jackson believed he was ready to retire, Joe stepped in to purchase the barbell company. Moving the original equipment and existing inventory to his home in Erie, PA, Joe continued the tradition of Jackson Barbell, providing these unique and beautiful sets for a number of years. Eventually, Jackson was purchased from Joe by Ivanko, one of the largest names in the barbell plate and bar industry. Tom Lincer, the owner of Ivanko, is an historian relative to the iron game in general and as might be expected, specifically to barbells and plates. Owning the rights to Jackson materials, original patterns and drawings, and the inventory Joe had must be a thrill for him whether or not the Jackson name and product is ever revived for commercial purposes.