Historical Markers
Bob Hoffman Historical Marker
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Bob Hoffman

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
3300 Board Rd. (SR 1031) W of Emigsville, just off I-83 exit 11, York

Dedication Date:
November 9, 1998

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders picture of a bodybuilder.
Publicity photo of York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman, circa 1935
Bob Hoffman wasn't born one of the strongest, fittest men in the world, but after working to become just that in his twenties, he spent the balance of his life encouraging others to follow. At sixty, he could still lift 250 pounds over his head with one hand, break chains with his 52-inch chest, and, when the impulse struck, strap an anvil to his stomach, lie down on the ground, and let his buddies bang away with a sledgehammer.

Just as improbably, the skinny kid who grew near Pittsburgh turned industrial York, twenty-five miles west of Lancaster on the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch country, into "Muscletown, USA"; for decades the weightlifting, body-building, and fitness capital of the nation.

The York Oil Burner Athletic Club, 1932.  front: Dick Bachtell, Joe Florito, Henry Rhomasillo, Lou Schell, and Joe Miller; middle: George Brown, Art Levan, Bob Hoffman, Walter Good; back: Wally Zagurski, Beb Pentz, Reed Schwartz, Tony Mansicalco, and Bill Good.
The York Oil Burner Athletic Club, 1932.
Born in Georgia in 1898, Robert C. Hoffman grew up in Wilkinsburg, a blue-collar suburb east of Pittsburgh, where his father, a strapping hulk who liked to show off by twitching his muscles in public, moved the family shortly after the turn of the century.

Unlike his father, Hoffman, by his own account, was a weakling, reed-thin, and sickly as a boy. "I had typhoid fever, was skinny, and was frequently laughed at," he recalled years later. His last laugh resonates to this day.

After serving overseas in World War I, he returned to Pittsburgh to sell oil burners, then, to be closer to his brother, moved to York in 1919, where he co-founded the York Oil Burner Corporation. "Since I wasn't strong," he once said, "I wanted to make a success of business, and I did." But, not yet twenty-five, he admitted, he felt like he was sixty. So he bought a barbell, and built his body. When he decided to flex his entrepreneurial muscles, he built an empire, as well.

Group photograph
Gold medalists Pete George, John Davis, Norbert Schemanksy, and Tommy Kono at...
Hoffman so believed in the benefits of lifting weights that in 1924 he organized the first American weight-lifting competition. By the end of the 1920s he was actively training other lifters and manufacturing equipment at York Oil Burner on the side. He began hiring lifters–he called them the "York Gang"–to man the factory. In 1932, he coached and led a team made up of his best gang members to a respectable showing at the Olympics in Los Angeles. Their medals did much to change the perception of weight-lifting in America from a carnival sideshow activity to a legitimate competitive sport.

But for Hoffman, that was just a means toward his end. Passionate as he was about lifting as a sport, he was interested in selling more than a sport. Hoffman saw the enormous potential of selling hope, so he turned lifting into the platform from which he could preach a gospel of self-improvement based on a lifestyle and the physical culture of health and fitness. Not surprisingly, his earliest acolytes came from immigrant and ethnic backgrounds. Like football and baseball before it, lifting was a respite from the mills and the mines. Hoffman always emphasized that training was its own benefit–a benefit that produced a healthier and better life overall.

A muscular young woman holds a large barbell above her head with one arm.
Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton, circa 1950.
By 1935, he had transformed York Oil Burner into the York Barbell Corporation and founded the magazine, Strength and Health, that became his bully pulpit. The Olympic, world, and national champions coming out of the factory on into the 1960s only added a credibility that eluded other fitness gurus like bodybuilder–and Hoffman's main rival through his ascendance–Charles Atlas.

Hoffman became an empire, with York the capital. He trained lifters and bodybuilders, and made himself synonymous with competitions in both. American weightlifting became his fiefdom, and he controlled it completely. When America won its first world team championship in 1946, four of its six lifters worked for York Barbell. And, beyond the medals and the trophies, with his weights, his magazine, his self-help courses, and, in time, health foods, diet supplements, and dozens of books with titles like Why Men Die Younger, How To Be Strong, Healthy and Happy , and How Good Is the American Diet? Hoffman laid the groundwork for what would mushroom decades later into a national obsession; Hoffman was even named to President's Council for Physical Fitness.By the 1960s, though, his empire began to fray. When some lifters began wondering why they were not bulking up as fast as others, reports about steroid use among York's elite lifters emerged.

Bob Hoffman outside the York Barbell plant beneath a statue of himself and the revolving weightlifter sign that was visible from Interstate 83.
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Bob Hoffman outside the York Barbell plant, York, PA, circa 1975.
There was also Hoffman's public, ugly and, at times, comic feud with two brothers from Montreal, Joe and Ben Weider, the former of whom challenged Hoffman to a marker weightlifting and physique contest in 1951. The Weiders had founded an organization called The International Federation of Bodybuilders, which Hoffman considered a direct threat to his York enterprise. Hoffman banned Federation members from competitive lifting, but, by the mid-1970s, the Weiders triumphed as American tastes turned away from lifting to the physical conditioning. Weider pumped through his best-known protege', Arnold Schwarzenegger, the future Hollywood star and governor of California.

When Hoffman died in 1985, York was still the nation's leading purveyor of Olympic-style weightlifting equipment, though, of course, free weights by then had given way to Nautilus-type equipment. Today, York manufactures all kinds of exercise gear, from simple barbells to sophisticated machines, and also houses the Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum on the first floor of its administration building. A seven-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of Hoffman stands sentry at the entrance.
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