Brains and Brawn… Bob Peoples and the Sleepless Night

Published 9:03 am Friday, August 27, 2021

BY ALEX CAMPBELL

Juanita Peoples suddenly woke from her sleep with a dreadful feeling that something was wrong. She instinctively reached her hand beside her to feel for her husband in the pitch-black room. That is when she realized what the problem was…he was gone.

She instantly sat up in a panic. She had been worried about Bob lately. He had been struggling. He was born into a farming family in Carter County and hard work was as much a part of his life as walking and breathing, but recently he had been burning the candle at both ends. Recently she had also become very concerned about his years of toil at the local rayon plant.

Everyone knew that the rayon plants along the Watauga River were not the healthiest places to work. Carbon disulfide used to turn cellulose (plant fibers) into the new man-made silk known as viscose rayon is now known to cause neurophysiological effects, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke.

There had been a huge outbreak of mental illness in a rayon plant in Wilmington, Delaware in 1933. Other plants had their own issues with dozens of workers fainting in one day.

Today, all the Bemberg Rayon plants (like the ones in Elizabethton) have moved overseas because those processes can no longer pass the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

Although the true effects of carbon disulfide and the rayon-making process were not fully known in the 1940s, the rumors of the deadly effects spread like wildfire among the factory workers.

Most knew the work was not good for them, even if the empirical evidence was not yet published. But the men who could no longer make a living purely off farming had resorted to the plants to pay the bills and put food on the table.

They could not worry about possible health implications ten or twenty years down the road, their families were hungry now.

Juanita, and all the other wives, heard the rumors and worried about her husband just like the other family members of the hundreds of men who made their living in the rayon plants of Elizabethton.

But Bob had added stress as well. He had recently taken over much of the farming duties of his father who had grown too old and sick to handle the day-to-day operation of his farm.

Bob had his own farm as well as his work at the rayon plants that required hours of hard labor each week. With his hard, and now understood, dangerous work at the rayon plant, taking care of his farm, and the additional stresses of helping with his father’s farm, Bob had a lot on him. But there was another stress as well.

Bob People was a man who loved to lift heavy weights and became obsessed with becoming the first man to officially deadlift 700 pounds. He had seen steady improvement through the years deadlifting 500 by the age of 25, and before he was 30, he lifted 600.

But it took him until the age of 36 to push the weight to 651. So, he added 100 pounds in 5 years, but then it took him another 6 years to add 51 pounds.

At this rate, where most lifters find their peak in their mid to late 30’s Bob was running out of time. but things had become difficult lately.

The toll of his factory work plus the additional strain of his and now his father’s farm work made it difficult for him to make progress. Sometimes there were seasons, like planting and harvesting time, where he barely lifted at all.

Sometimes he just had to hit a quick workout when he could. Other times of the year, like winter he had more time to train as he pleased. But anyone knows that when you are pushing your body to do something that no one else has ever done, haphazard training done in spare time or not at all is not the way to break through barriers.

The pressure from the quest to break the 700-pound barrier just added to the other difficulties of life. In fact, it became so bad that Juanita had been terrified by a recent fit of exasperation from her hard-working husband.

Frustrated that he was making no progress in his lifting, he backed his tractor and pull behind wagon up to the basement door. Juanita heard the clanging and walked around the house to see what was going on.

There was Bob, bare-chested with huge, dense back muscles rippling under the skin as he carried all his weights and equipment out of the basement.

This was the basement that he dug by hand after his house was built. He had been training outside in the yard, but the weather limited him. He had done some lifting in the barn, but that was not optimal.

He decided to dig a basement under his house on his hands and knees to make a basement gym where he could work out at all times in all weather.

This was the equipment that Bob had invented. In the early 1900s, weightlifting equipment was very sparse, Bob was an inventor, thinker, and tinkerer.

He had developed many pieces of equipment to help him reach the next levels of strength. There were his homemade barbells with ends made from barrels sawn in half where he loaded rocks, bricks, and scrap iron to increase the load.

There was his inverted bench press machine that allowed him to do negative lifts. There was even his centrifugal force machine he used to push the blood out of his muscles which he felt allowed him to train harder.

And here Bob was, dragging all his weights and equipment out of his hand-dug basement and loading it into the wagon.

When Juanita asked him what he was doing he said he was done. He was tired of it. Working a hard job and all the extra farm labor then coming home to find time to work out while exhausted only to see no gains was just too much.

He was past his prime and was not going to waste his life lifting anymore to see no progress. So, when the wagon was loaded, he drove it down to an old sinkhole on his farm and threw in all the weights and equipment, and covered it up with dirt. He was done.

Juanita could have said a lot, but she was a quiet woman and just went back into the house to let Bob stew away his frustration. His mood had not been good the last couple of weeks since that incident.

He was like a caged tiger. He had all this energy and frustration pent up inside with no way to release it. Many times, he would just sit and say nothing, sinking deeper into his inner darkness and despair.

Juanita became quite concerned about her husband and his mental health.

And now here it was in the middle of the night and Bob was nowhere to be found. What had he done? Was he only going for a walk in the night air to let off some steam?

Or had he done something much more rash? Had the chemicals at the rayon plant caused him the same mental issues that had broken out at plants across the US?

All these thoughts and many more raced through her head, and that is when she heard it. The awful sound coming from outside that told her exactly where Bob was and what he, in his fit of desperation, had decided to do to end all of the pain.