Brains and Brawn… Bob Peoples and His Trip to Motor City: Part 2

Published 4:13 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2022

BY ALEX CAMPBELL
Bob Peoples was intent to put on a show for the people of Detroit when planning to take his iron sermon to the northern congregation. There is not much recorded about this event, but in the foreword to People’s book, fellow lifter, meet promoter, and eventual friend, Bob Hise said that he traveled all over the country with Peoples for his lifting events including Detroit.
So, we can only assume that Hise was there for the event and most likely made the trip with him as he lived in nearby Chattanooga. In the lifting game, a person who goes with a lifter and helps him at the meet is often called a handler.
So, Peoples settled on the place and date of the competition and had a trusted handler to go with him. Now, all he had to do was put in the hard work during training to make sure his body was prepared, but that was always a problem for Peoples.
He was constantly busy with his day job at the Rayon mill, farm work at home, and helping his father with his farm as well. When he had a few spare moments at home, those were often consumed with his obligations to his wife, kids, and extended family.
Only after all those responsibilities were met, could he train. This often meant him exercising at 2 a.m. under the single dull bulb in his basement or stealing time for a quick workout in the barn during chores.
Despite all those setbacks, Peoples felt strong rolling into the Motor City in 1938, and what a site that city must have been.
Today, people think of Detroit as a dilapidated, crumbling, urban wreck. Detroit has lost 1.2 of the 1.8 million residents in boasted in 1950. Houses and even entire city blocks are boarded up. Crime is rampant and some schools have a single-digit graduation rate. But as Peoples hit the Motor City just after WWII, the metropolis was undergoing a massive awakening.
Detroit’s rise as the automobile center of America was accelerated by the production during WWII of motorized vehicles for the war effort.
The city experienced a massive immigration of industrial workers during and after WWII. As the population approached 2 million it held 1/3 of the population of the entire state of Michigan, and it ranked as the 5th largest city in America. In other words, it was almost the exact opposite of Peoples’ hometown.
Elizabethton had experienced its own population and industrial boom with the influx of electricity and the Rayon mills along the banks of the Watauga in the early 1900’s.
However, the small town was closing in on only 10,000 residents. The only monoliths scraping the sky in east Tennessee were the beautiful Appalachian Mountains.
Today’s calculations show that Detroit is right at 600 miles and over a 9-hour drive without stops. In the 1940s, before the interstate highway system, that trip would have taken much longer.
When Peoples finally rolled into Detroit, he must have been struck by the monstrous hulk of a city. Even his home state’s bustling capital of Nashville couldn’t sport 200,000 citizens.
The expansive freeways, tall buildings, swarms of people, and massive factories with their 300-foot-tall chimneys belching sulfurous plumes must have been a site to behold.
But the lanky Tennessean wasn’t there on a pleasure cruise; this was a business trip, and the time was nearly at hand. History does not record the name of the meet or exactly where in the city that it took place, but we do know that something was getting ready to happen to the Tennessee Hercules that had never happened to him before.
From the scant facts we find about the event, we have but a hazy picture of the lifting. By using other details of his lifting career, we can piece together the puzzle a little.
He most likely planned to open the show with a mid-600-pound lift. Peoples was never a man to wear himself out with too much warming up or light attempts. He preferred to do a set or two and really start piling on the weight.
This is not common in lifting. Most athletes start out with static stretching like toe touches, deep squats, etc. Then they often move into actively warming up like, walking, jogging in place, side bends, etc. Then it is time to move onto the light lifts.
For the deadlift, it might be swings, squats, or light deadlifts. Then the lifter would proceed up through the weights maybe adding 50 to 100 pounds at a time until they got close to their opener.
Like many conventions, Peoples had little time for them. He was a thinker and experimenter. If it didn’t work for him, he did not do it no matter what everyone else said. He often didn’t even start his warmups until at least 300 pounds was on the bar, and he had little patience for stretching and walking.
So, in those couple of heavy lifts before his opener, he must have felt pretty good. We see from his training log that the year before he could deadlift 600 pounds for seven reps in training.
That mid-600 lift must have flown up. We don’t have any record of exactly what the crowd was like, but knowing that no other man had ever lifted that much at the time, even his opening lift must have been a crowd-pleaser.
Peoples sauntered off the side of the stage to where his handler Bob Hise waited.
At that moment, with both men smiling and planning the next two lifts, neither could have predicted the events that would soon unfold. But when this night was over, Peoples’ dreams would be shattered as he pondered retirement.
To be continued…

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