Ask Doc Knox:

Knoxville's Mysterious "Southern Barbell Co."

Dear Doc Knox:

I recently purchased some weightlifting equipment which was stamped "Southern Barbell Co. Knoxville Tenn." A Google search turned up little, and a Bing search found nothing. Any ideas?

Anthony Mason


Dear Mr. Mason:

I'm afraid you've stumped my staff of pallid subterranean research eunuchs. 

We did some spot-checking in old city directories, and "Southern Barbell Co." is elusive. We found Southern Barbers and Southern Bibles, but no Southern Barbells. If that were its primary name, Southern Barbell either maintained an extraordinarily low profile--speakeasies and whorehouses don't always show up in city directories, either--or it was in business under that name for less than five years, successfully evading our spot-checking methods. Or, perhaps, it wasn't in city-limits Knoxville. Or--and this is our best guess--it was part of some other business. 

It's possible it was a subsidiary of Southern Athletic Co., a large company that flourished here for about 30 years beginning in 1936. Known for manufacturing and distributing athletic clothing, Southern Athletic was owned by one of Knoxville's more colorful entrepreneurs, former Vol football standout Herman "Breezy" Wynn (1909-1992). Major Neyland's star fullback in the early 1930s, Wynn became one of Knoxville's major industrialists of the mid-20th century. Based in the Emporium building on Gay Street in its early days, Southern Athletic was rather huge by the 1940s, with multiple factories in several states. It was best known for garments, but did advertise "sporting goods," which sounds potentially broader. As a former Vol with an impressive physical presence, Mr. Wynn certainly understood the importance of barbells. And considering a couple of the manufacturing companies he founded began with the word "Southern"--Wynn was a Georgia native--he seemed fond of that adjective. 

That's all circumstantial speculation, though. Your barbell company could have evolved earlier, and independently of Mr. Wynn's enterprises. Iron was once a major part of Knoxville's economy. The Knoxville Iron Company, located in the Second Creek valley, was the city's major industrial employer in the city's post-Civil-War years. East Tennessee's dirty ore didn't make for very high-grade iron, though, and as standards increased as industrial uses for iron became more demanding and complex, Knoxville iron drifted toward the slag heap. The great thing about low-grade iron is that it's still pretty heavy. Barbells don't require premium-grade iron. They just require sufficiently heavy iron. Perhaps at one time barbells were seen as the savior of Knoxville's once-mighty industry. If we ever had a Barbell Epoch, that was probably it. 

If there are more clues--any idea of how old, approximately, the barbell is?--the miserable drones on my staff may be able to find more. They glare at me balefully when they don't have enough to do. 

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.U.

Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.

Comments » 2

  • April 07, 2010
  • 12:53 PM
Anthony Mason writes:

I took a picture of a 10lb weight. They are the ones that say 'Knoxville Tenn' on them. Maybe this will help

http://picasaweb.google.com/almason7113/DropBox?authkey=Gv1sRgCJyzz-3qjZbfxwE&feat=email#5457437952345132770

  • February 07, 2011
  • 5:32 PM
Coury Turczyn writes:

Dan writes:

After looking at the picture from Anthony, I'll betcha that it was made at a local foundry.

They might have made the weights at the end of another production run to use up the last of the material.

The lettering looks to me to be the standard type used for for decades at sand foundries.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.