New Orleans Anvil Lifting

Columbian Anvil at Sigles Metal Shop in the French Quarter....it waited 57 years for me to come lift it!

by Thom Van Vleck

Recently a friend of mine said that every weightlifter is always secretly sizing up objects around him to see if he can lift them.  I guess I do that to.  Some you know are impossible, others not so impossible.  I like to keep my eye out for Anvils.  Most of you know my affinity for anvils, you can find an previous article I wrote on my own family anvil here:

Grandpa Jackson’s Anvil

This past month I was able to take my wife on a surprise trip to New Orleans.  The choice to go there was almost chance.  I had a credit to use, there was a deal on New Orleans……so there you go!  We were just looking to spend some time sight seeing in the French Quarter.  Now, everyone has heard of Bourbon Street, and it goes right through the middle of the French Quarter.  But there is much more to it than that and my wife and I set about exploring the back streets checking out the unusual stores, bars, and shops.  Some were “interesting” to say the least but I came across one place that was closed on that day that intrigued me.  I was called Sigles Antiques and Metal Craft.

Sigles was a nondescript shop on Royal next to the Andrew Jackson Hotel.  There is a story on the Jackson side of my family that we are related, but I can’t prove it.  But my wife thinks his crusty, stubborn attitude pretty much proves we are related!  Sigles had all kinds of iron work.  Scroll work, hitching post tops, all kinds of stuff.  A very elderly woman ran the shop who I later found out was 91.  She said that she and her husband had owned the shop for 57 years.  My wife bought some fluer-de-lei coat hangers and I found a nice spear top that I’m going to use for one of my Highland Games flags.

Then I noticed a shop door that said no customers in the shop.  ”SHOP”….I had to see the metal shop!  I very politely asked the owner’s wife if I could check it out even if the husband wasn’t there.  She graciously complied and it was like stepping back in time!  All kinds of old tools….I mean really old stuff!   And then….there it was….the Anvil.  She had no idea about where it came from except it came with the shop when they bought it 57 years ago!   I explained I liked to lift things and she gave me the go ahead.  It was not fixed to the stand and it was fairly easy, I would guess it around 150lbs.  I then took some photos so I could learn more about it and promised to share that with her as she was curious herself!

The Anvil had what looked to be a “V” or inverted  pyramid and a large “M” on the other side.  I did some research and found out this was a historically significant anvil.  It was a “Columbian” which were manufactured in Cleveland, Ohio from about 1903 to 1925.  They were the first anvils to be “Cast Steel” in one solid piece.  Evidently this made them very tough compared to the “Wrought Iron” Anvils made before that were welded from pieces into one Anvil.  They were very popular in their time and while the “Cast” or “tool” or “Crucible” type steel was very expensive it required less labor to finish and it was around this time labor was becoming more expensive than materials so they really took off.  This particular Anvil is of the “London Pattern” and it would be valued at 2-4 bucks a pound….but to me it’s priceless!  They made these from 10lbs to 800lbs in increments and in 1925 or 26 the company quit making them and imported a like cast steel anvil from Sweden.  I wonder if it’s the same steel foundry that makes Eleiko!  (or made Eleiko as I hear they get their product from China now….).

I have  work trip that takes me back in September.  I plan to share what I learned and visit the shop again.  These folks live above their shop and are in their 90’s and have no plans to retire.  I think that’s pretty cool and….as far as she knows….NOBODY had lifted that anvil overhead before!  My wife said, “Leave it to you to find something to lift in the French Quarter”.   Yes, I’m always looking for something to lift!

A Sign from Above!

by Thom Van Vleck

Underneath an Anvil shaped sign in Lindsborg, Kansas

I like challenges.  I guess that’s why I lift weights.  For the past 30 plus years I’ve sat down with paper and pen and wrote up countless workout routines, set goals, and made plans.  I also have traveled far and wide to meet with the best, learn from them, and been inspired by them.  I have also looked from inspiration from things around me for my lifting.  This could be something I would want to lift, but it could also be something that would inspire me to train harder and lift more!

Recently, I was in Lindsborg, Kansas with my family after competing in the McPherson Scottish Highland Games.  My wife and I both have some Swedish ancestry (her being one quarter Swedish) we wanted to go by Lindsborg and soak up some of the Swedish atmosphere….and food!  While we walked around I saw the sign in the above photo.  Back in the day, most people couldn’t read so shop owners would have signs that told you what they did by their shape as much as by what they said.  Did you know that barber poles represent veins and arteries because barbers used to draw blood to remove “bad blood” back when people thought that would cure their illnesses?  Blacksmiths would, of course, use an anvil!

I like anvils.  If you don’t know the story of Grandpa Jackson’s anvil then you probably don’t know me.  But just in case, I have an anvil that’s been in my family for 4 generations and lifted by all 4 generations….maybe more!  I know it’s at least pre-Civil War, who knows.  But more importantly, it was the inspiration for my grandfather to begin lifting weights, that led to my Uncles lifting, and me and the many, many lifters that came out of the Jackson Weightlifting Club.  So, when I was walking down the street, this sign inspired me.  It was symbolic of a trade, but it has become symbolic of strength, hard work, and do-it-yourself type attitude.

Now, it’s funny when I mentioned this, John O’Brien stated that when I had ideas, he often ended up getting hurt.  But in this case, I was just thinking about making a sign for my gym like the one above.  Because I want my gym to be symbolic like the anvil.  Symbolic of hard work, sweat of your brow, can-do, and self determination.  So, this was a just a sign for most walking by, but for me…..it was a sign from above!

Grandpa Jackson’s Anvil

by Thom Van Vleck

Thom Van Vleck lifting Grandpa Jackson's Anvil

A little over a decade ago I wrote a story about my Grandpa Jackson’s Anvil and it appeared in Milo, the Strength Journal. I had wrote the article about how 4 generations in my family had lifted this anvil and how it was kind of a “rite of passage” into manhood. I recall almost not sending it in to the publisher of Milo, Randy Strossen, as I thought it was pretty corny and who would care outside my family. Well, Randy not only published it, but it started a relationship that has allowed me to publish about 25 more articles and allowed me to have a bit of a writing career. It wasn’t until recently that I wrote an article on Al Feuerbach (shot putter) that Randy told me I had finally topped that first story. I owe that anvil a lot and not just for my writing career!!!!

Grandpa Jackson was actually my great-grandfather, Arthur Jackson. He was an “old school” farmer that ran about 500 head of cattle and lived from 1880 to 1957. He had this Anvil, an English “Peter Wright” anvil made at the legendary “Mouse Hole” forge where anvils were made from around 1200 A.D. to 1969. It reportedly belonged to my Great-Great Grandfather, and who know, maybe further back as I have since dated it to being made between 1830 and 1865. He used to lift this anvil to impress his kids. It is not huge, but it is around 150lbs. He so impressed my grandfather that he would tell this story to his kids later about how he thought if he could lift that anvil, he’d be a “real man”. So, his desire to lift that anvil started his weight lifting career, which let to my Uncle’s lifting, and on to me, and now my kids…who I hope will be the fifth generation to lift that anvil! We have all lifted that Anvil and each has their own story which was detailed in that original Milo article.

That anvil inspired the formation of the Jackson Weightlifting Club and out of that Club came guys like Wayne Smith, Wayne Gardner, Phil Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Gene Thudium, and others that formed the foundation of the modern day USAWA as well as current or recent USAWA members and record holders like John O’Brien, Thom, Tedd, Morgan & Dalton Van Vleck (and soon, Ethan), Josh Hettinger, and others.

I have also had the privilege of having a bit of a strongman evangelism career, as inspired by Paul Anderson and his work. Both my Uncle’s saw Paul years ago (at different times) and this in turn inspired me. The Anvil has been a central part of our show. I not only lift it, but I lay on a bed of nails and have the guys pound it with sledge hammers (yes, that hurts). We estimate we have done 250 shows and been seen by over 25,000 people to date and almost all of them have heard the story of the Anvil.

Recently, we had our Highlander contest (combines strongman and Highland Games events) and we lifted the Anvil for reps as an event. Again, I told the story and shared a little bit of my family with everyone.

When the anvil is not in use, it rests in a place of honor in my gym, resting on top of a section of a huge I-Beam I “rescued” from a legendary bridge that used to cross the Chariton River near where I grew up. They were tearing the old Archangel Bridge down and replacing it with a boring reinforced concrete bridge and I spied this I-beam, with old style rivets and all, and thought it would be the perfect stand for my Anvil. It weighed around 400lbs and I had to haul it out of a ditch…..that was a workout by itself!

The anvil itself is just a chunk of steel, but it symbolized a lot for me and my family. A love of strength in all it’s forms, a passion for hard work, and a desire to seek out the challenges that life has to offer. If you ever come to the JWC Training Hall (AKA “Modern Day Torture Chamber), stop by and check it out…..and join the club of those that have lifted the “American Manhood Stone”.

More about George Jowett

George Jowett lifting his legendary 168 anvil by the horn.

by Al Myers

I mentioned George Jowett yesterday in my training article about anvils. George Jowett was more that just an anvil lifter – it’s just that his most famous lifting feat involved using his legendary 168 pound anvil. It is reported that in the late 1920’s at a strength show in Philadelphia, he grabbed his 168 pound anvil by the horn, and in one motion did a swing with it and caught it at his shoulder and proceeded to press it over head with one arm!!! It is one thing to be able to pick up a heavy anvil one handed – but to clean it one handed is almost beyond belief!! George Jowett possessed huge forearms – measured at times over 16 inches.

George Jowett was born in England, and as a child was critically injured when he fell against a fireplace. This accident left him crippled. When he was 8 years old his parents were told by the doctors that it was unlikely that he would live to be 15, and if he did, would probably never walk again. He proved them wrong – not only did he walk again but went on to become one of the premier strength athletes of the early 1900’s.

Jowett started out in gymnastics and achieved many awards in his teens. He then became a boxer and won world titles as a lightweight boxer. At the age of 19, he moved to Canada and started weightlifting. Weighing just 176 pounds, George did a clean and jerk with 340 pounds!! He was also very good at the one arm swing – his best being 210 pounds. He then became a competitive bodybuilder and is considered by many to be the Father of American Bodybuilding.

By the early 1920’s, George moved to Philadelphia and founded the Jowett Institute for Physical Culture. He started a mail order business selling muscle courses that lifters would subscribe to. Each course was laid out for the entire month and each month George would send out the next month’s course! This was very profitable for him and it grew into a big business. He was very successful as a writer and has written many weightlifting courses and books. His book in 1925, “The World’s Weight Lifting Rules and Records”, was the foundation for the rules used for the all-round lifts in the USAWA today.

Training with Thom “THE ANVIL” Van Vleck

by Al Myers

Anvil Collection - 110# unknown, 152# Peter Wright, 190# Peter Wright

Last week I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon training at my gym with Thom “THE ANVIL” Van Vleck. We spent the entire workout training with anvils only!! I have a collection of three anvils, weighing 110, 152, and 190 pounds. You would be surprised how difficult you can make an anvil workout. Thom knows many ways how to use anvils for training. Training with anvils was very popular with old time strongmen. George Jowett, famous strongman and writer, lifted a 168 pound anvil by the horn with only one hand!!

Thom pressing my 110# anvil with one hand only!!!!

Thom is a very popular writer for MILO, and has written many articles over the past several years. One of his earliest articles was about how it was a right of passage into the JWC (Jackson Weightlifting Club) to be able to lift Grandpa Jackson’s anvil overhead!! This anvil has been passed down through the generations of the JWC, and Thom has it as a center piece in his gym today. It weighs somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds. When you enter the JWC (Thom’s gym) – be prepared to be challenged by Grandpa Jackson’s anvil!!!

The workout started out with doing some snatches, swings and French Presses with my 110# anvil. Lifting anvils is not the same as lifting barbells – an anvil is just a huge chunk of iron that is hard to grab and hold on to!!! But then, it is an exhilarating feeling to be able to master lifting such an awkward object. We are fortunate today that we have bars with roller sleeves that contain fine ball bearings, and plates that are milled perfectly, to provide upmost balance and control when lifting weights. The old time strongmen did not have this type of equipment, but made the most of what they had and still made amazing strength gains.

I managed lifting the 110# anvil, but then Thom showed me up by lifting the 110# anvil and the 152# anvil at the same time!! Now you see why he is known as Thom the Anvil??

We then progressed to doing clean and presses with the 152 pound anvil. We started out doing strict presses and finished by doing push presses with it. It is difficult to keep an anvil from “getting out in front of you” when pressing it overhead and to maintain the lockout. But the more reps we did with it the better both of us got. I then took on the 190# anvil and cleaned and pressed it several times. After this we did some one handed lifting with the anvils by gripping them by the horn – “Jowett style”. You really feel this in the forearm muscles. I have done alot of Vertical Bar lifting with a 2″ bar – but the horn of an anvil has a taper to it that makes it way more difficult!!

The next exercise we did was loading and deloading the three anvils onto platforms. This is a full body exercise. We did several “runs” of these until our backs starting cramping!! At this point I thought we would call it a workout but Thom had more in mind! We finished this 3 hour workout by carrying the 190# anvil down and back my 100 foot course (200 feet total) several times with the anvil cradled in our arms. This tested my cardiovascular endurance and left me in a heap of sweat and breathing like a race horse. Now – THAT is what you can call an ALL-ROUND workout and we didn’t even touch a barbell or dumbbell!!!